Skyrim Special Edition's official survival mode lacks the depth of free survival mods

Creation Club recently arrived for Skyrim Special Edition, and as with Fallout 4 it provides a small selection of weapons and armor available to buy for Skyrim SE. There are also two modes—one that brings mobs of zombies at night, and another that introduces an official survival mode.

I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking Bethesda selling a survival mode for Skyrim SE is a bit dubious. There are loads of free survival mods and have been for years, for both the original Skyrim and the Special Edition—most notably Chesko's outstanding Campfire and Frostfall mods—and surely these mods are the inspiration for Skyrim SE's new paid content. Plus, when Bethesda's survival mode for Fallout 4 was released it was (and still is) free. While survival mode for Skyrim SE was free for its first week, it's now for sale, and I don't have to take the internet's temperature to know that plenty of people are a bit hot about it.


At the same time, I'm curious about the mode itself. Having already bought some items from Creation Club for Fallout 4, I decided to buy and try out the new survival system. SSE's survival mode costs 500 credits in the Club store, which is about $5, though naturally you can't buy $5 worth of credits: the minimum amount is 750 credits for $7.99. Even with the 100 free credits Bethesda gives you, you still need to spend $8 if you didn't grab the survival mode while it was free (I forgot to). I've said it before, and might as well say it again: it really sucks when you have to buy a preset amount of funbux for something you want, instead of just paying whatever the actual price is.

Faced with the prospect of starting a new game and beginning with that long wagon-ride into Helgen, the arrival of Angry Shouty Dragon, the familiar tutorial escape, and the uneventful trot into Riverwood, I decide to download the always wonderful (and free) Alternate Start mod (here's the link for standard Skyrim), which lets you begin your game as someone other than the Dragonborn on your way to execution in Helgen. 

One of the several options is to start is as a traveler who awakens on a sinking ship in freezing water off the coast of Solitude. You have to escape the capsized ship, gathering what few items you can along the way, and swim to safety through frigid waters. Seems like a great way to start a survival game.

Can confirm: cold water is cold. Really cold. As I splash around in the bowels of the flooded ship, the freezing water eats away my health quickly, and I can only spend a few seconds paddling around before I'm near death. In SSE's survival mode, being cold limits you from filling your health meter completely (it also makes lockpicking and picking pockets more difficult, presumably due to shaking fingers). You don't automatically regain health over time in this mode, either, though that's not such a big deal in Skyrim since every character is born with a healing spell. As long as you can find a few moments of privacy and a have a few centimeters of magicka, you'll be able to stay alive and heal.

As I escape the ship and climb out onto the iceberg it hit, the hunger system kicks in frequently—a bit too frequently for my tastes, though that's certainly not exclusive to Skyrim SE's survival mode (I've griped about the common problems with hunger systems before). I do enjoy the hunger notification itself: it's a rather convincing sound effect of a hungry stomach gurgling. I just wish it wouldn't occur so often: I've scarfed down several apples and five entire cabbages already but I'm still almost always hungry.

There's no thirst system in Skyrim SE survival, which feels like an odd omission. Granted, the world is mostly covered in snow so it seems unlikely you'd ever become dehydrated (if this hypothetical thirst system let you consume a fistful of snow, that is), but it does feel strange that nothing regarding thirst has been included.

Standing on the ice floes, I try repeatedly to swim to the relative safety of land. For a while, it seems like I simply won't be able to make it: I keep freezing to death the instant I make it to the next floe. Below, enjoy a small supercut of my repeated deaths just as I reach safety.

After about five tries I finally make it, after taking a sprinting jump off the first floe and using my healing spell the moment I've got my boots on the next one. Rather than run toward Solitude, I aim for Dawnstar. Fast-travel isn't an option in this mode, though at least you can save your game whenever you want.

Along the way, I try to stay warm. There's something enjoyable about warming yourself by the fire in a game, and you can do that in SSE's survival mode. In terms of keeping warm with clothing and armor, though, it feels a bit like they just slapped a warmth rating on items, and too often it's the same rating. I examine each wearable item I find, expecting to have to make difficult choices, sacrificing armor rating for warmth, but it's never really the case. Iron armor has a warmth rating of 27. Fur armor has a warmth rating of 27. Standard clothing has a warmth rating of 27. I do find some items with ratings as high as 54, but I never really feel like I'm making a tough choice in terms of what to wear, or that spending time comparing the pros and cons of outfits is worth it. This may also be because there's simply so much clothing and armor easily found in the game, and even with the mode's reduced carry weight I've got several types of armor and clothing in my inventory.

Unable to cook in the first few fires I come across (and unable to build my own fire and use it for cooking wherever and whenever I want) I scarf down some raw fish meat to answer my growling stomach and am immediately stricken with food poisoning. This reduces my stamina and magicka recovery, and prevents food from healing me, but the main effect is that the NPCs in Dawnstar constantly tell me I look sick. It feels a bit impolite of them, so I steal as much food and clothing from their homes as I can.

I'm pretty tired of being cold all the time so I decide to head south, though I immediately encounter a blizzard, which forces me to return to Dawnstar for a bit, and later I have a harrowing few minutes of trying to warm myself by a troll's fire while mammoths attempt to stomp me into paste. I'm currently fighting my way through a cave full of bandits, mainly because I'm simply hoping one of them will have a potion that will cure my food poisoning, some warmer booties, or maybe just a damn cooking pot so I can fry this fish meat before eating it.

After a few hours of play, I'm generally feeling like the Creation Club survival mode is okay: it's a good way to introduce players to the concept of survival if they've never used a survival mod (or never played a survival game before). It does add an extra layer of thought, slows the pace of game down, and gives you a series of little decisions and makes those decisions feel more weighty. For someone who doesn't want to go through the rigamarole of installing free mods and utilities, and doesn't mind spending $5 (technically, $8), it's not a bad option to get your feet wet.

There are, however, better, more robust, more flexible, and more enjoyable options if you want to bring interesting and challenging survival elements into Skyrim, and they're free. Again, start with Chesko's Campfire and Frostfall. (Special Edition versions here and here). They take a bit more work to get up and running, but they're absolutely worth the extra time, and you don't have to buy anything.

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.