It’s the year 1512 and my old-timey ship is on fire. Before I leap into the ocean to escape the flames, I have to choose three items to take with me from a chest filled with tools, weapons, and supplies.
This ain’t my first survival game: I take an axe so I don’t have to craft one later out of sticks and rocks, a flint so I can make a fire, and a backpack so I can carry more stuff. Though… if I’m taking a backpack as one of my three items, shouldn’t that let me take more than three items? There’s also a bag of food and some medicine that could come in handy. Shouldn’t I be able to stuff those in my backpack too?
Alas, I’m stuck with just three items, and to compound my disappointment the tutorial still forces me to craft an axe out of sticks and rocks and make a fire by rubbing sticks together once I wake up on an deserted island. And I definitely should have brought that bag of food, because it’s not long before I’m cooking up a dog and eating it. It won’t be the last dog I eat in this game. Not by a longshot.
In first-person open world survival game Survival: Fountain of Youth, which enters Steam Early Access tomorrow, you’re part of Juan Ponce de León’s expedition to what will eventually become America. If you missed that day in history class, Ponce de León is the Spanish explorer widely credited for being the first European to discover Florida (he wasn’t) as he tried to find the fabled Fountain of Youth (he never went looking for it). History class was a bit hit or miss when it came to actual history, at least in my high school. Don’t ask what they taught us about Catherine the Great.
Survival: Fountain of Youth has an unusual system for crafting and gathering, where rather than animating the activities the game simply fast-forwards through the time it would take to accomplish them. Chop up a piece of shipwreck, gather coconuts or leaves from a tree, or cobble together a spear or a bandage, and you don’t see it happen—it’s just suddenly 20 minutes or an hour later than it was. It takes a little getting used to, especially when you hit the crafting button and the world suddenly goes from daylight to nighttime.
But there’s a cool mapping feature, where you find a high point like the branches of a towering tree, and with a stick of charcoal made in the campfire you fill in your map. I like this map-making system because unlike most survival games it doesn’t just autofill your map based on the areas you’ve physically been to. It also lets you fill in areas you haven’t been to but have only spied from your vantage point, displaying what resources or animals you might find there. It feels more realistic than most games, and while I’m exploring I’m always on the lookout for a good vantage point to fill in more of my map.
As I finish up the tutorial, having hunted crabs with a spear and made a bed out of leaves, I’m given a quest to find a grotto, which I only have a sketch of thanks to a previous expedition to the island. While searching for this grotto in the middle of the night, I’m attacked by what appears to be a large, angry raccoon with a bushy tail, but after flinging my spear into its face and cooking it on my campfire, I discover it’s actually a short-eared dog.
Well, survivors can’t be choosers, and it’s easier to hunt dogs (they run right at me) than crabs (they scuttle away from me).
I eventually locate the grotto with the help of some landmarks, and in it I find lots of useful stuff. There’s a bottle of “Living Water” from the Fountain of Youth, which will completely restore my health and cure any diseases. I’m tempted to chug it immediately because I also find several scorpions in the grotto—more specifically, I find them crawling on my arm, biting me and poisoning me. Ouch. My health has already gone downhill recently: I’m sunburned, I have a dog bite, and I have a cold. But I save my magic potion because I’m pretty sure things are only going to get worse.
I also find Ponce de León’s journal (can I just call him Ponce at this point?) saying he accidentally left a spyglass somewhere on the island due to leaving in a rush. He’s even drawn a handy map showing where he left it. Though… if he had time to leave a note that he’d forgotten his spyglass and a map showing where he left it, couldn’t he have used that time to go get the spyglass? Logic aside, at least I now have a magic potion that can heal me if things get really dire, and a new quest to complete while I’m solving the island’s dog infestation problem one meal at a time.
Not that dogs are the only thing to eat! I scavenge an enormous bird’s nest and fry up some eggs on my campfire, after which, perhaps predictably, I am attacked by an enormous and extremely angry bird.
I spot several fishing spots along the island’s coast, though I haven’t progressed to crafting a fishing pole yet. And I kill a turtle, which somehow feels even worse than killing a bunch of dogs, probably because the turtle was minding its own turtle-business and the dogs were trying to gnaw my scorpion-bitten arm off.
Just as I predicted, things get markedly worse. Having found PDL’s spyglass, a new quest suggests I climb a mountain to put it to use, and it’s an incredibly hostile mountain filled with angry dogs, more dive-bombing birds, rattlesnakes hiding in the grass, and even stinging nettle plants that injure me when I run through them to escape all the furious dogs and birds and snakes. By the time I’m midway up the mountain I’m suffering from every malady ever invented: wind chill, burns, poisoning, the flu, cuts, plus I’m soaked from a sudden rainstorm.
It’s definitely time to chug my precious Living Water potion, but even that winds up being a disaster. It refills my health and cures my ills (except, weirdly, my sunburn) but after drinking it I take exactly three steps forward and I’m immediately bitten by two more rattlesnakes. Dang it! If I ever climb to the top of this dang mountain I’m gonna throw Ponce’s spyglass off it, just for making me climb to the top of this dang mountain.
I never climb to the top of this dang mountain. I have no leaves to make a bed with so I continue stumbling around when it gets dark, and after a few more
meals dogs chase me up a cliff I miss a jump and plunge off the edge. Then I stumble around and plunge off the edge I’d landed on. At that point I keel over from fall damage, waking up nowhere near the mountain I was trying to climb.
It was a pretty rough start for my sunburned, poisoned, flu-ridden, repeatedly-bitten survivor, but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy myself. With so many co-op survival games out there, it’s easy to forget how challenging and fun it can be surviving on your own. And judging by the trailer there’s lots more beyond basic survival, including building a raft and visiting other islands, underwater exploration, and base-building. Survival: Fountain of Youth enters Steam early access on April 19.