Serum Early Access Impressions - In Need of More Time

Serum Early Access Impressions – In Need of More Time

Serum has hit Steam Early Access as the latest survival game to enter the overcrowded genre. While survival games are far from scarce, especially in Early Access, there have been numerous examples of breakout successes in recent memory. Enshrouded, Pacific Drive, Palworld, and V Rising are all proof that there’s plenty of room for survival games to succeed; provided sport a distinct personality. Serum hopes to join this lot by leveraging a specific mechanic as its highlight: time.

Time is our most valuable resource and while time management isn’t a stranger to survival games, Polish developer Game Island pushes the focus further in their iteration of this long-standing formula with their inaugural title, Serum. Serum sees players fill the shoes of E.V.A.S. Corporation patient (and now survivor), Adam, who has been plunged into a mutagenic green-tinted nightmare wherein monstrosities roam and life is constantly ticking away. The latter is due to the fact that players must collect a special elixir called serum, which comes in a variety of forms packed with different enhancements in addition to its crucial time-boosting abilities.

As expected, the standard gathering/crafting is present here. Players will leave the safety of their base, which comes equipped with time-pausing properties, to gather a slew of seemingly junk items to break down into the necessary crafting materials. But it’s not as easy as taking a leisurely stroll into one of Serum‘s biomes to snag a few needed items. The world is rife with mutated hostiles and they’re more than ready to assault Adam on sight. Couple that with the wrist-displayed timer that is going to keep diminishing second by second regardless of how hard a time Adam is having against the transformed locals.

You might think it’d be as easy as endlessly popping crafted serums to extend the clock as needed, but there’s a limit to how many consecutive doses Adam can take before he needs to return to base to purge that toxicity from his system. Eventually, players will be able to craft longer lasting serums and increase their allotted intake quantity, but those early hours are saturated with anxiety as you get your bearings and decide how far out you are willing to travel comfortably in search of resources (and answers). Because dying means Adam’s body is now lying on the ground, packed with everything you were once carrying and it must be retrieved by his respawned self.

The combination of time restrictions, serum limits, and aggressive enemy AI does make for a harrowing environment as you wander blindly through the world for the first time. Unfortunately, it’s made unnecessarily more bleak due to performance issues and a completely unsatisfying combat system.

On the performance side, I experienced numerous hiccups and hitches as I played Serum at 1440p powered by a 4080 and 14th gen Intel CPU. Sure, it’s Early Access, but that’s not a meager setup and I can’t imagine mid-range configurations are going to have an easy time running this Unreal Engine 5 game in its current state without spending ample time tweaking settings. Speaking of settings, it was surprising to see a lack of an FOV option. It’s possible such a setting could be modified via the .ini file, but I did not dive that deep.

As for combat, it is in a depressing state. Given that Adam only uses melee weapons (read: no guns), you would hope that this focused combat style would feel impactful, but sadly it is far from provoking any such sensation. There’s virtually no feedback when hitting an enemy, leaving the whole experience to feel very floaty. Enemies, in their ever-aggressive nature, will swarm the player and relentlessly assault. There are block and dash options, but these felt inadequate in their current iteration. Since serum can only be taken so much per outing, fighting against the combat systems becomes even more frustrating as you find yourself no longer able to heal.

Having to go out on a death run, likely in a worse offensive state than moments before, isn’t too appealing when you know what kind of enemies are in the general vicinity of your fresh corpse. This is especially true if you unknowingly wandered into a group of formidable, higher level enemies. This occurred to me, as I scoured a base highlighted by an early mission objective. The enemies within were easy to dispatch, but slightly off to the side of the base were a pack of ravenous mutant wolves that made quick work of Adam.

Serum has an intriguing premise running through it, presenting a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. meets BioShock with a dash of the Justin Timberlake-led movie In Time. However, everything currently piled on top of that idea is in need of much more development. A solid environment and premise only go so far when the other survival components feel too commonplace and the combat falls well into the subpar realm. In a game all about time, it’s Game Island who needs to spend much of that resource on Serum.

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