2021 delivered some big twists to the familiar survival game formula

Icarus survival game
(Image credit: RocketWerkz)

I have a love-hate relationship with survival games. I'll get deep into them for a good long while before abruptly realizing I am sick of chopping down trees. And then I'll go cold on the genre for a while. Eventually, I'll remember how much I love survival and get drawn back in again, even if it means sharpening an ax and clearing yet another forest.

Luckily, 2021 turned out to be a standout year for survival games, and I got sucked into a bunch of them. Even chopping down trees didn't bother me this year, from Valheim's ultra-dangerous falling timbers to all the pine trees ablaze from lightning strikes in Icarus. And a big reason survival games had a great year was because so many of them had interesting twists on familiar survival systems.

In February we got Valheim, the open-world Viking adventure that swept up millions of players who quickly got busy building forts and conquering the Norse afterlife. Despite launching in Early Access, Valheim felt startlingly complete and stable, an impressive achievement for the small team (five people!) at Iron Gate Studios. And Valheim is appealing even for players who don't typically go for survival games or who find certain survival systems a drag. As Fraser wrote a couple weeks after Valheim launched, it's more forgiving than many survival games while still being a dangerous and challenging experience.

I've harped on this before, but part of Valheim's genius was its twists to common survival systems. It keeps food and cooking an extremely important part of success and turns your stomach into an inventory where you can mix and match foods that provide various benefits. You need to cook and eat, since that's how you boost your base health, your healing rate, and your stamina. With an empty stomach, you simply can't fight, run, or dodge for long, or absorb much damage. 

At the same time, you won't ever starve to death or even experience a debuff if you don't eat. You'll always retain your starting amount of base health and stamina, even without eating. That keeps food a massively important part of Valheim without punishing players for ignoring it while they're just hanging out at home or running around in the mostly safe Meadows biomes.

Another tweak of the typical survival rules: Repairing weapons, gear, ships, and building parts don't require extra resources. Usually in a survival game, if you want to repair an ax made of iron and wood, you'll need some spare iron or wood. In Valheim, all you need is a hammer or the correct workbench. Weapon and gear degradation is still a thing, and you still need to be careful your axes and bows don't break while you're out slaying monsters far from home. But once you're at a workbench, you can quickly repair your gear without having to do any tedious resource gathering. Valheim keeps the importance of these survival systems intact without making them a drag.

(Image credit: Iron Gate Studios)

Another fun twist on survival in 2021 was the session-based survival game. Tribes of Midgard launched in July, and while it also featured Vikings, co-op, and big magic trees, it's nothing like Valheim. The survival systems in Tribes of Midgard are pretty streamlined—you need to gather resources, craft items and weapons, upgrade your base, and protect yourself from harsh elements in certain biomes, but it's more of an action-RPG, and the sessions are short but frenzied (there's also a special survival mode where sessions can last much longer). And Icarus, from Dean Hall and RocketWerkz, arrived in December with another take on session-based survival. Players land on an alien planet and spend anywhere from a few days to a few weeks completing missions before blasting back off. 

I was a bit skeptical of Icarus because whenever you blast off and leave the planet behind, you lose everything you worked for: all the tools and weapons you crafted, the resources you gathered, and the base you built. But it turns out it's not a drag at all. Thanks to the progression system, I was able to buff my character's survival skills so gathering resources happens much quicker and I need less food, water, and oxygen to survive, so I'm able to get items crafted and a new base built much more quickly and easily on each mission.

(Image credit: RocketWerkz)

And to counter the fans' concerns about not being able to build permanent bases like they do in more traditional survival games, Icarus shipped with special outpost maps where players could build with no time limits and no fear of losing their fort when they leave. Between missions I drop down to my peaceful little map and do a bit of building and crafting. It's a soothing respite between the dangerous missions.

One of my favorite survival games of the year is Dice Legacy, which really looks nothing at all like a survival game. It's a city-builder, a colony-management game, a roguelite, and a survival game all mashed up into one. You roll dice, but those dice are also your citizens—they can freeze in winter, suffer injuries, and age and die. You'll need to feed them, keep them warm, and even keep them happy, or they'll turn on you. You can set them to work gathering resources, fighting enemies, or researching new tech, and you can even turn them into super dice with powerful abilities. Dice Legacy is a really unusual combination of genres, and it's an enjoyable surprise.

(Image credit: Facepunch Studios)

And as far as ongoing survival games, I got into Rust toward the end of the year, which continues to impress me with how much it's grown and changed since it first appeared back in 2013. I don't need to blow its horn—Rust has been in the Steam top 10 for ages and increased its player base even more this year, and it continues to get new features like underwater labs, underground rail networks, military bases, quest-giving NPCs, and a bunch more. There are also plans for a system where players can sail off the edge of the map on one server and arrive on another.

It's great to see so many new twists on survival systems in 2021, and I'm hopeful 2022 will continue the trend. There are a lot of survival games to look forward to: Ark 2 is due out this year, Sons of the Forest (the follow-up to The Forest) is coming in May, and Dying Light 2, Stalker 2, space station sim Ixion, and more are also in our near future. Hopefully, the next batch of survival games will deliver as many changes to the formula as we saw in 2021. 

Christopher Livingston
Senior Editor

Chris started playing PC games in the 1980s, started writing about them in the early 2000s, and (finally) started getting paid to write about them in the late 2000s. Following a few years as a regular freelancer, PC Gamer hired him in 2014, probably so he'd stop emailing them asking for more work. Chris has a love-hate relationship with survival games and an unhealthy fascination with the inner lives of NPCs. He's also a fan of offbeat simulation games, mods, and ignoring storylines in RPGs so he can make up his own.