Undying – developed by Vanimals and published by Skystone Games – is yet another survival game set in a zombie apocalypse, but with a novel family-oriented twist.
Undying places you in control of Anling in the aftermath of a zombie outbreak in a fictional US city. She and her son Cody – a Chinese-American family with strong traditional values – are evacuating with the military when an earthquake strikes. Zombies attack, Anling is bitten, and they flee back to their old house to escape the chaos. This sets up an emotionally-heavy premise, in which the goal is to teach Cody how to survive, discover the location of another evacuation point, and potentially uncover the fate of Cody’s father Jacob, all before the symptoms overtake Anling and she fully turns.
It’s hardly a novel narrative concept in zombie fiction, but Undying works it smartly into the gameplay mechanics. At any time, Anling can call Cody over to watch her perform a task and, once he’s observed several times and learnt a new skill, she can request he attempt it. This can be anything from basic scavenging, to cooking meals, crafting or repairing items, and improving his slingshot skills to assist in combat. As a survival game, both Anling and Cody have health, hunger, and thirst meters to consider, but only Cody gains experience and can learn new abilities in one of three skill trees (each tied to a specific experience type).
The basic gameplay loop is standard survival fare. You explore – from an isometric viewpoint – smallish but dense locations, full of raw materials, food, health supplies, and basic gear to salvage. Of course, your path is often barred until you have the right tool (think lockpicks, a crowbar, or axe), so there’s always a reason to return after a story missions for more scavenging. You’ve got an upgradeable home base, in which you can turn raw materials into construction parts, which are then used for repairing or upgrading other crafting stations, which allow you to craft more complex gear. You’ll also encounter or save NPCs as you explore, some of whom you can trade with or access facilities. Given the plot-restricted runtime, Undying keeps things streamlined with a limited number of raw and refined materials to consider and simple, sequential upgrades.
So far, so predictable. However, managing the wellbeing of Cody, coupled with Anling’s escalating symptoms, make for more complex and challenging excursions. Typically, going up against multiple foes is unwise. Combat is clunky – as one might expect from protagonists with little training – while Cody has only limited offensive abilities (even after upgrades) and suffers both physical- and morale-damage when things go wrong. Avoiding combat using stealth is recommended but, currently, this feature seems poorly implemented in the early access build and appears based on distance, rather than line-of-sight. Another alternative to avoiding hordes is using megaphone rigs to draw zombies into a single location, but this requires resources and you’ll still need to clear a safe path to fall back along once triggered.
Morale-damage can come from Cody’s growing stress level when out exploring, physical injuries, and even Anling’s response to interactions with Cody (during key story moments or at milestones when he masters new skills). However, available responses seem to represent several survival philosophies, so you’ll need to balance Cody’s current mood with the long-term lessons you feel are most useful. Thankfully, opportunities exist – at your home base and within some locations – to briefly relax and engage with Cody, telling stories, playing music, or reading skill books you can find in the environments.
The final, and perhaps most impactful mechanic is juggling Anling’s escalating symptoms. The primary symptom simply enforces a mandatory bedtime (midnight). The second, more diverse set of symptoms function as short-lived daily challenges. You must pick from one of three rolled each morning, each of which represents a loss of her human skills but also an unintended benefit of the infection. Examples of symptoms include forgetting how to craft and cook but gaining increased movement speed. Another was the inability to eat plant-based meals but permanent satiety if you get her hunger meter above 95%. These symptoms become more detrimental the longer you play, increasingly forcing you to rely on Cody and the skills he has developed. However, they can also make Anling more survivable and dangerous while out scavenging.
Bringing everything together is an unexpectedly solid presentation. A highlight is the low-polygon, flat-textured visuals that rely more on distinctive angular models, contrasting colour, dynamic light sources, and shadows. Undying looks good and runs well, but also conveys gameplay information clearly and manages to be gory without being gratuitous. It feels appropriate for the family themes and a melancholic soundtrack rounds out the package. When it comes to the presentation, the only major issue in the early access build is the need for more voice work for story-critical moments.
Based on several hours, split between one easy and one normal run, Undying could be something special with a little more polish and maybe a few tweaks. It’s got a great narrative premise that gels perfectly with the mechanics, a streamlined resource and crafting system, and distinctive visuals.
When it comes to aspects I’d like to see improved before launch, the initial positioning for several animations could do with some work, while the combat hit-boxes sometimes seemed variable. As someone who both enjoys narrative context and is a bit of a completionist, I’d like to see the length of each day increased (maybe it could be tied to difficulty?). The “story mode” is clearly the focus of the experience – and you’ll spend just as much developing the relationship between Anling and Cody as you spend scavenging or fighting – so slowing down the clock would make it more viable to get in a scavenging run or story mission, and still have enough time to craft, cook, and interact back home before you’re forced into bed.
An early access code for Undying was provided to Gameblur by the Publisher