Deep Rock Galactic: Survivor early access review: pick of the bunch

Deep Rock Galactic: Survivor is a delicious piece of mad science: what if you spliced the ale-sodden DNA of Deep Rock Galactic’s dwarven miners with tissue samples from a Vampire Survivors-like autoshooter?

It shouldn’t work, surely. It would be easy to look at this spin-off and question why it takes the co-op out of one of the best co-op games on PC, or to shovel it aside as a cynical attempt at latching onto the popularity of autoshooters/Survivors-likes/bullet heavens (delete as preferred). But you’d be a smooth-handed leaf lover, my friend, as not only does DRG’s mix of horde shooting and rock smashing translate remarkably well to the format, even this early access version is heaps of subterranean fun.

As in Deep Rock Galactic, you’re a space dwarf, sent into the alien mines of Hoxxes IV to pilfer minerals and clear out the insectoid Glyphids, wielding the kinds of exotic weaponry that you definitely wouldn’t see around Blaenavon in the 1970s. Plus a pickaxe, because also like in OG DRG, much of the terrain can be cracked apart, opening up new routes or carving a path towards deep-buried jewels.

This ability to reshape the arena both gives DRG: Survivor a distinct flavour to rival autoshooters, and is central to why it’s so engaging moment to moment. While it’s still vital to dodge swarms, grab XP doodads, and upgrade your arsenal, each stage is a finite space, so your little legs can’t run forever. Instead, survival relies on mastery of the environment: opening escape tunnels, crafting chokepoints to exploit AoE attacks, cleaning space before a boss spawns so you have room to dodge its charges. But rock is a cruel mistress, and botching your mining can spell doom as quickly as salvation, whether you’re wasting precious seconds at the coalface or have unwittingly gifted the bugs another angle of attack. You have to think – plan, even – when it comes to mining. And in a genre that’s almost entirely about being reactive, be it to enemy spawns or randomly generated loot selections, it’s mighty refreshing to have that chance to be clever.

In Deep Rock Galactic: Survivor, a Gunner lures Glyphids into a recently dug-out chokepoint.
It might not look it, but this situation is completely under control. Mostly. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Ghost Ship Publishing

In Deep Rock Galactic: Survivor, a Scout flees from an attacking Dreadnought.
Mine and mine alone
You’re not entirely solo – an AI helper drone, Bosco, is around to take occasional shots at the enemy. I usually forgot he was there, mind. Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Ghost Ship Publishing

The focus on objectives, as opposed to pure survival, creates even more interesting risk/reward dynamics. Minerals act as currency for both permanent and per-run upgrades, so ideally should be picked from the walls at every opportunity – but doing so slows you down, even as the excavation specialist Driller class, giving the Glyphids time to close the distance. Each stage also contains a supply beacon that can be mined out for a tasty buff, and can even take out some bugs when the delivery pod crash-lands, but it demands that you stay in one place long enough to clean out the landing zone. Want that +70 health sandwich? Better be ready to put your arse on the line for it.

Just running around, you’re constantly presented with these little opportunities, and forced to decide if you can afford to take them. They’re short yet regular bursts of tension, popping up in a game where you’re already liable to be a few misplaced steps away from perishing under a landslide of chomping mandibles. To extract those kinds of of “Oh god oh god oh god” emotional peaks out of hitting ore with a metal stick is, honestly, impressive work.

In Deep Rock Galactic: Survivor, an Engineer levels up while mining minerals amid a swarm of aliens.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Ghost Ship Publishing

In Deep Rock Galactic: Survivor, a Driller sits in a freshly-carved tunnel while alien Glyphids walk into his flamethrower trap.

In Deep Rock Galactic: Survivor, an Engineer opens up an escape route by mining through a narrow rock wall.

Digging is a surprisingly versatile tactic, so speccing for mining speed can be worthwhile even at the expense of weapon improvements, | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Ghost Ship Publishing

That said, the weirdly moreish stress of pocketing gemstones mid-alien extermination has long been a micro highlight of the original Deep Rock Galactic. And there’s far more that DRG: Survivor has borrowed besides: the classes, biomes, most of the weapons, music, sound effects, and even voice lines are either reimagined or replicated 1:1. That’s a lot of recycling, though for a cut-price spinoff, I can’t say I have much of a problem with it.

In Deep Rock Galactic: Survivor, a Driller fights off both a Glyphid  grunt swarm and a hulking Dreadnought.
Performance bonus
My RTX 3090 system was unbothered by DRG; Survivor, though it could also run smoothly on a Steam Deck. Disabling anti-aliasing helped keep performance dropping much below 60fps, even with a screen full of Glyphids, so lower-end desktop PCs should be fine as well. Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Ghost Ship Publishing

If anything, it’s striking just how well certain DRG elements lend themselves to a Survivors-like. Especially the sound effects: picking out minerals manages to sound twinkly and chunky at once, and Glyphids expire with a satisfying squish. When a game’s input requirements are so simple, the senses must be sparked in any way they can, and DRG: Survivor’s busier moments are a symphony of invigorating bangs, pops, and clinks.

The four playable dwarves also perform similar roles to the original game, though their loadouts have been tweaked a bit to allow for both extra weapon sharing and a few new class-specific tools. The agile Scout is all about ranged shooting and quick escapes, the Gunner specialises in bullet spam, the Engineer can hold his ground with turrets and static pylons, and the Driller chews through rock while toting short-range beam cannons. They all feel sufficiently distinct to one another, especially after getting a few upgrades down their bearded maws, and although you’re not getting the phone book’s worth of playable characters that some autoshooters offer, each class does come with unlockable variations to their weapon pools and bonus abilities. These are good to explore, too – I thought I couldn’t live without having the Engineer’s massed sentry guns from the off, but starting with his shotgun afforded me more time to upgrade it into a far more devastating bug-sweeper.

In Deep Rock Galactic: Survivor, an Engineer deploys sentry guns and electric barriers to fend off a Glyphid attack.
The Engineer excels at static defence, though you can never stay in one spot for too long. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Ghost Ship Publishing

Generally, there’s a decent amount of meat to this early access build. Especially as progression relies on the familiar autoshooter loop of unlock new thing, replay with thing, make thing stronger. Greater Glyphid variety and a few more biomes might be nice for the future, but the current three map types are already pretty diverse, with a mixture of rock wall densities and environmental hazards that gives each its own feel, vibe, and difficulty.

It’s all built rather solidly as well. I’ve only witnessed a couple of noteworthy bugs (not counting the angry, bitey ones) and one of them got fixed as I was writing this review. The other, a sound bug where certain noises keep playing through the pause menu and upgrade screens, is hopefully not long for this world.

Otherwise, DRG: Survivor is in good nick for an unfinished game. More importantly, it’s a great game per se, where worries over the lack of co-op melt away in the mines amid intense, satisfying, tightly crafted bullet waltzes. I don’t know if I’ll pump the same hundreds of hours into this that I have for its parent game, but I’ll be absolutely happy to spend more alone time down in the depths, stealing shiny rocks from the natives.

This review is based on a review build of the game provided by publishers Ghost Ship Publishing.

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