Monday, February 17, 2014

Neo Scavenger: Of Death and Fur Coats

     I'm dying. It's the middle of the night, which means I can't see anything around me and - more troubling - I can only take one action a turn. Normally this isn't much of a problem, but then again I'm not usually starving. My best bet is to find hunting grounds I can trap squirrels in, or barring that, a crumbling apartment to loot ketchup packets from. Unfortunately, I haven't found anything but flat plains in the past 7 hexes and I can't scavenge berries from the grass without the Botany skill. It's at this point in my blind, painfully slow search that I stumble into a hilly area and a dogman erupts from the darkness around me.

     At first I panic. Combat in Neo Scavenger starts as soon as two creatures occupy the same space, and dogmen are by far the most dangerous creatures I've ever encountered in the game's post-apocalyptic Michigan landscape. Then I remember that they can also be skinned and eaten if you manage to kill one.


     It's a stupid plan, really. I'm encumbered by the sled holding half my items, I already have a few wounds, and my only weapon is the halfway broken spear I crafted from a tree branch a few days back. I should ditch everything and just try to run. Most people would probably prefer a peaceful death by malnutrition to evisceration by an apocalypse werewolf mutant. They would probably be right to do so. I, however, am clearly much smarter and more capable than most people, so I engage without hesitation and let the distance between me and my canine assailant gradually close. We're in striking range of each other all too soon, and now the fight begins in earnest.

     Neo Scavenger's combat is at once brutally savage and incredibly silly. Awkwardly tripping over the terrain or punching the air are common occurrences; you don't dominate battle, you desperately try to survive it. It usually plays out like some sort of dark slapstick comedy; two people ineffectually grappling at one another turn after turn, both accomplishing little besides wearing themselves out. Then one of them gets pinned to the ground and spends 4 minutes being mercilessly beaten to death. There's no levity or lightheartedness, just an uncomfortable, stressful, and occasionally hilarious pall of incompetence hanging over everything.

Behold the menace of a man in a hospital gown and tactical armor trying to fight with two crippled arms.

     The one exception to this are the dogmen. Any lack of finesse is made up for by their sheer lethality. Nothing can match them in melee combat, and if you try to win just by trading blows they will kill you. For all my obviously exceptional skills of judgement, I need a strategy to beat my canine foe, some way to cleverly subvert the game's battle mechanics so he doesn't horribly rend my flesh. Instead, the plan I come up with amounts to trading blows while also retreating. Genius. Basically, my spear has 3 range, while his arms have at most 2. That means I can stab him once, parry his attacks until I can move away, then repeat.

     The nerve-flaying back and forth that ensues continues for what feels like an eternity. Every turn, I can fall back a single space. In that same time, the dogman can either advance - moving forward 1 space - or charge, which puts him 2-3 spaces closer. My plan hinges on him performing a melee surge as soon as he gets in range, and advancing when he isn't. Surges are powerful, but just as easy to parry as regular attacks and they force you to spend a turn recovering if you launch one. It's that recovery that allows my idea to work at all; with normal attacks I'd have no time to fall back and he'd eventually break through my guard.

     Luckily, he primarily launches surge attacks. Unluckily, he prefers to close the distance between us by charging. That means I usually have to suffer through two surges before I can attack again. Parrying is a good way of blocking hits, but not good enough for this. The fight isn't going well. Then the two worst possible eventualities occur. First, my spear, the centerpiece of my brilliant plan, finally gives in and falls apart. The very next turn, the dogman decides to change things up and tackles me to the ground.

     Falling down during melee combat is essentially a death sentence, even against normal opponents. Your only real options are to try to get back up or surrender, while your opponents gain the option to kick you, which not only keeps you on the ground but also does fantastic amounts of damage. Granted, dogmen typically skip the kicking and get straight to the clawing, but the limitations on my end are more than enough to seal my fate. Pretty much the only way out of this is if, by some miracle, he surges, misses, and I can get on my feet long enough to put some distance between us. That doesn't seem too likely.

     He surges, misses, and I get on my feet long enough to put some distance between us.

     Any objectives or goals I had for this fight are forgotten. I'm not thinking about retreat, or about killing this monster, or about starvation, or even about the bleeding, probably infected wounds now afflicting me. The only thought on my mind, dwarfing all others, is survival. There is nothing else. I have to live through this fight. I have to live. Retreat is rarely an option once you get embroiled in melee combat - certainly not against something as fast as my current enemy. My only weapon is the stick that was once a part of my spear's haft, hardly a deadly object. In desperation, I try the only other option available to me: Luring. I took the Trapping skill during character creation, which means I can sometimes lure opponents into rough terrain during combat and get them to fall down. The problem is that if this doesn't work, I'll be completely open to a melee surge - probably a fatal one, since I won't be protecting myself at all.

     I click on the lure icon, then hit confirm to lock my choice in.

     I barely register the dogman's "Fallen" status before I start kicking his skull in. For the next five turns he tries to get back up, roll away, and even pull me down with him, but nothing works and he finally passes out from pain. It's over. Kicking him a few more times finishes him off, and I'm taken back to the world map view. I stare at the screen for a good minute and a half, breathing heavily, before regaining my composure and directing my character's actions once more. Using a shard of glass and my knowledge of trapping, I skin the dogman's hide to use as a coat, eat as much of his body as I can, and cure the leftover meat for later.

     I'm in the middle of the wilderness, my body is covered in bleeding gashes, and my one unbruised arm is limply grasping the remains of my only weapon. But I'm alive.

     For now.

     Neo Scavenger is currently in beta. There's an extensive demo that I encourage you to try if you're interested, or you can buy the game outright on either the Blue Bottle Games website or Steam.

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