In the US there have been forty-five seasons of Survivor. Forty-five! The UK could only offer up a measly two, and that was twenty-two years ago. But a reboot has recently arrived on UK shores (not literally: it’s being filmed in the Dominican Republic), and part of that reboot is to release a tie-in video game. Welcome to Survivor: Castaway Island.
Based solely on Survivor: Castaway Island, the new format of Survivor is an unholy marriage between I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here and The Traitors. Entrants are chucked onto an idyllic but deserted island where they perform IACGMOOH-like tasks for the possibility of rewards or – the Holy Grail – immunity from being voted off. That will be invaluable because, periodically, the remaining contestants come together to eject people off the island. Immunity means you dodge that ignominy.
So far, so I’m a Celebrity. Where The Traitors comes in is the alliances and backstabbing. Contestants are encouraged to have clandestine meetings on the island and pitch voting blocs or align on a particular voting pattern. It seems alarmingly like modern politics with its whips and voting along party lines. People are voted off for not contributing on the island; for being a bit of a dick; or even for being too successful. If you’re a repeated immunity-winner, then you’d better watch out for when that immunity wears off.
On paper it all sounds like it would be impossible to convert into a predominantly single-player experience. How can you get the politicking and Nasty Nick backstabbing into a video game?
The easy stuff was always going to be the tasks, which could convert into minigames. Each day on the island starts with one, and Magic Pockets has a cracking stab at getting them right.
Rather than steal favourites from Mario Party, Raving Rabbids or the like, Survivor: Castaway Island comes up with survival-themed games that feel relatively fresh. One has you and your team carrying a giant structure above your heads and then manoeuvring around an obstacle course, which means pivoting around barrels and boxes in a clumsy and awkward manner. Another has you programming a path through a maze to collect idols, tapping out a series of turns and moves before executing on them to see if you tapped right.
Hopefully you can see from the examples how Survivor: Castaway Island takes a harder path. There are no rhythm action minigames, which every party collection seems compelled to include, and there are very few Track ’n’ Field experiences where you just have to hammer a particular button. These tasks are well thought out, flush with the castaway island theme and – most important of all – pretty fun.
So, the tasks are done well, but what about the survival and subterfuge that surrounds them? Well, we wish we could say that they’re anywhere near as successful.
After each task, there’s a period of downtime where you can walk the island and choose where to spend your time (which ticks down in the top-right of the screen). There’s an overwhelming number of options at first, but you soon understand which is going to help you out most: you can complete a limited number of quests which might boost your standing with the contestants on the island; you can just chat to individuals in the hope that you’ll become besties; you can hunt for an ‘immunity idol’ which protects you from being voted off; you can rest to recover an energy stat which will see you discharged from the island if it gets too low; OR you can gather resources that are needed for survival.
That’s a lot to choose from; almost too much, you could say. But we found that our hand was forced by the other islanders being complete layabouts. Without us, they would be starving corpses lying in the surf. Daily totals of water, food and kindling needed to be supplied if our team was going to make it to the next day, and they were not going to come from Michael, Rachel and the rest. Honestly, get a clue Rachel.
Which is unfortunate as this meant every day became the same grind. We got up, we fished for food (jumping for joy if we found an octopus, which gave us three food in one shot), gathered clean water and sticks. There are tap-happy minigames for each one, but they’re extremely repetitious, even if they don’t ask for much from the player. We got bored of this daily routine, and resented aspects of it. Fish were random and in far-flung parts of the island. The island was awkward to navigate, with no clear paths. And even when we unlocked new ‘series’ of Survivor, they all took place on the same map. We didn’t get to learn a new island.
Survival, then, is rooted in tedium, which is a worry considering the title of the game. But it’s not the only aspect that doesn’t feel satisfying, as the subterfuge has problems too.
There’s a nice idea at its core. The contestants can be viewed as a relationship map, with threads between each of them that are wide or thin depending on how friendly people are with you. You can chat to each person and try to broaden these links. With a lot of friends you – theoretically – have more chance of surviving a vote.
On occasion, we felt like grand conspirators. We noted that Keith was disliked by someone who we got along well with. So we met with that person and suggested an alliance against Keith. The vote happened, and lo and behold they voted against Keith. We rubbed our hands with glee.
But these moments are rare. More often than not, people will arbitrarily decide not to collaborate with you. Whether they do or not is subject to some unseen stats or randomisation, and it can feel a bit like pissing into the wind. Cosying up to islanders is just as random. You can chat to them, talk about their interests and suggest alliances, but there’s precious little feedback about whether it’s working or not. Abstract faces pop up that should help but don’t, and it’s never clear if you’re outstaying your welcome or being a king conversationalist.
The format of the show also undermines itself – at least in a video game format. Because if you’re good at the minigames – something most of us would aspire to be – you get continuous immunity, and that means you never get to engage with the voting. By playing well, you miss out on a substantial (and fun) part of Survivor: Castaway Island. Winning should, of course, make the game more fun, but it ends up making it worse. We struggle to see a way round this issue, but it doesn’t stop it from existing.
The result is an uneven game, with good bits – the minigames in particular – being padded out by the mediocre. We found ourselves trudging through the repetitive chores so that we were better placed for the bits we did like, and that only led to resentment.
It should be noted that you don’t have to play all the stodge surrounding the tasks. Magic Pockets have wisely allowed you to play these minigames separately, and with multiple players, as game modes on the main menu. But something is missing by playing them in this format: without the stakes and drama of the Survivor template, they don’t hit quite as hard. Without the possibility of immunity, or extra food so that you don’t need to sit through chores tomorrow, the minigames have less value.
At the very least, Survivor: Castaway Island takes a punt, and delivers a minigame party collection that attempts something different. The survival and subterfuge stuff may repeat too much and buffers the action with boredom, but we’re glad Magic Pockets tried something new. If they can get the balance right in a sequel, a season two, then they might just be onto something.