City 20 is a survival sandbox with Stalker vibes that turned me into an apple-addicted serial killer, but it's not as fun as it sounds

Standing in front of a large, brutalist building
(Image credit: Untold Games)

The first time death paid me a visit in City 20, the dystopian survival sandbox, I'd only been aimlessly wandering around for a day. Not even a full day. It wasn't down to some misadventure—there was no gunfire, no mutant attack, no overconfident foray into a dangerous location I had no business being in. Starvation and thirst did it. The classics. 

It's been a while since I've played a survival game that punished me for not engaging in the busywork of constantly keeping on top of a bunch of meters—the genre has been largely moving away from this mechanic, instead using food and drink to dole out buffs. City 20, though, embraces the old system, where it only takes a few in-game hours before the twin spectres of starvation and dehydration start to hound you. 

(Image credit: Untold Games)

Life ain't easy in this hidden Soviet nuclear city where, following a disaster and subsequent evacuation, the remaining survivors have built a desperate society cut off from the rest of the world. There's more than a hint of Stalker here, with City 20 frequently evoking The Zone, and this extends to the existence of a faction system that underpins a lot of your interactions with the locals. But I didn't get to dig too deeply into that side of things, because I was too busy trying and failing to fill up a fuel can. 

After waking up in someone's rickety home, I was tasked with getting a generator up and running. Something nice and simple to start with, I foolishly thought. I was handed the fuel can and sent on my way. Unfortunately, absent directions or a map, I wasted half the day going in the wrong direction, watching as my bow-legged survivor waddled through a post-apocalyptic world rendered in a dirty watercolour aesthetic that calls to mind Disco Elysium. 

Eventually I stumbled upon my destination: an urban area that looked like a concrete island floating in the green wilderness. By now I was craving food and water. While the energy and health meters are always present, the food and drink ones are invisible, only informing you of their status when there's a problem. Which seems to be most of the time. But I'd had breakfast and thus assumed I could go without for a while longer. I'd just grab a snack when I got back to the compound—a reward for completing my first quest.

Money talks

(Image credit: Untold Games)

I met a pair of guards who told me I could fill my fuel can, but naturally it was going to cost me. They demanded $200, but I only had $50, and none of the detritus I'd picked up in my meandering walk would even bring me to $100. After this disappointing conversation, the change in lighting informed me that it was dusk, and then seconds later I was surrounded by nothing but darkness. 

Lit by only my torch, I walked back to the compound, wondering if I could maybe craft something that I'd be able to sell for enough cash to buy the fuel. I also wondered why my host hadn't given me the money. I was doing him a favour, after all. I guess the $200 was my rent for the day. Before I even reached the compound, I was informed that I was both starving and dehydrated. 

I don't ever find juggling these kinds of meters particularly engaging, but I don't mind them too much when they reflect the real demands of the human body. While you will start to feel a bit shitty after a day without food, you can actually survive for weeks. With neither food nor water, however, it's only a few days. Skipping lunch, then, should not leave you on death's door. But maybe City 20's residents have ridiculously fast metabolisms. Like the Flash, but without the super speed or quips.

When I got back to the compound, my host noted that I looked exhausted. Seconds later, I collapsed. Right in front of my door. I'd been playing for maybe 20 minutes and hadn't really exerted myself. Moments later I was standing again, at least, but clearly I was a mess. I headed straight to bed. "I'll just have a hearty breakfast," I said to myself, like an idiot, a fool. I woke up in the middle of the night and then promptly died. 

Due to the absence of manual or auto saves, I had to start again from scratch—not a huge issue, given that I'd achieved absolutely nothing. But this time, I'd prepare, and maybe listen to the demands of my body. Instead of heading to the settlement directly, I stocked up on water and apples. I also crafted a knife and a makeshift bed so I could nap anywhere. After shaking a few trees and smashing a few barrels, though, I was hungry, thirsty and low on energy. A second breakfast filled my belly and, handily, gave me a wee energy boost. 

With my inventory full of junk and nutritious goodies, I headed back to the pumps. Trying to trade with one of the guards, I realised that I still wouldn't be able to make the $150 I needed. And it was probably a good thing that I didn't sell my entire haul since—surprise, surprise—I was hungry and thirsty again. 

(Image credit: Untold Games)

Determined to get this fuel, I embarked on a life of crime. City 20's inhabitants will react to your behaviour, and there's a faction system at work as well, so acting like a massive dickhead is a risk. If the factions hate you, you lose access to their shops and crafting facilities, and being an outsider is likely going to be a much harder life. But I had a job to do.

It was night once again—the days really do go by swiftly—and everyone was heading home. I sauntered into one of the blocks of flats very casually, like I was absolutely meant to be there and definitely not up to no good, knocked on a door, and then stabbed the flat's inhabitant. Repeatedly. The combat system is quite basic at the moment, letting you punch, push and block, all limited by your stamina meter. It's functional, but sluggish. My victim went down quickly, though, and then I looted the crap out of the place. 

My stolen bounty was mostly food and water. My disappointment was curtailed by the needs of my body. Yes, I was hungry and thirsty again. I enjoyed a little feast and then decided to continue my crime spree. I knocked on another door, furiously stabbed away, and then, just as I was about to loot their body, I was dragged out the door by an invisible force. It locked behind me. Three more attempts in three different flats resulted in the same bug. No more robberies for me. 

Killing spree

(Image credit: Untold Games)

My luck had turned, though. Amid all the food and drink in my initial haul was a bunch of non-lethal ammo, which proved to be quite valuable. The guards near the pump bought it for nearly $200. Finally, the fuel was within reach! Now, I'd been warned that I'd only have a limited amount of time to use the pump, but I didn't think that it would run out before the guard had even opened the door. Within five seconds, he told me my time was up. I was still standing on the street. No refunds. I seethed with rage and chomped on an apple. 

After all this work I was no closer to filling my fuel can. I lost my cool and stabbed the shit out of the guard who had cheated me. He stood there and did nothing, as his friend just watched. Then I looted his gun and shot his friend. But when I tried to loot her, the bug that had seen me kicked out of the flats earlier reared its head again, hurling me to another spot down the road. Then the guard got up and tried to flee, kicking off a ludicrous Benny Hill-like chase, since I was now out of ammo. She kept demanding payment for something, and threatening me, all the while running away. In combat mode, my waddling survivor was ponderously slow, so I had to catch up to her, enter combat, flail around for a second, and then leave combat mode again to give chase once more. 

By this point, other residents had started to notice that I was trying to murder everyone, and a couple of them plucked up the courage to take me down. I got knocked out, and they robbed me, which was fair enough. I deserved worse. I have nothing but respect for the lad who stole a steak out of my pocket and immediately started munching it over my battered body. One of them, though, must have gotten a taste for violence, because they started laying into an innocent bystander. I just watched. I was now hungry, thirsty and exhausted. 

(Image credit: Untold Games)

Everyone understandably hated me, so even if I could have coughed up another $200, nobody was willing to escort me to the pumps. As I tried to figure out what I could do about this situation I was only partly responsible for, a man ran over and stabbed me to death, freeing me from my responsibilities. Thank you, random guy. 

By this point, I was laughing my arse off. Everything had just gone so horrendously wrong—a simple trip to buy fuel devolving into robberies, murders, comical chases and ultimately my own death. None of it was enjoyable while it was happening, but I'll give City 20 this: it's capable of generating an amusing comedy of errors. 

I have played enough sandboxes in early access and before to have a lot of patience for jank. The Stalker vibes of City 20 ensured that I would have probably been a bit disappointed if it was actually polished. But even with my high tolerance, City 20 left me mostly frustrated. The survival systems are incredibly overbearing and desperately need tuning; the allegedly intelligent NPCs are occasionally reactive, but not especially logical; and every interaction feels cumbersome, whether you're chatting, picking up items or fighting. 

(Image credit: Untold Games)

Despite all of this, the game the team wants to make does sound up my street. Survival sandboxes so often stick you in a mostly empty wilderness, but here we've got settlements and organised factions, where you can interact with and manipulate a simulated dystopian civilisation. When someone dies, that's them gone for good, and whatever role they had in society is left open—maybe you'll be the one to fill it. NPCs react to the sudden, violent changes in their settlement, and they'll gossip, hold grudges and make your life easier or more difficult depending on how your actions affect them. 

Ultimately, though, this is all stuff that's churning away in the background while you eat too many apples and keep being reminded how knackered you are. But if you're willing to put up with that, you can check out the City 20 demo when it appears on May 30.

Fraser Brown
Online Editor

Fraser is the UK online editor and has actually met The Internet in person. With over a decade of experience, he's been around the block a few times, serving as a freelancer, news editor and prolific reviewer. Strategy games have been a 30-year-long obsession, from tiny RTSs to sprawling political sims, and he never turns down the chance to rave about Total War or Crusader Kings. He's also been known to set up shop in the latest MMO and likes to wind down with an endlessly deep, systemic RPG. These days, when he's not editing, he can usually be found writing features that are 1,000 words too long or talking about his dog.