Review: Neo Scavenger09 Aug 2017 21
Review: Neo Scavenger
Released 04 Aug 2017
If you've ever taught a game development class or talked to high school students interested in game development, inevitably one of them will tell you their master plan for 'a game where you can literally do anything'. This plan quickly falls apart once they take their first coding class and making a blackjack game becomes a letter-to-home worthy accomplishment. I bring this up because the number of systems, options, and opportunities for adventure in the recently released on iOS Neo Scavenger are nearly limitless.
Unfortunately playing the thing on a phone is nearly impossible.
Neo Scavenger is an intoxicatingly complex turned-based survival game. There’s a heavy 'wasteland' influence and a dash of old-school text adventure thrown in for good measure. You begin by selecting various character traits - positive and negative - and start the game. Each of these traits are then selectable as responses to given situations.
For example, at the start of the game you can either 'hide' to avoid a patrolling monster or use your 'strength' (if you have it) to knock over a heavy object and block the door. Once you get past the monster, the whole hexing world is yours. Traverse and raid forests, cities, bombed out garages, and laboratories, all the while stealing warm clothes and food to survive against mother nature’s stacked deck of hunger, infection, cold, and potential injury. This is a hardcore survival game.
In order for all this to work, a lot of information needs to be conveyed to the player, and boy is it. Your character's vitals are to the left of your screen along with a couple of menu buttons. To the right are context-sensitive buttons like ‘scavenge’ and ‘end turn’. In the middle is either the map, your inventory, or a picture and text description of your current location and situation, with your action options below that, and a running log of your adventure along the very bottom of the screen.
Which is fine; It seems like an informative, if not a tiny bit overbearing HUD, right? Well, shrink all that down to the 4-inch screen of an iPhone 5c. You’ll realize a heavy portion of the game is inventory management, and a lot of the items you'll manage are so tiny that it's impossible to pick them up or manipulate them (or actually use them) without blocking the screen with your thumb - that is, if you can pick them up at all. There's no precision here, because your thumb or pointer finger is far less precise than a mouse pointer – and the game doesn’t account for that. Look at how small some of the items actually are. Your thumb would take up a 1/3rd of this screen:
On top of that, the text is so tiny that I had to squint to read what’s going on in the story and on combat command descriptions. And since almost every important interaction is based on a drag-and-drop interface--combat, crafting, scavenging, you name it - playing this game becomes a trial-and-error nightmare. This was so bad I couldn’t really dive into the game full heatedly, and that's a terrible shame. To paraphrase “Boogie Nights”, there's something wonderful in this game just waiting to get out. But it can't...
So I cheated and played the PC version! It was a revelation: Text could be read, icons clicked, and everything went so smoothly my 45 minute lunch break was up before I knew it...and I kept playing anyway.
Freed from the paralyzing interface on my phone, Neo Scavenger became a quality, challenging, open-ended survival game that conjured memories of XCOM and Fallout. Combat made more sense, the wonderful writing was able to be appreciated, the gameplay loop became addictive-- Going from grid to grid and scavenging each location for goods to survive was everything I hoped this game would be. I loved its unforgiving nature and that there’s only one save slot – meaning your next infection, hunger pain, or encounter with drug-addicted hobo could be your last.
I loved how the map and items I’d find were different every time, even though there was a main storyline in the game absolutely worth following….Even if I’ve never survived long enough to see it through.
Generally speaking the game does have a bit of a ‘where do I go?’ problem, where you sometimes feel unsure the proper direction and just stumble around without much of a purpose. Many gamers – including possibly you, dear reader -- enjoy that sort of thing. I can find it frustrating, and did occasionally.
But contradictorily, I loved how complex and obtuse it was – conjuring memories of games like Dwarf Fortress or Kerbal Space Program or even Minecraft, where part of the fun is starting with no idea what to do, then slowly putting together the pieces.(Or cheating and using an FAQ.) This is a brutally difficult game that’s perfect for bus rides, bathroom breaks, and long flights. It’s time investment is malleable. The fact that difficulty is made burdensome instead of challenging on mobile thanks to interface issues is soul crushing.
If I had this game on the go, it'd ruin me in the best way. Spending the twenty minute commute to work raiding a factory. My lunch break searching for clothes and a backpack. My weekend completely ignoring whatever’s on TV to start it all over again upon my inevitable demise. Instead the game just felt ruined.
The problem lies in UI optimization. This is a straight port of the PC / Mac version, and porting directly to phone without optimization rarely goes well. Games like Neo Scavenger, Jet Set Radio, and even the ports of Grand Theft Auto III or Bioshock broke the heart of purchasers because they weren't tailored to the mobile experience. The same thing happens here. You can soldier through, of course -- I played for several hours. Several hours of double and triple and quadruple clicking on items and clothes and painstakingly dragging them your character’s hand.
The developer, Blue Bottle Games, appears to be mostly a one-man show, and that one man is Daniel Fedor. He spent 7 years at Bioware on AAA RPGs, and It’s clear he’s talented and has an eye for textures, a knack for writing, and a passion for games in this genre. If he made this entire game himself, including porting it to iOS, it’s a small miracle this game is out at all.
But a small miracle does not a playable game make. On PC I can tell you Neo Scavenger is a gem. On iPhone 5C? I can't recommend it. At all. On a newer iPhone with an extra 1.5 inches of screen real-estate, or an iPad? Possibly. Thankfully you can get the app for free on the app-store and then purchase an 'upgrade' after you've tried it a little while. Perhaps size does matter.