Team17 have been on a bit of a hot streak in regards to great, easy to play/hard to master indie titles as of late. Going from the rage-inducing Overcooked! to the complex Main Assembly and now The Survivalists, they have proven their ability to totally knock it out of the park. If you find yourself trudging through that addictive yet often underwhelming mix of “Survival”, “Open World”, and “Crafting” looking for something great, The Survivalists should have you covered.
The Survivalists starts out much like most survival crafting games; you are in an unknown world without resources and are sort of just expected to survive. It struggles a slight bit with its own identity at the start, feeling somewhere between the gameplay of Don’t Starve and the atmosphere of Stardew Valley. Luckily, a quick press of the left trigger will make you aware of one of its biggest selling points, monkeys. You see, The Survivalists loves monkeys. Maybe it’s best to save that strange point for later. You can’t interact with the monkeys until you’ve really figured out how to play The Survivalists, after all.
The beginning section has you stranded on an island foraging for berries, wood, stone and whatever else you can get your hands on. You can use stone to build a hand axe, cut trees to make a slightly better axe and so forth. This leaves a constant sense of progression as you work for better gear. This progression is inherent in almost all of The Survivalists’ design.
There are two types of crafting available: general crafting and build mode. General crafting is done in your hand and the end result ends up in your, fairly limited, inventory space. Build mode, on the other hand, sets up blueprints that you work on over time. In this sense, the general crafting is instantaneous whereas building gives you something to work towards. You can, essentially, work out a preamble of your home before building a single piece of it. Further to this, different pieces of furniture you can build offer their own crafting menus, like food from the campfire, better tools from the workbench and the best items from the furnace. As you start crafting the recipes available to you, adjacent recipes will be unlocked. This means that sometimes crafting hay will lead to a bow; sometimes crafting a chair leads to a much cooler and bigger chair.
After you are kitted out and start exploring the island, you’ll finally start to pay attention to the monkeys all around you. They are initially distrusting of you but freeing them or feeding them the right item will have them follow you. From here, you can teach them to perform basic actions, ranging from cutting down resources, building items or slaughtering your foes. One of those is significantly more interesting than the others, and left me with a dozen axe-holding simians on my trail. And this is where the world of The Survivalists finally starts to open up. On your very first island, you should find hostile villages, tombs and caves to explore. These give you small but noticeable upgrades to gear, resources and more.
Oftentimes, open-world games are very fond of one big reveal. They tend to cramp you into small spaces then open up the map, exposing you to the true scope of the title in front of you. The Survivalists does this a handful of times. You wake on a beach only to spot the depth of terrain around you. You explore outwards to discover you are on a large enclosed island. You build a boat to realise the huge potential around you. This leads you into the heart of a bug-infested swamp, at the foot of a boiling hot mountain and at the whims of a snow-covered island. There are a few distinct moments throughout The Survivalists where you feel more or less done with it, only for it to peel back one more piece of lore and send you somewhere else. You start the journey looking to get off the mountain but eventually all you’ll want to do is go back.
This is only made better by its multiplayer focus. The multiplayer aspect of The Survivalists fundamentally feels part of its fabric. It doesn’t have to strip back ideas or limit anything – you and three other buddies can survive together, build together, or die together. At times, you might be a well-oiled machine making your way to the endgame at breakneck speed, at others four monkeys casually stroll along a beach, stealing each others items. This feels like the best way to play The Survivalists.
Of course, The Survivalists isn’t without its issues. Whilst there is generally plenty to look forward to, the recipes become rather limiting and you can build the majority of them within a few hours. Working your way up to the great items is fun but most can be acquired randomly and not through the harder parts of the game. This means completing The Survivalists’ most difficult moments won’t reward you with loot that’s much better than the easiest tombs, and this in turn leads to a less rewarding endgame. After a certain point (mostly with a dozen monkeys and some cool defences) the game’s challenge just sort of disappears. Even the hardest dungeons become rather trivial with a dozen spear-wielding primates going in after you. Resources become easy to find and progression just stops, for the most part.
Despite these issues, The Survivalists on Xbox One is a very enjoyable experience. Its gameplay feels a bit like Don’t Starve, and its monkey system a bit like Factorio. But above all else, its charm and general aesthetic is all its own.