Above Snakes is a rarity within the increasingly popular survival genre of games. Whereas most titles highlight extreme difficulty and challenges, Above Snakes instead takes a casual approach that allows players to explore the world at their own pace, crafting what they need as well as where they live (their home bases) as they explore the world and experience a light but intriguing story. And in another interesting twist, players are even tasked with building out the world they will be exploring in Above Snakes, tile by tile, as they begin to roam farther and farther away from their starting point.
Survival games are extremely popular these days. Some of the most well-known titles, like The Long Dark, strive for realism and have garnered thousands of loyal players over the years. Others like Dysmantle instead add in some horror elements to make their worlds just a bit scarier. And then there are titles like Subnautica that really change up the genre by doing something unique like setting the entire adventure mostly underwater. Regardless of what kind of survival or crafting type of title a player most enjoys, there is probably something good for them to play.
That said, most of the aforementioned games, and many of the others in the survival realm, seem to have one thing in common. They are all fairly challenging to play. After all, being able to survive or even thrive in a dangerous environment is a big part of the gameplay. But that might not appeal to everyone, especially more casual gamers who might enjoy elements of survival and crafting titles, but not so much the constant life and death struggles or the extreme difficulty spikes that many others in that genre are known for having. That is why it was such a nice surprise to find Above Snakes, a survival title that has heavy exploration and crafting elements – and even a dash of horror – but which takes a much more casual approach that lets gamers learn about the world and uncover it at their own pace.
The plot is pretty thin but does its job as a way to directly move Above Snakes forward without forcing the player to perform any timed tasks or activities that they may not be ready to tackle. Players take on the role of a young girl named Aiyana in a fictional version of the Old West. Aiyana has one parent who is Native American and one who is a European/American settler, a fact Above Snakes makes quite a big deal out of in the introduction as those two groups are seemingly at war. The title unfortunately fails to really follow-up on Aiyana’s heritage or backstory too much, other than the fact that she is able to comfortably interact with people from both of those groups throughout Above Snakes.
In any case, the story for Above Snakes takes a background to everything else, but does set the stage for the adventure. At the beginning, strange green meteors fall on the world, and people who breathe in their fumes get sick and die, later rising up as zombies. Populated areas like the ominously named main town, Corpse Creek, are especially hard hit by the zombie plague. This adds a nice little horror element to the world because you will occasionally run into zombies or even be tasked with clearing them out of areas or exploring places that are infested by them. However, the zombies, which Above Snakes calls Lost Souls, are not really too deadly unless you happen to be in very low health when you encounter them, run into a large pack or somehow get trapped where you can’t easily get away from them. For the most part in Above Snakes, Lost Souls are slow, don’t do a lot of damage and are fairly easy to kill using melee weapons, or even better, with ranged weapons like bows or guns that can keep you out of their reach. They do add an interesting element and can be kind of scary, especially at night, but are not formidable enough to prevent casual players from enjoying it.
The gameplay of Above Snakes is both typical for a survival and crafting game and also unique in a lot of ways. Players start off with a single map tile unlocked where they can cut down trees for wood, shred plants for rope-like binding materials, break rocks for building supplies and gather berries for food. And once they have done some of that, the ability to create a workbench opens up a whole new level of crafting recipes that will carry through the rest of the title. Players will need to build a home to act as their base of operations and can stock it and the surrounding area with the tools and luxuries they will need to survive like a campfire pit for cooking, a bed to sleep on and a cartography table for unlocking more of the map. Eventually, players will also be able to construct advanced crafting stations beyond just the workbench like a fletching table, tannery and furnace. But at first, you will mostly be gathering resources, which is a key to the game in more ways than one.
Besides just collecting everything that you will need for crafting, gathering resources (or performing almost any action) also fills up a special meter that when completed will allow you to place another map tile to fill out the world. Yes, players are in charge of building out their own unique world in Above Snakes, a mechanic I have never seen before in a survival type of game. Once the map tile meter is filled, you can expand the world and the total explorable area by putting a new tile down on the map that connects to an existing one, which kind of feels almost like a boardgame mechanic. In this way, players are able to expand the surface area that they can explore and the resources they can gather. Different tiles represent different biomes too, each with unique resources. For example, you can only get cotton for clothing on a plains tile, while water, not surprisingly, comes from lake tiles. Also, specific tiles are unlocked at the aforementioned cartography table by spending resources – and once unlocked you can add as many of that type of tile to the game as you want so long as your tile meter is full.
The one caveat is that different biomes like pine forests or prairies can only connect to similar biomes, so you are allowed to place a forest beside another forest, but can’t add a forest tile right beside a prairie tile. Instead, you need to first unlock a transition tile that is, in this example, half prairie and half forest, and set it down between the two areas. Because of this, it’s slightly tricky to build out an efficient map that gives Aiyana quick access to all of the resources she needs, but other than maybe taking a lot longer to traverse your world, there is no penalty for inefficient tile placements – and you are able to remove tiles and try again if you really mess up somehow. Also, as you play you will need to unlock and place unique tiles to advance the story. For example, if someone asks you to drop something off at a trading post, you will first need to unlock the map tile with the post on it before traveling there. Eventually, you will even build out the entire town of Corpse Creek, title by tile, as you follow the story.
One of the best things about Above Snakes for casual players is that you are never under the gun in terms of timed missions. If you get a new mission and would rather spend a few days building out a brand new house or gathering up resources in a new biome, it’s no problem. Also, while there are the typical hunger, thirst and fatigue meters that are staples of the survival genre, letting any of them get to zero does not result in death. You can actually play with all of those meters at zero, just with severe penalties on your speed and efficiency – plus low health also makes encounters with Lost Souls a lot more challenging. That is enough of an incentive to keep your health indicators high, but without feeling like death is imminent if you have to go for a little while between meals.
Inventory management is also greatly simplified, something that casual gamers will certainly appreciate. There are no weight restrictions, and similar resources stack together. Yes, it’s a bit unrealistic to be carrying eight log cabin floor tiles, 16 walls, a doorway and half a dozen bowls of soup in your pocket. But nobody really enjoys counting kilograms in titles (I am looking at you Long Dark) so it’s best to just remove weight restriction features from inventory management all together for a casual title like Above Snakes, which it thankfully does.
There are also two ways to play Above Snakes. The first is a mode where you follow the story, unlocking map tiles as needed in a logical fashion and learning about new techniques and crafting abilities as you go. The second way is called exploration mode and is like a sandbox where everything is available to start working with right from the start, although tiles still require resources to unlock before placement. In exploration mode, the dialogues from the story mode still exist on tiles with people, although they might be presented in the wrong order depending on which tiles a player puts down first. But you are free to do whatever you want. For example, if you want to begin with lots of farming tiles in exploration mode, feel free to play it that way and make Above Snakes more of a farming simulation. The inclusion of the exploration mode really helps to extend the gameplay beyond the 20 or so hours of the main campaign, so it’s nice to see it included. I had a good time building out a unique world in exploration mode that was free from the constraints of the story, although I would highly recommend playing the story mode first.
The survival genre is a fun and popular one, but by its very nature is less accessible than many other kinds of titles. Above Snakes by contrast offers a survival and crafting adventure that anyone can quickly learn how to play. Expert survivalist type gamers could get a little bored with the casual mechanics, but might also enjoy experiencing some of the surprising challenges and adventures that the well-crafted Above Snakes has to offer.