Published on November 14th, 2016 | by Kara Ashbeck2
Zombie Exodus: Safe Haven Review -Your custom journey through the zombie apocalypse
Nothing says Halloween like the good old zombie apocalypse genre! Yes, there are a million zombie apocalypse games out there ranging from action games to story-based adventures, but there aren’t many that offer dozens of choices for a player to customize their protagonist. There are even fewer that offer romantic options whose relationships and personalities arc as the story’s does. Hosted Games’s text-based Zombie Exodus: Safe Haven is one of those few and it is also writer Jim Dattilo’s standalone sequel to his successful first game Zombie Exodus. Dattilo’s sequel has everything that made Zombie Exodus work and builds on it with extensive character customization and intricate stat management, making every new playthrough unique.
Zombie Exodus: Safe Haven is interactive fiction and as such, story is paramount to enjoying it. Since it is a zombie game, it has everything a player would expect from a zombie story right up to the inciting incident of a massive zombie outbreak. However, the game differentiates itself from those tropes by focusing not on exploration, but on slowly adjusting to post-apocalyptic zombie life mostly from the confines of the protagonist’s home. With three different starting areas in the United States (the city, the suburbs, and the country), this period of adjustment is bound to be different every time especially when one accounts for how many different characters you can be.
An important aspect to note about the story is that it is currently unfinished. Dattilo is in the process of releasing the rest of Zombie Exodus: Safe Haven in parts. I was wary of buying it at first because of this, but the sheer customization options for the protagonist having fifteen different prologues offers enough value in my opinion. I felt my choices were pivotal and had consequences (many of which can be seen in the stat screen) and I also felt I had control of my character, as the game always offered many choices for every obstacle. My only concern regards its unfinished status in that many of the choices may not matter in later parts, as the end of this part’s story implies a more linear “zombie group” story instead of the small character story explored in this installment.
Between creating your own protagonist and meeting characters I could actually imagine and want to befriend, the game’s characters ended up being the most memorable aspect for me. While the prequel Zombie Exodus also succeeded in its characters the most, this game asks the player to give a series of “challenges” to their protagonist that can take the form of a dependent child or dog, myopia, addiction, vegetarianism, and claustrophobia among others. I never like creating weak protagonists, so I surprisingly enjoyed this “challenge” system because it allowed me to play a believable and flawed human being. I gave my character a dependent German Shepard named Luna (and yes, the game lets you choose from a selection of dog breeds that come with their own stats) and myopia (I wear glasses, myself). Having these challenges in the story gave me incentives to have my protagonist go outside, despite playing a character who was a masterful builder and could afford to stay inside his house comfortably. Luna was running out of dog food and my protagonist stepped on his only pair of glasses halfway through the story, which forced me to ask one of his friends for glasses instead of much-needed food. As you might guess, my protagonist was my favorite character in the game because I felt like I gave him a unique identity from all the customization options.
Since this game’s character story is focused on your protagonist, we do not get a lot of time with the other characters. However, most of the characters I did get to know felt worthy of friendship. Dattilo shines in making characters who all have unique identities that make them easy to remember; because this is a strictly text-based game, it is essential to get the players to remember a name and person the first time around. The character that stood out to me the most was my protagonist’s best friend Jaime, who provides the anchor to all the branching storylines. He is also one of the romantic options, if that is any indication of his importance. Getting this character right was pivotal and Dattilo succeeds by making Jaime knowledgeable and genuinely caring for the protagonist. He provides the exclusivity of a best friend relationship as well, clearly favoring the protagonist over other characters that they meet. It is attention to detail like this that makes me enjoy the relationship dynamics in Dattilo’s games and I look forward to meeting more characters in the later parts of this saga.
Since Zombie Exodus: Safe Haven is a text-based game, the gameplay is reliant on player choices and consequences in a multiple choice format, though it also has an intricate stat management mechanic. This part’s story structure harkens to small character stories, so most of the choices the player makes have immediate consequences. For example, feeding Luna consistently makes the player run out of dog food faster and also forces them to feed the dog invaluable human food. Having the protagonist take Luna with them outside also provides various obstacles and benefits that would not exist if Luna was kept at home. The choices with immediate consequences forced me to think carefully about my protagonist’s actions though because I knew my stats were on the line in that very moment.
Speaking of stats, they are crucial to consider in the game when it comes to making viable choices. If you create a protagonist with high strength in the beginning, you as a player will want to make choices that complement that stat if you want your character to successfully overcome obstacles. Not only that, but your character’s chosen profession has its own set of skills independent of traditional stats that can come into play for certain obstacles. My protagonist had a moderately high driving skill for example, which prompted me to have him out-drive some attacking bandits. Making choices in this game requires optimization of your character’s stats and remaining consistent. There is also relationship management within these stats, showing how high a person’s opinion of your character is. Since the game’s story is small in scope for this part, the relationship aspect of the game did not play as huge a role as general stat management. The few interactions you have with main characters still figured into the character’s opinion stat, but the consequences are not immediate in this part of the game at least. I had my character treat another character badly for example, but that character still offered to help and protect my character despite her low opinion of him. I can only assume these opinions will matter more in the long run.
I play a lot of text-based games and love when they can incorporate heavy stat usage because it makes the game feel more like a game rather than a novel. The system builds off of what worked in Zombie Exodus and I enjoyed looking at the stats screen every time I was making a choice.
This game is built with the ChoiceScript engine, which has a minimalistic interface. It employs an all black text over a plain white background, which looks sterile and can be offputting for those who aren’t familiar with text-based games. There is no music either and while pictures are possible in the engine, Zombie Exodus: Safe Haven does not provide any. The only break a player might have from reading is pressing the ever-present “Show Stats” button (which I made use of almost every screen) which shows colored bars and structured categories of your character’s skills and relationships.
My biggest problem with the presentation is its lack of saves or checkpoints. Its predecessor, Zombie Exodus, did have checkpoints before most major obstacles, but they are not present here. If you make a choice you regret, you must stick with that choice unless you want to restart the game all over again. The game saves where you are if you decide to stop playing, but you cannot load another character and come back to your current one. While this mechanic makes you really consider your choices, I think adding sparse checkpoints still would’ve been a good idea if just for the sake of security.
Should you buy it?
The game as a whole story is a work-in-progress, so you are reading a small, albeit very customized character story with mostly immediate consequences for your choices. The most important choices you will make are at the beginning when you decide what kind of protagonist you want to play and what challenges you want them to be able to overcome. As long as you understand that and can enjoy a game despite that, I think this is a worthy purchase for anyone who enjoys text-based multiple choice branching narratives. I played for about four or five hours on my first playthrough, which is reasonable considering the $4.99 asking price. It is unclear whether the next parts will cost extra money to play, but Zombie Exodus had that model so it is likely this game will too.
Other than the reasons above, Jim Dattilo is a great writer worth supporting! He’s still working on the second part of this game, so it feels great to directly support a small, indie developer. If this game interests you, I recommend checking out the prequel Zombie Exodus as well! Not only is it finished, it is a well-executed zombie group story. I have high hopes for the future of Zombie Exodus: Safe Haven and wish Mr. Dattilo the best of luck!