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Undying — Alpha First Impressions

Despite their dominating popularity in respective media industries, The Walking Dead and survival games haven’t yet converged into one, all-together satisfying product. You had the Telltale adaptation that is commonly touted as the IP’s magnum opus, but it’s also a game fixated on a linear, narrative-focused path. The freedoms of pillaging and crafting goods are left out of the experience. Less successful tie-in games like The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct loosely resemble a survival experience but come up pitifully short. Independent releases like Project Zomboid have come much farther in terms of crafting a gratifying zombie survival experience, but it’s Vanimals’ Undying that unfolds as if it’s leapt from The Walking Dead’s graphic novel pages. The franchise is a professed influence on the game, and though Undying has a long way to go with balancing and mission variety, its presentation and performance are in solid form given its projected release year of 2021.

 

Like Mother, Like Son

 

Most reassuringly, this incarnation of the game already runs at a locked 60 FPS with no instances of stuttering. For an isometric survival game where combat encounters are distributed sparingly, the framerate is more than sufficient. The cel-shading of the game makes shadows prominent and an otherwise muddy color palette much more vivid. NPC behavior in each environment is static but dictated by the game’s day and night cycles. Many humans will temporarily disappear from 12 AM to 6 AM while the zombies remain active all day. As you meet more characters in a broadening environment, trading becomes imperative to your survival. Amongst whatever errands you are incidentally running, it is a constant goal to acquire enough resources to survive going home for the night.

 

As is inherent to the survival genre, the player must juggle your character’s hunger, thirst, and energy, alongside an ordinary health bar. Letting your hunger and/or thirst bars dwindle to zero means your health starts to deplete next, while your energy bar hitting zero causes you to pass out wherever you are, killing you then and there. Added to the mix is an AI partner with the same constraints, albeit with much less survival experience. As opposed to the character dynamic guiding The Last of Us, Undying focuses on the bond between a mother and son, giving a degree of player control to both of them.

 

You play as Anling for the alpha’s entirety, in search of your missing husband while your son Cody comes of age. Cody is not a playable character, but as an AI partner, he follows you loyally and becomes eminently more useful as the days go by. Interestingly enough, Anling starts the game fully experienced and it is instead Cody who you gradually get to update. His crafting, combat, and survival skills are awarded XP separately as you perform different skills in front of him. Soon enough, he’s able to craft items for you, dodge enemy attacks, and find previously unseen resources. The game simply transfers a protagonist leveling system to your companion, but ideas like this help justify Cody’s presence.

 

Gameplay still of Undying showing the protagonist standing in front of an upgraded crafting bench

Bring Out Your Dead

 

Instead of grinding to upgrade your skills, you spend the opening stages of the game looking for planks and metal to fix your house’s crafting and cooking stations. This requires you to immediately immerse yourself into zombie-occupied territory, sans an intrusive tutorial. With metal pipe in hand, you quickly head into the city and get your first combat experience. The deliberately restrained speed of melee combat in survival games is a challenging balance to strike. Allowing players the speed of hack-n-slash combat negates the feeling of surviving encounters by the skin of your teeth. However, many survival games have succumbed to making melee combat so lumbering that it no longer resembles a stylistic choice as much as it does broken gameplay. Happily, Undying strikes the right balance here. You won’t be stringing together combos with your crowbar, but inputs are responsive, and the zombies are slow enough to suit the combat’s rhythm.

 

So far, the zombie behavior is painted in broad strokes, but their AI is attentive enough to pose a challenge. As you inevitably brush past zombified individuals, they are all eager to pursue you, gradually aggregating into a rampaging horde. Cody is slightly slower than you and will every so often need to be freed from a zombie’s grasp by a swing of your weapon. Weapons deteriorate quickly but have a vast attack radius, allowing you to hit three zombies at once with one swing and do roughly the same damage to each. Encountering hordes with any intention of taking them all out is a fool’s errand, though. It is in your best interest to knock them away and run, perhaps taking out an individual where it is necessary.

 

In the game’s current state, the supermarket errand offered about two-thirds into the alpha ends up being pretty close to impossible, even as stiffly animated shopping carts can be pushed around to distract the undead. Smaller combat encounters beforehand thankfully go off without a hitch. Your moments spent with a handgun are fleeting but another testament to Undying’s solid core mechanics. Aiming is quick in 360° isometric fashion, and every bullet lands like a headshot, even if this means that zombies take two or three headshots before departing. When your melee weapons and handguns break, you are always allowed to disassemble them back at home and recoup some resources. Wood and metal resources are a constant necessity in order to cook, craft weapons, and build ramps.

 

Amidst a map that ranges from urban storefronts to private camping grounds, resource distribution is a bit of a mixed bag. A smart (albeit slightly immersion-breaking) advantage the game gives you is letting you position every new area on the map before traveling to it. You expel more energy and waste more time walking to areas that are further away from you, and as I replayed the Alpha’s campaign, I was able to tactically put areas with wells of water closer to my home and less substantial areas farther away. You start the campaign by choosing an emphasis on combat, survival, or crafting, although the only strong benefit visible between the three was my survival campaign, bringing more food my way.

 

A gameplay still of Undying showing the protagonist farming for goods at a national park

The Daily Routine

 

Regardless of what perk you choose, the crowbar is far-and-away the most useful tool to keep in your arsenal, so much so that it becomes a player crutch overshadowing the virtues of different strategies. Inventory containers that need a crowbar to open them are so ubiquitous that having one in your arsenal is often the difference between life and death. This also means that since Undying currently only has one save slot (which Vanimals intends to fix), your campaign can be undermined by missing the singular means of accessing a substantial portion of resources.

 

With Undying’s closed alpha spanning 15 in-game days (or about 3 hours of gameplay), the first 9 days made for a pretty seamless survival experience. There’s a more consistent logic to how pickups respawn in the alpha’s opening areas compared to the outskirts of the map. Items I picked up around my house seemed to not respawn, naturally adding to the game’s challenge. However, the survivor’s camp towards the end of the map allows you to trade with NPCs for their same items every single time you revisit the camp. A late-game addition involves the protagonist becoming diseased and now needing to take a green herb supplement regularly. This remains an interesting concept but was diluted by my ability to get the same supplement from the same NPC perpetually.

 

The simplicity of side missions throughout the alpha is also a bit of a blind spot, as they are normally just simple fetch quests, and their stability started to deteriorate as I reached the campaign’s end. A side mission during Day 10 that involved bringing 10 mushrooms to a little girl would not resolve despite having the 10 mushrooms on-hand. The secret she promised to tell me for acquiring these mushrooms still remains a mystery as of this article. Undying’s combat, crafting, and overall performance are in sturdy condition, but many of the incidental challenges that will help diversify it haven’t followed suit. 

 

Yet what stands tall above both the strengths and shortcomings of Undying’s conventional but mostly solid survival gameplay is the potential of its story. Obvious themes of post-apocalyptic media, such as the psychological turmoil of constant fear for your life, manifest in a dream sequence that is emotionally resonant and stylistically surprising. There is also some subtext of an immigrant experience implied by Anling’s distance from her family. Your time spent battling zombies in America hardly resembles any idea of an American Dream. If Undying can mine more content out of this disappointment, it can provide a distinct zombie narrative experience. As is, it is hard to say that the Undying alpha reanimates the stagnating survival genre, but the pieces here serve as a strong foundation with some inspired details peeking out of it.

 

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