Dysmantle Review: Break 'em
I haven't actually "finished" Dysmantle, but I hardly think that getting to the "end" is the point of most survival/crafting games in the first place. If that were the case, then studio 10Tons Ltd. wouldn't have made Dysmantle's map so big. Seeing it all in even 25 hours is nearly impossible.
Between fighting my way through zombies, harvesting resources, and exploring the abandoned cities and countrysides that the island setting has to offer, I found that there's quite the competent survival/crafting game hidden beneath Dysmantle's surface.
Although it might take a few hours for all of its elements to really come together and though it's not as deep in some areas as I wanted, the quality of the primary loops make up for a lot of shortcomings that might weigh the experience down.
Dysmantle Review: Break 'em
Dysmantle starts simply enough: it’s been a few years since the end of the world brought about by a mysterious zombie infection. The unnamed player character has been hiding in an underground bunker Fallout-style to avoid the worst that the apocalypse has to offer.
When their food supply runs out, they leave their solitary life to try and escape their island home with nothing other than a crowbar and a backpack. From there, the entire objective of Dysmantle is about collecting the proper resources to leave the island and upgrading your gear to stay alive long enough to finally travel elsewhere.
In terms of a central story, that’s about it, but there are plenty of smaller, more contained narratives going on through the many side quests you'll discover while exploring the island. Generally, the only overarching story beats revolve around the mystery of what actually happened on the island, but that information is typically relegated to broadcasted audio logs from someone who seems to be the only other person alive on the island.
Unfortunately, they don’t have much personality and, because the radios are strewn about the giant world, I felt like I was missing a good chunk of what’s going on because I knew I wasn't going to be able to find them all.
That said, it’s a nice hands-off approach to storytelling that can serve as a welcome break from the extremely cinematic and involved narratives of AAA gaming, though, that means that anyone looking for even the slightest bit of character out of Dysmantle’s survival narrative might leave the experience disappointed.
Because of how much of a backseat it’s given, it’s clear that the story isn’t the focus here: instead, Dysmantle points you to its crafting and survival mechanics. In terms of crafting, Dysmantle gets a lot correct based on how well executed the progression is. Right off the bat, you can’t find a whole lot of resources given the limitations of the dinky crowbar, but as you level up, you’ll be able to invent all sorts of different tools that provide new options for breaking things.
Dysmantle starts off a tad overwhelming when it comes to the pacing of learning new crafting recipes; you have far more items to craft than you could ever hope to make. As things progress. however, that slows down a significant amount and you can think much more critically about what tools will be necessary to get more resources and progress quests even further.
Resource mining and crafting have a great loop that can get addicting. I frequently caught myself picking up Dysmantle when I had a small break from work meaning to play a quick 30 minutes and found myself still playing two hours later with enough wood to build a sizable house in the middle of the forest.
That’s where the problems with the crafting come in, however. There isn’t much, if any, structure building here. You can’t put up walls to cut off groups of zombies (or ex-humans as the game cutely calls them) or to build a shelter from the cold. All crafting comes in the form of upgrades to your weapons, clothing, resource gathering tools, and survival instruments.
That must mean, then, that survival is where Dysmantle’s other main focus lies, but that isn’t quite true either. Typical survival mechanics like managing hunger and thirst levels, as well as keeping track of how often you’re sleeping, aren’t present at all. There is a cooking mechanic to help upgrade things like maximum health, but, as Dysmantle tells you when you find your first stovetop, you don't need to worry about eating to stay alive.
For some reason, the game also keeps track of how many in-game days it's been since you first left your bunker, but there's not a real reason for this. In other games with permadeath systems, that might be used to count how long you've gone without dying and starting a new character, but in Dysmantle, death is more of an inconvenience than anything else, making the counter ultimately not important.
Unfortunately, the only traditional survival mechanic present is making sure that you're kept safe from the elements, which simply translates to crafting a warm coat for the northern, frozen areas and the shortest khakis imaginable for the desert and jungle environments.
It could be argued that taking care of the many zombies that took over for the island’s former inhabitants is the true survival element, but that leaves some to be desired; zombie combat boils down to hitting a zombie with an object and then dodge-rolling out of the way of their attacks.
In typical zombie-game fashion, there are a handful of different zombie types, from the typical run-of-the-mill ones to agile mutants with blades for hands. But combat is pretty shallow and the different mutations don’t change that much from encounter to encounter.
Occasionally when exploring, Dysmantle will close all the doors, cue a choir, and have you engage in a boss fight, but most of these are simply larger versions of zombies that you’ve already encountered with a simple gimmick. The only standouts are the giant mech fights that happen at a handful of set points, but they’re only truly memorable for breaking things up; they don’t really introduce anything new.
Although it’s shallow in a handful of places, the overall loop of Dysmantle is satisfying and, at times, hypnotic. The breaking sounds of kitchen tables, lawn chairs, and metal grates become something of a soundtrack that cuts through the silence of exploring a completely empty island.
Despite its apocalyptic setting, Dysmantle is a relaxing craft-a-thon perfect for anyone who derives satisfaction out of gathering resources to upgrade a character who can then go out to gather an even larger number of resources.
Dysmantle Review — The Bottom Line
- Satisfying progression
- Relaxing gameplay
- Interesting and varied environments
- Giant, expansive map
- Hands-off story
- Repetitive combat encounters
- Shallow survival mechanics
- Exclusively gear-based upgrades
- Lack of soundtrack outside of setpieces
When looking back at Dysmantle, it's easy to see why the game has such a diehard community on PC and why its port to consoles has been so hotly anticipated. The hypnotic, addictive qualities of its resource gathering sections pair extremely well with side quests that often trust your intelligence to do more than simply follow a marker to a destination.
While it might lack some depth with its mechanics, there's still a rich world within the game for players to chew on for countless hours.
[Note: 10tons Ltd. provided the copy of Dysmantle used for this review.]