What are the best survival games on PC? It's a genre that has exploded over the last few years, with the Steam charts filled with all kinds of varied examples. To help bewildered adventurers, we've gathered together the best survival games to help you pick and choose which emergent stories and unexpected adventures to undertake.
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There’s a great many out there, with a huge percentage being unfinished Early Access games, and others being cheap and nasty cash-ins. Our picks will help steer you to safe pastures.
Best dinosaur survival game
ARK: Survival Evolved
Dinosaurs make everything better. Like bacon and nutella, it’s a known fact that putting dinosaurs in something instantly improves it by several hundred percent. This is exactly what developer Studio Wildcard did with ARK: Survival Evolved. At its core it’s a survival game that fills every edge of the template: punch trees to get wood, use wood to build shelter, kill animals to find food, inevitably die because you forgot to drink water. Yet ARK transcends the typical pattern by including dinosaurs. And not just dinosaurs that are out to eat you, but dinosaurs you can tame and ride.
The thing that makes the game work is that everything it does is rock-solid. The survival elements may be similar to what you’ve played before, but they’re the bedrock for the game’s more ambitious elements (and a strong ARK mods scene). Your character has RPG-like stats, and you can head off into the world to hunt down some sci-fi secrets that offer a little more incentive to play rather than just ‘stay alive’. It’s these various promises that make playing ARK worthwhile: other survival games rely on you being satisfied with making it through the night, whereas Studio Wildcard set you long-term goals such as ‘tame and ride a T-Rex’. Having a true sense of progression and aim makes your time in ARK feel worthwhile, and that’s something many survival games struggle with.
Want more? Here's our ARK: Survival Evolved review.
Best zombie survival game
The one that kicked it all off. These days, DayZ could even be considered one of the leanest survival games, with barely any crafting to talk of, and no objectives beyond staying alive. But despite the zombies, DayZ offers the purest survival experience. Food and water are vitally important, and getting sick can signal your final hours should you fail to pay attention to your symptoms. Walking without shoes cuts and infects your feet, and blood transfusions of the wrong type will see you slip away for good.
If you’re content with fighting against disease, bodily functions, and zombies who occasionally phase through walls, you can get down to DayZ’s best feature: exploration. The world of Chernarus is a Soviet wasteland, and Bohemia have really captured that eastern block atmosphere with the towns and villages around the map. The wilderness areas feel like genuine forests rather than man-made imitations, and there’s a true sense of isolation.
It’s best played with a friend or two, and treated like a camping trip where things could go horribly wrong. That horribly wrong may be being captured by a gang of bandits who will force feed you bleach and nick off with your can-opener though, so proceed with caution.
Want more? Here's our DayZ review.
Best crafting survival games
At some point it seems like someone decided that survival was all about grueling punishment, sloth-like progression, and murdering anyone who isn’t you. But before the big survival blow-out on Steam we had Minecraft: a fun, colourful, creative survival game. Sure, there’s zombies that will eat your face off, and spiders and skeletons and dragons, but with Minecraft skins you always end up blocky and cute. No one minds a cartoon monster having you for breakfast.
More importantly though, the way you survive in Minecraft is entirely up to you. You could build an elaborate fortress and play a defence-style game, fending off the creatures of the night. Or you could craft exciting weaponry and venture out into the most dangerous zones of the world, testing both your mettle and metal. The world it quite literally endless, and filled with amazing natural wonders just begging to be explored. Just remember to eat something every now and again, and you’ll be fine.
We spend so much time focusing on the creative and modding side of Minecraft and all the amazing possibilities there that we sometimes forget that vanilla Survival Mode is just as exciting in its own way. And if you really want to make an automated mining production line in Survival Mode, don’t let us stop you: just make sure the creepers don't put a spanner in your works.
Want more? Here's our DayZ review.
Rust has become infamous for its naked men player characters, but it’s not the size of a man’s particulars that is impressive about Facepunch’s survival game (and we all know that doesn’t matter anyway… right?). No, it’s the forts that players are able to erect. Rust’s strong point is construction: as you gather materials from its wilderness, you can begin to lay down a variety of items in a The Sims-like manner, creating your perfect rural retreat by slotting together floors, walls, staircases, and windows.
While there are many servers where the traditional shoot-on-sight mentality exists, Rust has plenty of havens for those looking for a more civilised lifestyle.You can find player-created towns, complete with attempts at government, trading, and even prisons. It’s one of the nicest reminders that if people pull together and share their resources, fantastic achievements can be made.
Rust underwent a massive overhaul that saw most of the original game scrapped in favour of a slightly new approach and completely new base code. The change ripped out quite a lot of the game’s core features, such as zombies and rad towns, but over time they’re gradually being reapplied alongside new ideas. There’s a long way to go until it’s finished, but it remains one of the most played games on Steam, and understandably so.
Want more? Here's our Rust review.
The most horrifying idea of actual survival is having to do it on your lonesome. That’s exactly what Don’t Starve makes you do, since it’s a singleplayer game. The terror of having to fend for yourself in the wild is thankfully offset by the lovely Tim Burton-style 2D art, and the collection of utterly bizarre creatures that are lurking in this sepia-tone world. Werepigs, Beargers, Deerclopses and many more absurd monsters roam the land looking to make things difficult for you.
Don’t Starve focuses heavily on crafting to make your way through life, and so much of your time is spent harvesting raw materials. But rather than crafting houses like in Rust and Minecraft, Don’t Starve is all about the tools and contraptions you can make. The Science Machine and Alchemy Engine will become your best friends, before making way for ancient wonders and the art of magic. Like Minecraft, Don’t Starve happily embraces the mad and the mystical, and is all the more enjoyable for it.
If all this sounds wonderful, but you don’t want to harvest twigs and dry grass on your own, Don’t Starve Together offers a lovely co-op variation of the game.
Want more? Here's our Don't Starve review.
Best exploration survival games
Many survival games opt for an atmosphere of harsh oppression: man vs the wilderness, and all the nasty eventualities that could mean. Subnautica rejects that in favour of something much more hopeful. Sure, you’re a lonely man lost at sea on an alien planet, but it’s a game all about terraforming your new environment, and making unfamiliar ground your home.
The art direction helps push the idea of hope home, with bright shiny technologies, beautifully blue oceans, and schools of tropical fish filling your vision at every turn. You explore the ocean depths in your submarine, searching for new materials in marine trenches and among coral reefs. And when you’ve found everything you need, you can begin to construct bases on the ocean floor.
The game’s survival elements include the food and water requirements that most games in the genre do, but there’s obviously a more pressing issue in Subnautica: oxygen. You can’t breathe sea water, so your oxygen levels and consumption have to be on your mind at all times. For all of the game's beauty - check out our Subnautica review for the full verdict - you are continually at risk of drowning. Every survival game has the ominous shadow following you around, and here it’s simple old O2.
Want more? Here's our Subnautica review.
The Long Dark
The Long Dark is already out there in Early Access form, but the current design is very similar to most of the games mentioned above. Its future is more interesting, however, with an upcoming story mode that gives players far more intrigue to dive into.
Set in the bitter cold of northern Canada, The Long Dark trades in zombies for bears and tropical islands for deadly snow drifts. Mother Nature is your true adversary here, and to combat her you’ll need to keep your calorie count up, your body hydrated, and a flame roaring whenever you curl up for the night.
The stylish aesthetic makes it quite an arty game, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this is something that slows the pace and forces you to think long and hard about what you’ve done. The Long Dark is a true, challenging survival game, and we can’t wait to see where its narrative goes when the episodic story mode finally begins.
This War of Mine
For all the stress that some survival games can press on you, nothing compares to the harrowing experience that is This War of Mine. A very different breed of survival, it’s a depiction of a group of civilians’ struggle to stay alive during war in their country. Trapped in a besieged house, pinned down by snipers, and attacked by other survivors looking to take what you’ve found, it’s a game of traumatic decisions and life-or-death consequences.
Each of your randomly generated survivors have backstories, providing them with abilities for survival. Ex-firemen are fitter and stronger, while those who used to cook professionally can now feed the starving. But heading out into the world to find the things you need - medicine, ingredients, scrap to make beds - could bring you face-to-face with those willing to kill. And turning a survivor into a murderer leads to misery, depression, and - if not treated well - suicide.
It’s a bleak existence, and making what seems to be the obvious right decision at one point in time can lead to disastrous conclusions. The end of the war constantly seems like a pipe-dream, and everyone will probably be dead before you get there. If you think you can live with yourself in such dire circumstances though, this a must-play, as you'll see from our This War of Mine review.
Best survival horror games
Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece Alien is a lesson in suspense and tension, steadily building anxiety and fear in its cast of characters over its first half, before engaging in a terrifying game of hide-and-seek for its final chapters. Remarkably, Creative Assembly managed to take this structure and apply it to a lengthy video game almost flawlessly. If you’re looking for the best film-to-game adaptation of all time, it’s right here.
‘Isolation’ is the key theme: you’re stuck on a massive space station with barely another human to help you out, and stalking you at all times is a single, powerful, seemingly unkillable xenomorph alien. Armed with little more than your wits, you need to escape and work out how to destroy the barb-tailed monstrosity without being pulled kicking-and-screaming into an air vent. The game’s AI provides an enemy that learns and adapts to your actions, making it seem truly alive and hell-bent on your destruction. Hiding in a locker has never been so frightening.
Want more? Here's our Alien: Isolation review.
Resident Evil 4 HD
The high-resolution makeover helps keep age at bay, but even without that sprinkle of HD magic Resident Evil 4 doesn’t feel a decade old. Perhaps it’s because the over-the-shoulder shooting mechanics influenced a generation of games we’re still playing. More likely, it’s because Resident Evil 4 is one of the creepiest, atmospheric, and downright gross survival horror games ever made.
As floppy-haired Leon Kennedy, you’ll be escorting the President’s daughter through shadowy villages of pitchfork-wielding maniacs, exploring a gloomy mansion estate ruled over by a bonkers Napoleon-wannabe, and assaulted by massive brutes with chainsaws. As the stakes rise, Leon’s inability to walk and shoot at the same time injects panic and tension into the game.
Since its release, subsequent Resident Evil games have spun increasingly absurd plots with more emphasis on Call of Duty-like action. The slower pace and distinctly creepier tone of Resident Evil 4 marks it as the series’ high point, and one of the best survival horrors you can happily put yourself through today.
Upcoming Survival Games
With the big success of games like DayZ, it wasn’t going to be long before a licensed IP decided to give the survival genre a try. Conan Exiles sees the Hyborian setting of everyone’s favourite barbarian become the playground for people looking to not-die.
The set-up sounds largely familiar - grow crops, build settlements, club enemies to death - but Conan has a back-of-the-box-bullet point than none of the competition has: human sacrifice. Apparently should you be able to wrestle someone to an altar and butcher them, you can invoke the favour of the gods and shift the balance of power your way. That could well be the unique concept that sets Conan Exiles apart from the pack.
Most survival games put you through pain, misery, and eventually death. LIFE is looking to do something different, with its developer hoping players will experience freedom, joy, and happiness. The game emphasises the natural world, and the more you contribute to it - growing crops, being respectful of its creatures - the more vibrant it appears.
Should you play without respect though, LIFE’s world will change to reflect your hostilities. The colours become desaturated, clouds block out the light, and music fades. The world gradually becomes an unpleasant, depressing place to be in.
LIFE is an incredibly interesting take on a concept that’s traditionally emphasised survival as being a brutal affair, rather than the beauty of co-existing with the natural world.
That's it, you've survived! Let us know in the comments below what you think of our list.