December, 2013. Barack Obama is in the White House. ‘Wrecking Ball’ by Miley Cyrus is topping the charts. The Harlem Shake is taking the internet by storm. And DayZ, a zombie survival game, hits Steam Early Access. Part survival sandbox, part social experiment, the game throws 64 players into a bleak zombie apocalypse, sits back, and lets them make their own fun.
Five years later and DayZ, having gone through an extended Early Access period, is finally out. And, well, nothing much has changed. There’s something comforting about the fact that DayZ is still DayZ, with its clunky controls, buggy zombies, and commitment to making surviving as hard as possible. It’s kinda absurd that, in a 1.0 release, there are still problems that have been stubbornly lingering since the alpha days. But honestly, I wasn’t expecting much else. For better or worse, it’s the game I remember.
You still have to run for miles to meet up with friends. The zombies still get stuck in walls or just completely fail to notice you at all. You can scour an entire town for supplies only to find one dirty jacket, a tin opener, and no tins. And the chances that you’ll be killed by some unseen sniper, usually seconds after you finally find something good, is always high. At least those damn ladders have finally been sorted out. Veteran players will remember the agony of climbing a ladder and ending up inexplicably dead at the bottom of it.
If this all sounds a bit miserable, it is. Minute to minute, this is about as gruelling as survival games get. You have an ever-dwindling parade of meters to manage—thirst, hunger, temperature, and so on—and the general scarcity of items can make staying alive an ordeal. There’s nothing more disheartening in DayZ than trekking for miles to a town, only to see all the doors lying open: a surefire sign that someone has already been and no doubt thoroughly looted the place.
But this does complement the hopeless, melancholy atmosphere of the game. The map, Chernarus, is a former Soviet republic, and dripping in misery. You get the feeling that even before the zombies arrived, this would’ve been an unpleasant place to get lost in. But there’s a quiet beauty to be found out there too, particularly in the rolling farmland, dense forests, and sleepy rural towns. It’s a fantastic setting, and a welcome change from the more familiar Western post-apocalypses that usually feature in these games.
The largest concentration of players tends to be around around cities and military bases—where the best loot is often found—meaning you can travel in the wilds pretty much undisturbed. When I play DayZ, I’m constantly on the move, travelling between towns, landmarks, and other points of interest, grabbing whatever I can find, avoiding trouble if I can. But that means a lot of uneventful running. There are vehicles, but they’re often missing parts or fuel, and locating them can be a real chore for a solo player.
The sandbox nature of the game means that getting ‘geared up’ will be most players’ main goal: finding a gun, ammo, bandages, food, drink, and maybe a nice helmet or something. But the more you hoard, the more nerve-racking the game becomes, because you know that you’re just one trigger-happy survivor or mischievous troll away from losing it all. I actually love this, because it makes death mean something. When you die you’re unceremoniously dumped back to a random starting location with no gear, and knowing this makes every decision, especially with other players around, loaded with danger.
In my time with Kenshi, I’ve crossed swamps so vast that I haven’t dared return. I’ve been beaten shitless by a pack of goats that were intended to feed my rabble of listless nomads. I’ve been a shopkeeper and a thief, a lone wanderer and a slave, and I’ve been an entire community of people working together to—one day—erect our own city in the wasteland. One day.
None of these events were part of questlines. There’s no such regimentation in Kenshi, no tangible sense of scripted behaviour, just a ragged web of vicious systems so myriad that they sometimes tangle and fumble and descend into absurdity. But there is a cold order to Kenshi too, a formidable degree of depth that’s as impressive as it is stubborn.
Upon creating your squad of up to six starting characters, you’re unceremoniously dumped into a dauntingly large post-apocalyptic world that looks like Mad Max were it set in feudal Japan. All of your skills start at or around zero, and you work on them simply by doing. There are no special abilities or spellcraft, and you’ll probably spend your first several hours as a lowly scavenger—sticking to the shadows, levelling up your stealth, and scurrying in after skirmishes between the various factions and fauna to loot the dead.
Beyond that? Perhaps you search the wilderness for artefacts or lore titbits, hunt down bounties for the myriad factions, join up with anti-slavers, or just set up shop on a busy trade route and try to make an honest living.
Through bar-crawling and chance encounters with escaped slaves and other vagabonds, you can recruit new people, who you then take control of just like your original characters. You can have several squads in different parts of the world if you wish, or train new members as farmers and labourers so that you can build a self-sustaining settlement. At this point, Kenshi becomes a surprisingly effective management game as you research technologies, construct buildings, and assign people long lists of automated tasks like mining, farming and construction. Settlements present their own dangers: out in the wilderness you’ll face bandit and animal attacks, while settling near cities may subject you to strict taxation and other regional rules (one theocratic faction actually makes it a punishable offence not to pray regularly).
There are a few missions you can pick up by talking to people, but the best stories are those that emerge organically out of Kenshi’s systems. For instance, in the early game, my first companion and I we were beset by slavers, who took one of us captive while the other managed to escape. I licked my wounds, gathered myself, and took it upon myself to rescue my companion.
After a good few hours of scavenging, I saved up enough money to hire a mercenary band. We raided the slave camp and rescued my comrade, but it didn’t end there, as his shaved-head-and-shackles look meant that slavers and authorities would identify him as an escapee and attempt to recapture him. So began a survival experience deep in a swampy wilderness while his bounty expired. There are so many little layers here that the narrative possibilities feel endless.
Some people will argue the ‘Soulslike’ label needs to die. They’ll tell you it’s overused, hackneyed and that there are other catch-all terms to describe hybrid ARPGs, which don’t rely on comparison, even when it’s the best fit. I think these people are wrong. Ashen, a low-fantasy action role-player developed by A44 and published by Annapurna Interactive, closely echoes many of the ideas and systems found in From Software’s Dark Souls series. It knows exactly who its audience is, and, for all intents and purposes, is a Soulslike game. And it’s a bloody good one.
In place of Estus Flasks, for example, Ashen gives players sap-filled Crimson Gourds that deliver health boosts in limited supply. In the absence of Souls, Ashen trades in Scoria—a currency farmed from fallen enemies that helps facilitate progression. As is law in Miyazaki’s nightmare-scapes, accumulated Scoria is lost upon death, and can only be regained in your immediate next life. Likewise, resting at Ritual Stones replenishes vitality, à la Dark Souls bonfires, at the expense of reinstating fallen foes within the world. Ashen’s enemies are tough, its bosses are blockbuster, and its gorgeous handcrafted world is littered with ambiguous lore and odd but charming NPCs.
So similar to the Soulsborne series is Ashen, in fact, that these comparisons will inevitably attract or avert players from the outset. This reflects the polarising nature of this style of game, but, by setting out its stall with precision and conviction, Ashen never does so shamelessly. Moreover, Ashen leaves little room for learning curves during its relatively modest 20-ish hours runtime. But I reckon it’s all the better for it.
In the wake of the game’s titular ‘Ashen’ rebirth, Ashen paints a familiar tale of Light versus Dark, which ultimately boils down to: All the goodies in the world want the light to survive, and all the baddies want it extinguished. The overworld is often described as the ‘twilight plains’, while its cavernous, beastie-infested dungeons are, by nature, drab and packed with terrors.
This juxtaposition of themes is best defined by Ashen’s world itself, which regularly switches from sprawling open world to claustrophobic grotto during the game’s scores of tabulated quests. Early doors, I found myself fumbling around a wooded area named the Restless Knoll, which was cluttering with spear-wielding enemies. Paired with an AI-controlled NPC named Jokell, I let him engage two foes at the foot of a hill, before I swung back around and got the drop from above.
This review originally ran in PC Gamer UK issue 326 in December 2018.
The best games are masters of illusion, making you believe a bunch of code and scripted behaviours are somehow real worlds or great stories. Even a game that’s explicitly driven by values and numbers, abstract in its presentation, has to convince you that what you’re watching unfold is an organic ecosystem. RimWorld aims to create complex drama from its systems, but as close as it sometimes gets, the illusion never quite takes hold.
RimWorld is a game about establishing a colony on a remote planet sometime in the distant future. There’s a whole Western vibe, resulting in a sort of Firefly-esque setting. It’s a life simulator, a genre about a more hand-off approach to strategy and management, where you manipulate AI behaviour instead of controlling it directly. RimWorld sits somewhere between The Sims and Dungeon Keeper, though its presentation and style are reminiscent of games like Prison Architect. It’s a story generator, promising to co-author all manner of wild tales for players.
This isn’t about creating the perfect colony, this is about creating drama. This means things going wrong, that the unexpected has to occur and that your characters have complicated motivations. They’re given drives and needs, ones that are often extremely unhelpful to the mission but which are intended to make them more complex and rounded. Go in wanting to build a perfect little colony and you’ll likely be frustrated. Accept the game’s penchant for disaster and you’ll have a much better time.
It’s your colonists that are the main drive behind the game. When you begin a scenario you have to select your team (or individual, if you’re going for the harder challenge) and they’ll be generated with a load of traits and backgrounds. Some are helpful skills, like hunting or teaching, and some of which are simply there to inject personality—flaws and all. Old wounds, traumatic upbringings and bad attitudes… specific qualities to make sure your colonists are far from perfect little worker bees.
There’s a lot of promise in the ideas these characters bring to the table. In my first game, I had a colonist who, chronologically, was 114 years old, but, thanks to the weird complications of space travel, was really only 24. The son she’d left behind was now approaching his fifties. His daughter, her granddaughter, was now 31. RimWorld pitches itself as a story generator and these weird relationships are exactly the thing that fires up the imagination.
There are some peculiar aspects to this approach to character generation, though. Each character gets three traits, things like obsessive, lazy or misogynist. One of the modifiers is “gay” but “straight” isn’t—that’s just the default, which is painfully heteronormative and outdated for a game about the far flung future. Other aspects of queerness are included but in equally reductive ways, like a character’s backstory discussing that they’re transgender, proof of which being their “dressing up in their mother’s clothes as a child”. All of which leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouth. It feels odd to have some traits sat alongside each other. “Misogyny” next to “ugly”, “hard working” next to “psychopath”. These things are not alike but are placed in the character generator with equal importance. [Editor’s note: some of RimWorld’s backstories were created by Kickstarter backers.]