Serum’s New Take on Survival

Serum Preview

If you’ve been playing video games for any length of time, you know that the popularity of genres waxes and wanes. Once upon a time, everything was a platformer. For a while, Diablo-style ARPGs dominated developers’ ideas. Currently, it seems like every other game is either a Soulslike or a survival and crafting clone. Serum, now in early access, falls into that latter category, but it has enough new ideas to make it stand out.

Timer Tension

Serum is a first-person survival/crafting action game that also has strong Chernobylite or S.T.A.L.K.E.R vibes in its setting and premise. Without going anywhere near spoilers, you play as a research scientist who wakes to find himself in a landscape corrupted by a poisonous blight. As is the way in these stories, the blight has churned and turned everything in the world into either dangerous monsters or useful scavenge, without much middle ground. Your task is to survive, figure out the story beats, and escape to your patiently waiting family, complete with a sickly child. You know, just to tug a little harder on the heartstrings and raise the tension.

The game’s big hook is that there’s a drug called serum that will stave off the effects of the blight, but only for a short period. You have a surgically implanted timer on your arm that ticks down after every serum injection. If it runs out, game (literally) over. The serum also has its own negative effects, so back at home base you need to purge your system of both blight and serum.

Most survival crafting games make the player pay attention to bodily functions like hunger, thirst, and sleep. In Serum, the main focus is on constantly injecting doses of serum and the omnipresent timer. Serum does double duty by having different crafted forms and formulas that come with additional powers, status effects, or benefits. Having to satiate hunger on top of the pressure of serum’s limited effectiveness would be too much. The upgraded serums often come with a tradeoff of power versus effective length.

Junkyard Dog

While the serum’s protective power starts on a ridiculously short, five-minute timer, one of the goals is to upgrade it to last longer. Eventually, the player can venture out for longer periods before heading back to a base station. Some players have complained that the constant pressure to take serum is annoying. Maybe, but it’s also the game’s biggest hook. Without it, Serum would be a pretty standard survival title.

Like the majority of games in the genre, the player takes increasingly longer and more dangerous trips away from the base, looking for materials and exploring. There are useful bits and bobs everywhere, from plants, animal parts, and rotting corpses to piles of discarded junk. Most important tasks beyond the basics are multi-stage assignments. These include collections of scavenging, building, or upgrading machines or equipment and simple environmental puzzles.

Combat plays an important role, too, as animals and monstrous creatures need to be harvested or killed to access new biomes. There are a variety of hand-crafted melee and ranged weapons. Like a lot of Serum at the edges, combat is a little janky and not quite dialed in. One annoyance of Serum’s mechanics is that the serum timer isn’t paused when accessing inventory or other information. Having to leave the game for any length of time means quitting out.

Work to be Done

Built using Unreal Engine 5, Serum looks like the recent game that it is. The blight-tinged, sickly green filter grows a bit repetitive, though later biomes have a wider color palette. On a very high-end PC, the game struggles with consistent frame rates and early access bugs and crashes. What’s kind of strange and a bit off-putting is that there is paid DLC already available, some for items that should probably be in the game. These include a story codex, a guidebook, plus a book of actual drink recipes inspired by the game. There’s something very wrong about paying four bucks to know what the heck the story is really about. Then again, it makes sense because Serum’s narrative and delivery have a lot of holes. There’s a lot of environmental storytelling, but nearly everything is expository and one-dimensional. Maybe the DLC fills in the blanks.

Overall, Serum has an interesting hook, gameplay loop, and a lot of potential. As with so many early-access games, it’s pretty rough around the edges. There are a lot of survival and crafting games, though, so any new one that manages to stand out is welcome.

Thank you for keeping it locked on COGconnected.

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