The Survivalists Review: Ape Escapist

The Survivalists releases to Steam, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch on October 9th, 2020. Joseph Pugh conducted this review on a standard Xbox One console.

Overview

The Survivalists is an adventure survival game set in the same universe as the Escapist games. After becoming stranded on a set of mysterious islands, you must build, craft, and survive while looking for a means of escape.

To accomplish this, you will recruit an army of monkeys to help you with tasks that would take days by yourself. Once you have gained a foothold, you must defend your home from orc-lings, and raid undead occupied dungeons to acquire what you need.

The Survivalists is playable in up to 4 players online co-op. Allowing you to monkey around the islands with your friends.

Driving Me Bananas

As a big fan of the Escapists series, I was pretty stoked to finally get my hands on The Survivalists. On paper, the concept is a match made in jungle heaven. In practice, it was gibbon me a headache waiting for the fun begin. I had to take a rhesus from work and go make a capuchino to decompress from the frustration the game caused me.

Unfortunately, the monkey puns don’t get any better from here. Essentially The Survivalists is two halves of two different games stitched together, but by the massive hands of a gorilla, not a seamstress.

It’s one part Survival and another part old school Zelda. The latter is compromised for the former and the former constantly throws a banana peel in the way of the latter.

Monkeys can help build and craft.

On the Survival side, you have the basics the genre is known for, crafting, building, and eating to survive. You cut down trees, smash rocks and hunt the local wildlife to cook food. The first thing you will notice is that its quite easy to get stuck on various trees and rocks thanks to the static camera.

This never ceases to be a problem as the combat is often obscured by the terrain. I also spent forever trying to find a gap in my walls because I couldn’t see where I was placing my blueprint behind a cliff.

You will quickly meet the true stars of the game, the monkeys. Some need rescued, others want to be gifted specific items, either way, each one permanently joins you once you satisfy its criteria. The coolest aspect of the game is the fact that the monkeys can do anything that you can.

I mean that literally, they can craft, fight, gather, build, and even carry chests for you. They are vital to your progress in the game, as many recipes take forever, and without them, you would be stuck standing there yourself.

Learning how to effectively use your monkeys will lighten your load, but the system isn’t intuitive at all. The gamepad controls are cumbersome, and the monkeys aren’t super communicative about why they aren’t doing the thing you asked them to do. Little thought bubbles appear, but they aren’t great at clarifying the situation.

My first several hours spent fighting the system put a big chimp on my shoulder. Several daunting tasks that I needed the monkeys to do, would have been done quicker had I just done them myself in the first place.

You have very little inventory space. A monkey carrying a chest can help you out.

I was admittedly proud once I figured it out. You can get some real primate automation going after awhile. You can have some monkeys cutting down resources, while others deliver them to your chests. Even more monkeys can take those supplies and fill recipe blueprints for your builders and crafter to make.

It’s also always wise to take battle monkeys into the wild and a couple more to carry chests for extra storage. Once you get past the learning curve, it can be satisfying. But it’s always clunky. You have to provide them with the tools for each task, and those tools break. The monkeys will stand where they broke and hop up and down with a thought bubble, leaving you to figure out where they are and what the hell the problem is.

To get them to do a task, you have to select each one individually and have them “mimic” you. Meaning you perform the task in front of them, and then they do it. This usually means you need a tool for the monkey and one for you with the thing you want them to do ready and in front of you. The flaw shows its red baboon ass the most in combat.

You can rename and change the color of your monkeys. I went with creative names such as, Crafter and Builder. I’m sure they don’t mind.

The monkeys will not defend themselves at all unless you get them to mimic you, by smacking a baddie. That can be a pain to do. The game’s workaround to this, is to build a dummy for you to smack in front of them instead. I have trouble understanding why you have to craft an item in the game to solve what could be, and should be a simple interface button. Select monkey, select fighter, boom done.

The whole “mimic” system is thematic sure, monkey see, monkey do, but it’s cumbersome and clunky purely for a tiny bit of theme. Heck, I think it would be neat if they unlocked each role by seeing you do it once, then you could swap them between it. As is, the system can be soul-draining, especially when you have a ton of monkeys to manage.

The controls make it even more difficult to manage. The same button you push to pick up stuff, and access objects is the same one used to give or swap items with a monkey. I would accidentally swap items with nearby monkeys all the time. The sprinting button is also the cancel recipe button, and it’s very easy to cancel nearby recipes as you run around your base.

What’s Guenon With the Tedium?

Survival games work on a tense but delicate system of pressuring the player through an array of challenges you don’t find in standard games. Every bit of progression feels like a small victory and gives you something to grasp onto in your bid to survive.

The Survivalists does none of that. Surviving is trivial, food is plentiful, and death just means you go and pick up your stuff. Your monkeys can get knocked out, but never die. It doesn’t matter how much your monkey gets spanked. After a bit of rest it stands straight up and is ready for more.

Furthermore, I unlocked most of the recipes within a couple of hours, save for a few in the forge. The loot you find is mostly better versions of the same weapons and tools you can already craft with no real gameplay change. Yet the system itself is full of tedium for very little payoff.

You need to raid labyrinths to acquire what you need to escape the islands. You enter these labyrinths by purchasing keys from a shop. Each key costs 5000 gold, and the stupid shop thing moves every couple of in-game days. Sailing from island to island takes quite a while, and you’re always chasing it after grinding up gold for a key.

Sailing around takes a long time.

This is all while grinding resources for your base and the things you need to go on the adventure to begin with. Then it is followed by even more grinding to repair a large ship as part of the story. It never feels like there is any pay off to this. You grind the survival side to play the adventure side, but the adventure side isn’t that rewarding either.

The combat is fine, you can attack, power attack, and dodge roll away. You can even counter-attack which is neat. None of this matters. The game expects you to bring monkeys to fight, and by doing so, you may as well rip the combat from the game completely.

My swarm of monkeys pounced on every enemy like angry conservatives at the idea of a fair wage. Half the time I couldn’t even tell what was going on. I spent most combats standing around, occasionally moving out of the way of an attack while my monkeys did the work. The first time I sailed to another island I ran into a tiger and panicked, only to laugh as my monkeys ripped it apart in seconds. It’s sort of like Pikmin, except you have no control over the action whatsoever.

You have to do the survival grind to play the adventure. Playing the adventure rewards you with tools and materials for the survival grind, for you to grind to the next piece of the adventure. Repeat until credits roll.

The combat feels pretty nice, you wont use it after an hour into the game.

The game never pressures you with any meaningful challenge, the only set back I had was when I was raided. I love AI raids in survival games, but again, I was only disappointed.

Your only real defense is some spike traps. Battle monkeys always follow you. I couldn’t find a way to leave them to guard the base, and other monkeys won’t defend themselves. I got notified that a raid was happening, and it was long over by the time I got home. My base was wrecked.

When zombies wreck my base in 7 Days to Die, I am pressured to improve my defenses. When I lose a dinosaur in Ark, I look forward to the challenge of taming a new one and the fun it will bring. My only reaction to my base being wrecked was groaning that the grind for the next part of the adventure was extended.

It wasn’t challenging, the game is easy. It was just time-consuming. I didn’t even enjoy the raid itself since I wasn’t home! I had very little warning that it was going to happen, and it was over within a minute.

Fly my pretties!

Which would be fine if the game provided fun tools to allow me to prep a good defense. That’s really the crux of The Survivalists. It goes halfway in on survival and halfway in on adventure without committing to either.

It’s a miracle that survival as a genre works at all, it’s my favorite one, but its a terrible idea on paper. You have to go all-in on it or not all. If you just use it to supplement a game, it’s just frustrating because those mechanics aren’t fun when taken out of the machine they were made for. It’s like if Kratos had to stop and water a garden between axing enemies and yelling boy. It just doesn’t work.

Verdict

This review hurt me, Team 17 is a great developer and publisher. I have been looking forward to The Survivalists for a long time. I think they just missed the mark here, I can’t understand the design philosophy behind the game. I’m not sure what it was meant to accomplish or what was supposed to make it fun.

It features a bunch of mechanics and concepts that work, but they don’t work together. In fact, they are at odds with each other. The adventure is very shallow but it’s the only part that feels like a game. The Survival aspects are shallow and just feels like a chore you have to perform to get to the “game” part.

Despite the clunky nature, I love the monkey system and the fact that they can do everything you can. Yet automation is a hot mechanic in some games right now, and everything that the Survivalists does has surili been done better in other games already.

The Survivalists combines a poor survival experience with a lacking adventure game. The result is a gimped title that struggles to be anything at all. Its novel monkey system isn’t enough to salvage this shipwreck.

A copy of The Survivalists was provided for Gideon’s Gaming by Team 17 for the purpose of review.

You might also be interested in the more positive reviews I’ve done of Team 17 related games. Check out my reviews of Going Under, Neon Abyss, Overcooked 2, and Genesis Alpha One. If you want to help me out, consider donating 3 dollars to my Kofi page. Every little bit helps.

Pros

  • Interesting monkey system, your little furry friends can do everything that you can
  • Solid lightweight combat system

Cons

  • Incredibly clunky controls, interface, and mechanics
  • The game loop is grindy, tedious, and time-consuming with no payoff
  • Survival aspects are underutilized and trivial
  • Monkeys destroy your enemies with no mercy, there is no challenge or strategy
  • The adventure portion is shallow