2021 brought some big twists to the familiar survival game formula

I have a love-hate relationship with survival games. I’ll dig into them for a while before suddenly realizing I’m fed up cut down trees. And then I’m going to stay cold on the genre for a while. Eventually I will remember how much I love survival and I will be back, even if that means sharpening an ax and clearing another forest.

Fortunately, 2021 has turned out to be a great year for survival games, and I’ve been sucked in by a bunch of them. Even cutting down trees didn’t bother me this year, de Valheim ultra-dangerous wood chippings to all pines ablaze with lightning to Icarus. And one of the main reasons survival games have had a great year is that a lot of them had some interesting twists on familiar survival systems.

In February, we had Valheim, the open-world Viking adventure that saw millions of players quickly busy building forts and conquering the Scandinavian afterlife. Despite launching in Early Access, Valheim felt surprisingly complete and stable, an impressive achievement for the small team (five people!) At Iron Gate Studios. And Valheim is appealing even to gamers who don’t typically choose survival games or find certain survival systems a drag. Like Fraser wrote a few weeks after the launch of Valheim, it’s more forgiving than many survival games while still being a dangerous and stimulating experience.

I’ve insisted on this before, but part of Valheim’s genius was his twists to common life support systems. It makes food and cooking an extremely important part of success and turns your stomach into an inventory where you can mix and match foods that provide various benefits. You have to cook and eat, as this is how you increase your baseline health, healing rate, and stamina. With an empty stomach, you just can’t fight, run or dodge for long, or absorb a lot of damage.

At the same time, you will never go hungry and even debuff if you don’t eat. You will still maintain your baseline amount of starting health and stamina, even without eating. This keeps food an extremely important part of Valheim without punishing players for ignoring it while they just hang out at home or run around the mostly safe Meadows biomes.

Another modification of the typical survival rules: the repair of weapons, equipment, ships and construction parts does not require additional resources. Usually in a survival game if you want to repair an iron and wood ax, you will need some spare iron or wood. In Valheim all you need is a hammer or the right workbench. Degrading weapons and equipment is always a thing, and you should always be careful that your axes and bows don’t break while killing monsters away from home. But once you’re on a workbench, you can quickly repair your gear without having to collect tedious resources. Valheim keeps intact the importance of these survival systems without making them a brake.

(Image credit: Iron Gate Studios)

Another fun twist on survival in 2021 was the session-based survival game. Midgard Tribes launched in July, and while it also features Vikings, a co-op, and large magic trees, it looks nothing like Valheim. Survival systems in Tribes of Midgard are pretty streamlined – you have to gather resources, craft items and weapons, upgrade your base, and protect yourself from aggressive elements in some biomes, but this is more of an RPG of action and sessions are short. but frantic (there’s also a special survival mode where sessions can last much longer). And Icarus, from Dean Hall and RocketWerkz, arrived in December with a different approach to session survival. Players land on an alien planet and spend a few days to a few weeks completing missions before leaving.

I was a little skeptical of Icarus because every time you take off and leave the planet behind you lose everything you worked for: all the tools and weapons you made, the resources you have gathered and the base you have built. But it turns out it is not a brake at all. Thanks to the progression system, I was able to improve my character’s survival skills, so collecting resources is much faster and I need less food, water and oxygen to survive, so I can have items crafted and a new base built much faster and easier on each mission.

(Image credit: RocketWerkz)

And to counter fan concerns that they won’t be able to build permanent bases like they do in more traditional survival games, Icarus came with special outpost maps where players could build with no time limits and without fear of losing their fort on leaving. Between missions, I go down to my peaceful little map and do a bit of building and crafting. It’s a calming respite between dangerous missions.

One of my favorite survival games of the year is Dice inheritance, which doesn’t really look like a survival game. It’s a city-builder, a colony management game, a roguelite, and an all in one survival game. You roll the dice, but those dice are also your citizens: they can freeze in winter, be injured, grow old and die. You will need to feed them, keep them warm, and even keep them happy, otherwise they will turn on you. You can put them to work collecting resources, battling enemies, or researching new tech, and you can even turn them into super dice with powerful abilities. Dice Legacy is a really unusual combination of genres, and it’s a pleasant surprise.

(Image credit: Facepunch Studios)

And as far as the ongoing survival games go, I got into Rust towards the end of the year, which continues to impress me just how much he’s grown and changed since he first appeared in 2013. I didn’t. don’t need to blow his horn – Rust has been in Steam’s top 10 for ages and has grown its player base again this year, and it continues to benefit from new features such as underwater labs, rail networks underground, military bases, quest giver NPCs and many more. There are also plans for a system where players can navigate off the edge of the map on one server and arrive on another.

It’s great to see so many new twists and turns on life support systems in 2021, and hopefully 2022 continues the trend. There are plenty of survival games to look forward to: Arch 2 will be released this year, Son of the forest (the sequel to The Forest) is coming in May, and Dying Light 2, Stalker 2, space station sim Ixion, and more are in the near future as well. Hopefully the next batch of survival games will bring as many changes to the formula as we’ve seen in 2021.

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