Review: 7 Days to Die

7 Days to Die cover art

7 Days to Die cover art

A copy of 7 Days to Die was provided for review by Telltale Games for the Xbox One. Warning, out of necessity, this review will contain certain spoilers.

When I first heard that Telltale Games would serve as the publisher for a zombie survival game from developer The Fun Pimps (yes, that’s really their name) called 7 Days to Die, I immediately believed, unfairly or not, that this game would be fantastic. After all, Telltale built an excellent reputation on their episodic, story-centric games, including The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Tales from the Borderlands and Minecraft: Story Mode, all of which we reviewed, and all of which we praised. On top of that sterling reputation, I’ve got a … minor affection … for zombie (and zombie-like creatures) games. Left 4 Dead, Deadlight, Dead Pixels, The Last of Us, State of Decay, Resident Evil, Dead Rising; if it has zombies I’ve probably played it. And while they haven’t all been great (looking at you, Dead Island: Riptide), I’ve had a blast with the majority. There’s just something uniquely satisfying about surviving in a post-apocalyptic wasteland by laying waste to the horrors that roam the world. So naturally, the combination of a Telltale-endorse zombie game rose my hopes. But reality turned out to be vastly different when 7 Days to Die not only disappointed, but also confused before leaving me feeling indifferent to its existence.

The Details … if they Matter

The point of 7 Days to Die is to survive. Survive the zombies; survive the elements; survive the wildlife; survive the weather; simply survive. But that’s where the simple ends. To survive, the player must craft (or fix up) shelter, weapons, clothing, fire, food and so on. Basically anything the player needs, they have to find or craft. That’s all good and well, but there’s a catch – there’s a ton to craft, and few directions on how to do so. Selecting an item from the expansive crafting list explains the materials necessary for making that item, but in most cases, I was never able to acquire the necessary materials, or I never found the recipe (the player must locate recipes in the game and read them) to unlock the ability to make those items.

7 Days to Die fire axe

A fire axe is useful if you can find or craft one.

Want to craft or repair a fire axe? Great – find the recipe, then make forged iron, then craft away! Unless of course you don’t have a forge. In that case, make a forge with 50 small stones (readily available), one short iron pipe (found a couple), 50 lumps of clay (never discovered) and one bellows (never found). But no worries, you can craft a bellows by combining eight pieces of wood (easy enough to chop down a tree with a stone axe), 20 animal hides (the most I ever managed to get was eight), and one short iron pipe (again, I found a couple). I did find a forge once in a cabin that I had to clear 15 or so lumberjack zombies from with a wooden club. As you can imagine, crafting anything of actual effectiveness became quite the frustration over my hours of gameplay.

But the deep level of crafting isn’t unique to 7 Days to Die; games like Terraria, Minecraft and Don’t Starve use similar mechanics: collect resources in abundance through world exploration, combine those resources in different ways to create unique items of varying usefulness.The difference is, other than some of the rarer late-game items, Terraria and Don’t Starve provide players a legitimate chance to find the necessary resource for crafting within a reasonable amount of play time. 7 Days to Die? Not so much. I managed to scavenge a few items of actual usefulness (I got a shotgun once!) but most of my play time was spent strolling the vast expanses of the wasteland with nothing more than a stone axe or a wooden club, which when facing say, a bear, isn’t terribly helpful.

OK, so crafting weapons, tools, armor and sturdy building materials can be a challenge, but so what? It is the zombie apocalypse after all – why should skills most people don’t use in their day-to-day lives come easy? But certainly basic real life skills like cooking would be simple enough to manage, right? Well, that depends on if the player is lucky enough to find a cooking pot, which is required for cooking up some eggs or potatoes (assuming the player found those). Not lucky enough to find one, the player can always craft one with 10 forged iron which can be crafted at … a … forge. Damnit. OK, well, some food can be found in cupboards or other randomly strewn about trash piles throughout the world, but in my experience it was hardly enough to sustain life long-term.

So surviving zombie attacks is difficult with crappy weapons. Surviving bear attacks is … worse. Surviving the elements isn’t too bad assuming you can find shelter and stay inside. But then you’ll likely starve to death if the zombies don’t stumble across your domicile.

Telltale’s Expertise to the Rescue?

Crafting and survival are difficult, so what? After all, I often argue with Josh Snyder that games should be played on their most difficult setting, and that the fun of games is usually in direct proportion to the challenge they provide. If 7 Days to Die has something other than a misguided crafting system, it could still achieve success, something like the expertly crafted stories that Telltale is renowned for, for example. If crafting and survival sound like a complicated nightmare, my story summary should be music to your ears. Here goes:

Really compelling, isn’t it? No? Oh, right, that’s because there is no story. Not even a small intro explaining what happened to the world, where you are, or why you’re there. The game simply opens by dropping the player into the world in their underwear. I once pleaded with Bethesda to give players more story in their highly successful open world games Fallout and The Elder Scrolls, but by comparison with 7 Days to Die, they seem like epic tales spanning space and time.

While it’s true that a number of successful games have lacked a story (see: Minecraft … until Telltale gave it one) or never really bothered to explain it in game (see: Super Mario Bros., which provided the synopsis in the manual), the moment Telltale signed on as publisher, my (and I imagine other’s) immediate expectation was not only a game with a story, but one that would be rather well-crafted. Is that an unfair expectation? Perhaps, so let’s put that issue aside for the moment.

The real issue with the complete lack of story is how it compounds the other issues. The game starts the player off with a set of beginner quests, including crafting clothes, a stone axe, basic shelter, a bedroll (which serves as a spawn point upon death, just like in Minecraft) and campfire. Otherwise known as the basic necessities for rudimentary survival. But that’s where I encountered the next problem: I never got another quest. I searched fairly far and wide, hoping to trigger another quest. I searched in loot drops (from airplanes that flew over once a day), I searched the various shelters and buildings I came across, I killed different varieties of zombies and wildlife, and I died a lot. But no new quests ever appeared. I was alone in an expansive, unexplained world with no background and no direction. Thinking that perhaps my game was glitched, I started a new game, but that only produced the same, strange result. Without a story of any kind and the seeming dearth of quests, the player is rudderless; with only one goal: survive. Which as I discussed earlier, is deeply flawed in its execution.

Leveling Up for … ?

7 Days to Die Torch

Put a skill point in athletics and you can escape more easily, but what’s the point?

One element that did make sense to me was the player and skill leveling system. Every action, even running, gives the player experience points in a relevant category, and enough experience points bumps them up a level. Each new level rewards the player with points which can be spent to increase the level in a given category, further improving the abilities and performance of the player character. Put points in athletics, and the player can sprint for longer without getting tired. Put points into blade weapons and the player does more damage to enemies with knives, etc.

Unfortunately, even the leveling system is held back by the other flaws in the game. Hoping to build a sturdier frame for my house, I spent a skill point in a category to unlock the recipe for concrete mix. For that effort I was rewarded with a recipe that required 1 crushed sand, 1 small stone, 1 cement and a cement mixer. The only one of those materials I ever managed to obtain was the small rock. Essentially, that skill point could have been much better spent.

Or could it? Sure, I could have saved that point and put it into something more directly related to my immediate survival needs, like blade weapons, but the more I thought about, I had an epiphany: What’s the point in placing any of the skill points in categories to improve, when I still can’t determine the point of the damn game?

The Death Penalty

In a game titled 7 Days to Die, there’s an implication that survival will be short-lived and death will come with a heavy penalty; understanding the penalty for death is paramount. Unfortunately, there’s only more confusion to be found. As soon as the player lays down a bedroll as part of the tutorial, they have an established spawn point should they meet their end. When first setting up the game, the player can select the harshness of penalty for death, to a degree. No matter what, whatever the player is carrying when they die will be dropped, the setting simply determines whether the tool belt, the backpack or everything gets dropped, and unless the player chooses “delete all” the items will remain on the ground where the player died to be recovered later, similar to how Dark Souls and ZombiU punished players for dying. But there’s one major difference – the items remain forever, marked on the map for later recovery, wherein Dark Souls and ZombiU, you had to collect the lost souls or items before dying again or they were gone forever.

But there’s a confusing element to death in 7 Days to Die: the counter for in-game days does not reset (buried in an in-game menu a stat tracking your longest survival time) upon death. If the sole point of the game is to survive for as long as possible, then why wouldn’t the counter reset? Looking to Don’t Starve provides a comparison point with a much more logical mechanic. In Don’t Starve the player must survive as long as possible, and the moment they die, the survival counter resets, providing the player with a built-in challenge for exceeding their own best survival time.

A Lone Wolf in Multiplayer

In search of answers to my ever-increasing list of questions, I turned to multiplayer, hoping to find a thriving online community of players who may be able to shed some light on the mystery that is 7 Days to Die. Unfortunately, these efforts were fruitless. First I opted to try and host a game for players to join – an hour later, still wandering alone in my world, I abandoned hope and went in search of a game to join. After 10 or so minutes of automated searching, I was finally able to connect to another player’s world. I wasted no time setting out in search of the other players inhabiting this world, foregoing even the basic introductory crafting of basic necessities. I was only in the game for five minutes before I was disconnected from the server. I made a second attempt, with the same results before giving up. If there were any answers to be found in multiplayer, they escaped my grasp yet again. All I found was the same experience I found in a single player – a confounding mix of no story and lack of direction.

The Sum of its Parts

Some games overcome their individual moments of weakness as the whole exceeds the sum of its parts. Others do not, and regrettably, 7 Days to Die falls in the latter category. When you add up all the confusion, lack of direction and incongruent mechanics, you’re left with a game that’s remarkable only for how forgettable is, which in gaming is arguably more damning than being terrible. Personally, I can’t stand the Gears of War or Metro series, but despite their flaws they’re worth discussing for how they’ve contributed to the advancement of the industry – something that at Theory of Gaming we put major emphasis on.

This review, followed by the rapid-fire comments and discussions in our social media push will likely constitute the entirety of my personal discussion of 7 Days to Die. And that, more than anything else, is the forgettable legacy of a game that produced nothing more remarkable than its lack of direction, useless leveling system and pointless and confusing crafting. Hopefully The Fun Pimps (yes, that’s still their name) can take the lessons they learned with 7 Days to Die and evolve their future efforts into something more coherent and accessible.