If I asked you “Where would you least like to find yourself?”, you might just say something like “In a deadly irradiated death zone surrounded by ghosts and zombies, armed with nothing but my bare hands while slowly going insane”… Well, guess what!?
This is Shadows of Kurgansk, a first person survival adventure game developed by Yadon Studio and published by Gaijin Incubator. It tells the story of a hiker who blacks out when his group experiences an explosion. When he comes to he is alone, seriously under-equipped, and must survive the horrors that he encounters in order to escape The Zone before he goes insane.
There are three different play modes available in this early access game – the first and most complete being the Story, but there are also Adventure and Survival options to get your teeth into. They are all fairly different, but share the same underlying mechanics.
What’s the story, morning glory?
The Story mode starts off by introducing you to the core mechanics via a short tutorial. You wake up in “The Zone” and are instructed to clear away a couple of trees that block your path. This is accomplished by hitting them, which in turn drops resources for you to pick up. Destroying a tree creates logs, sticks and bark, whereas boulders become stone and flint. There are also items on the ground that can be collected, either automatically as you walk over them or by pressing E, you can alter this setting too, which is a nice touch.
I opted to collect things automatically, which after playing similar games such as The Forest that forces you to press a key to collect everything, was a blessed relief! However, it’s not long before you’re carrying far too much stuff and you become encumbered, which slows you down – so there are definitely pros and cons to each approach.
The tutorial guides you through the crafting screens in order to make basic tools and a fire, then teaches you how to cook food in order to better satiate your ever-increasing hunger. By the time you first encounter a Desolate (kind of a zombie skeleton with glowing eyes) you instinctively click to swing your axe/pick/stick at him in order to fend him off. Pretty standard stuff so far then. You complete the tutorial feeling ready for whatever the game has to throw at you.
Then you enter the story in earnest.
The graphics are dark and moody, the lighting and ambient music are atmospheric, the whole thing is eerie and makes you feel quite uneasy. It’s like someone has sucked all the joy from the world and here you are, tasked with making your way through this murk in order to find the first checkpoint. To say that this game is creepy would be an understatement.
Shadows of Kurgansk has a great way to keep the player on their toes. You have a tendency to hallucinate. This manifests itself with a terrifying jump-scare that displays a scene in the middle of the screen accompanied by a very loud and sudden violin shriek! The first time it did this to me, I literally jumped and pulled my headphones off, breathing heavily. The game has a sanity metric that slowly decreases, and if left unchecked means that you go insane and black out – when this happens, you regain consciousness in a random location, with no idea where you are or how to get back. To keep this under control you have to take pills that have been left behind, and that sounds fine, until you realise that after the initial stash you find, they’re actually very difficult to come across!
So, it’s dark, you’re armed with a stick that you’ve picked up, there are zombie things with green eyes and you’re going slowly insane. Add to that the totally strange goings on with the environment itself. There are anomalies that appear, seemingly at random, that can have detrimental effects on you as you get near. There are unexplained stone statues of people, and that’s totally fine, but they change location, and that’s totally not fine. There are ghosts that are apparently good, but freaked me right out. Playing this game makes me a bundle of nerves!
OK, I think I’ve set the scene enough – what of the gameplay? The idea is to escape from the Zone in which you find yourself. This is accomplished through as series of primary quests, but there are secondary quests or tasks that can also be undertaken that can help you out too. Initially this seems great, but very quickly you find that there are so many of these tasks it can get a little unmanageable. There is a map that guides you, which is a godsend by the way, but you can only select one quest for it to display at any point. The rest of the UI is also a little confusing, displaying numerous icons and countdown bars, ticks and shortcut keys that can be overwhelming to the player. There is no way to tell what any of them mean either, and that’s annoying.
Completing quests and tasks, and just surviving from day-to-day, earns you points that you can spend on upgrading skills. These skills are fairly basic, ranging from improving your health to increasing your ability to carry additional weight. It would be nice to see this unlock some sort of new ability through this mechanic. Maybe this could be tied into unlocking more advanced recipes, at the moment all of the recipes seem to be unlocked in one lump, and there are dozens of recipes to use.
Big cook, little cook
In fact, there are so many recipes it can be a bit overwhelming. The recipe selection is laid out over 7 different tabs, with 2 further tabs for bookmarked recipes and blueprints. The majority of these tabs contain craftable inventory items, but one tab contains campsite items, which are placed on the ground where you stand. This can make it a little difficult to lay out your camp in the way that you want to.
The campsite items are fairly limited – you can build fires, shelters, storage, crafting benches, and not much else. I think that this may be added to in the future, and it should be to be honest. I like being able to fortify my camp in some way, or at least be able to build something tall that I can use as a lookout tower, but currently there is no way to do this.
While I’m nitpicking, it’s worth noting that some of the recipes are just too complex. Let’s say I want to make cartridges: I need shotshells, gunpowder, and bullets. Shotshells are collected, and the other two are crafted. Gunpowder is crafted from powder charge, which is collected. Bullets need to be made by a campfire from lead and a can. Campfires need fire fuel and fire kindling. Fire fuel is made from sticks. Fire kindling is made from bark. I’ve no idea where to get lead from… You get the idea. It’s the same, if not more so, for every recipe, and as I say – there are a lot of recipes.
If I could suggest a single improvement to the game, implement the ability to search the recipe list. It would be incredibly helpful!
Also, at the moment whenever you change from tab to tab, the game pops up a message telling you that the recipes on that tab require a campfire or a workbench, every time you open that tab. It’s rather frustrating, but nothing that can’t be solved as the game is developed.
I’m going on an adventure!
In addition to the Story mode are the Adventure and Survival modes. Adventure allows you to play out a small quest line in a fairly linear fashion. You simply do what is requested and that’s it done. At the moment there is one adventure to choose, but I can easily see this being expanded on. It’s quite fun, and serves like a sort or “quick play” option that allows you to enjoy the game without needing to spend too much time on it.
Survival is even more bare bones than that – you are placed on the map, with literally nothing, and told to survive. You have to start completely from scratch, scrounging sticks and rocks, making basic tools, chopping trees and making shelter etc. It is basically the sort of mode that will appeal to people that enjoy pitting their wits against the game and exploring the map with zero guidance – it’s definitely my favourite of the 3 modes, but I would dearly love to see the aforementioned improvements made to the recipe screens in order to properly enjoy it.
Is it worth a look?
Definitely. Considering that this is an early access game, it’s already very polished. The sounds and graphics are very good, the game engine runs them smoothly, and the mechanics are great. The addition of sanity (or rather, insanity) as a further statistic to monitor is brilliant, and coupled with the eerie and atmospheric landscape that you are immersed in means that you are constantly kept on the edge of your seat. The first evening I played this game I was so freaked out that I was hearing noises upstairs, ensuring doors were locked, the works. It’s thrilling and gets the heart pumping, and I like that!
Yes there are some glitches. Yes there are some things that could be better. But overall this is a strong offering from Yadon Studio and I can’t wait to see how they improve the game.