Neo Scavenger doesn’t look like much. In a world of visually beautiful, sprawling survival sims like The Long Dark and Ark, it hardly stands out. But it’s one of the best survival game out there, and now you can play it on mobile.
Developed by Blue Bottle Games, Neo Scavenger came to PCs in 2014. In it, you play as a nameless survivor who wakes up in a medical facility far outside post-apocalyptic Detroit. Your permadeath runs are turned-based; you move over a hexagonal grid, with encounters explained via text and choice prompts. You’re wearing nothing but a hospital gown and a mysterious amulet, and there’s a monster outside the door. How you proceed from there is up to you. It’s intense, complex, and often hilarious.
On Wednesday, Neo Scavenger was released for iOS and Android. There’s a free demo (there’s a free PC demo too), with the option to buy the full game for $9.99. The game looks the same as the PC version, and, aside from touch controls and newly-added leaderboards, it more or less plays the same. Once more you find yourself in a medical facility, woefully unprepared for the monster on the other side of the door. What do you do?
Like many survival games, the answer to that question comes down to which specialized abilities you picked at the start. The Electrician, Mechanic, and Hacking abilities will allow you to rig the door shut. The Athletic ability will let you jump out the window without hurting yourself. If you kill the beast with the help of one of the combat abilities, you can use some window shards and the Trapping ability to make a coat, which you’ll need to keep from getting hypothermia as you make your way through the mysterious world outside.
Neo Scavenger is a complicated game built on a ton of interlocking systems. For example: say you need to make some clean water. You could just find some, or you could make some with purification tablets. You can also make it by boiling dirty water, but to do that, you need a container that’ll hold it, something to burn, and something to light the spark.
Your character has various conditions, from the usual hunger and thirst to carrying capacity, temperature, and pain. Conditions drop if you drink dirty water, wear your shoes on the wrong feet (you often only find one shoe at a time), get wet and then get cold and then get sick, get hungry and then try to rob a Blue Frog cultist for their food and then get the mysterious Blue Rot. (After tens of hours in the game, I still don’t know what the Blue Rot is or how to cure it.) You can cut yourself and then start bleeding, and then get an infection from using dirty bandages or get tired from bleeding, which makes you less effective in combat.
There are monsters and other beasts in this game, and while you can sneak or talk your way around some conflicts, eventually you’ll probably have to fight. I love Neo Scavenger’s combat because it’s so much sloppier and more chaotic than most video game fighting. When I wrote about the game a few years ago, I compared it to the clumsy and embarrassing Quilty/Humbert fight in Nabokov’s Lolita. You choose from various prompts, presented as simple icons that represent actions like tackle, kick, dodge, and threaten. Whatever you choose, you’re never a badass action hero. You and your opponent will back up, fall down, try to crawl away, stumble to your feet, vaguely scratch each other, trip each other, start bleeding, then get tired because you’re bleeding and have to skip a fight turn.
Neo Scavenger’s combat is often a pathetic anticlimax, but it remains harrowing because of the rest of the game’s interlocking systems. You’ll win a fight and then die ten turns later from a condition you didn’t treat. Or you’ll loot a vanquished foe for goodies and then lose everything to a robber a few hexes over. Everything feels complicated, everything has consequences, and everything eventually falls apart. It’s fantastic, if you’re into that sort of thing.
By relying on text instead of high-quality graphics, Neo Scavenger allows a huge number of complex systems to interact. It also lets you tell most of the story in your head, with a few evocative drawings of locations thrown in to get you going. Little mistakes have huge consequences. Rash actions will lead to ruin. You slowly open up more of the map as you wander, finding weirder and weirder locations and unravelling a strange, well-written story. Later on you might get cybernetic eyes, explore a haunted house, or find a secret fight club. I’ve never come close to seeing the end, or even the middle, and it’s never bothered me in the slightest. Every run is so different, so full of character, that they feel complete in themselves.
Neo Scavenger is basically fine on mobile. The simple interface lends itself to touch controls. On my iPhone 6s, the text is uncomfortably small, but it’s probably less of an issue on a larger type of phone or on tablet. The controls feel a bit finicky, and inventory management is sometimes a pain. I also miss mousing over things and immediately getting a helpful text description. Neo Scavenger already had a clunky interface, and touch controls have made it clunkier. But it’s a small price to pay to take one of my favorite games anywhere I go.