Survival games have been one of my favourite genres for years now. I love their simplicity and how addictive they can be. They’re one of those types of games where you’ll often find yourself saying, “I just need to gather the materials to finish off this hut and then I can go to bed,” only to find yourself still sitting in front of the screen hours later with a fully electrified mansion constructed; “I just need to save up enough for the swimming pool and then I’ll go to bed…” So far, it seems to be that no matter the game, this has been a running trend across the genre from The Forest to Minecraft, I even consider Fallout 4 to be one of my favourite survival games if you play it in Survival Mode and the majority of the 600 hours that I have put into it were mainly settlement building. Sarim and I played Creepy Jar’s Green Hell for GameLuster’s YouTube channel, and although we both unanimously agreed that the experience was overcomplicated and stressful, I still found an urge to continue exploring that nightmarish jungle. Retreat to Enen is an open-world survival game by Head West that somehow defies this trend and delivers an experience which is frustrating, boring and, if anything, I wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible.
In contrast to most survival games, in Retreat to Enen you purposely put yourself in the wilderness of the island of Enen to live out a naturalist lifestyle. Set in the year 3600 CE, humanity has witnessed civilisation collapse as a result of war and climate change. Thousands of years later, nature has recovered and the small selection of the population that miraculously survived extinction have now dedicated themselves to forming a society built around the preservation of Earth. Because of this, each individual must live alone in the wilderness as a right of passage until they can prove that they are connected enough with the land to thrive in this eco-conscious society. You are undergoing this right of passage and, in order to succeed, you must find golden meditation pods located in ruins in the three biomes of Enen; the jungle of the main Enen island, the forest of the Valley of the Giants and the snowy planes of The Great North. There are three ruins in each biome.
Let’s get the positives of Retreat to Enen out of the way first: the graphics are good and the premise is interesting. That’s it. The backstory as to why you’re on the island is really fascinating, and I loved the idea of humanity evolving to a point when it’s entirely devoted to preserving nature. Unfortunately, the intro narration is the only time when this will be brought up. The ruins that you discover are all just bits of leftover wall from an old building; there’s nothing to explore, no leftover camps from previous inhabitants of the island, and there’s not even a map so that you can see what’s out there to uncover. You’re just dumped in a forest, told to find some meditation points, and the rest of the game is staying alive and building a house. All good survival games, or even just the okay ones, offer some form of exploration aspect that makes you want to delve further into the wilderness and risk moving away from your camp. Green Hell gives you a map which marks off points of interest, Stranded Deep is made up of multiple islands with abandoned buildings and loot located on them, and even Minecraft offers procedurally generated locations filled with treasure to find and explore. Not in Retreat to Enen. There’s no loot to find other than the basic resources that nature has to offer, and the only thing that you’re going out to search for is the meditation pods. If your health gets too low then you have to be medically evacuated from the island, but we don’t even know what happens from there; do we just get laughed at by society, is it like a test that you can try a few times, or do you just get rejected and have to fend for yourself? Retreat to Enen feels like it has so much to offer when you first start the game, but you’ll quickly find out that it’s nothing but an empty shell of what could have been.
Following traditional survival game fashion, you must look after your statistics in order to survive; health, hunger, thirst and spirit. To manage these, you will look out for fresh water sources and food, all while protecting yourself from hostile wildlife and keeping a campfire going to stay warm. I found even these awkward in Retreat to Enen. If you get a leg of meat from an animal carcass, you can’t just cook that and eat it on its own, you need to gather ingredients for a whole recipe. You could be starving with an inventory full of game from a recent hunting trip, but won’t be able to actually eat it until you’ve located a single mushroom to complete your full English breakfast recipe. It was extremely frustrating and didn’t make any sense. Because fruit doesn’t fill your hunger bar up as much as protein products, 60% of my playthrough was wandering around and picking fruit which would only sustain me for a very short while.
‘Spirit’ is an annoying statistic as this requires you to meditate or consume certain items whenever your spirit gets too low. It feels like an odd thing to consider as a vital survival need. You could be bitten by a venomous snake, starving, and out in the woods in the freezing cold with your campfire nowhere in sight and your character will be like “oh no, I haven’t meditated in three hours”. If your spirit gets too low, then you’ll be unable to run and use your quantum tool to harvest certain materials. Your spirit metre will even cause your physical health to decline if it gets too low, which is just ridiculous. There are meditation pods set up around each biome, you can only use the same one once per day, but there are plenty around to alternate between. Meditation usually doesn’t take too long, you just have to stick around long enough for your spirit bar to replenish. Though sometimes I found myself stuck in guided meditation sessions, where I couldn’t leave the pod until the narrator was done rambling on about breathing and picturing yourself in a pleasant place. I found this extremely obnoxious and maybe a little pretentious too, especially when it was growing dark outside and I was away from camp, yet I had to wait until the narrator was done talking until I could leave.
As you collect materials, you’ll be able to use them to craft tools and build survival contraptions and buildings. Even this mechanic somehow manages to be finicky and annoying. For a start, you can’t pick up and move items once they’ve been built without dismantling them, which only gives back a few of the resources used to build the item. This is stressed even more by the fact that building pieces are awkward to snap into place, and half the time they’re jittering around in the air, even with the most basic of builds. I was only trying to make a very simple four-by-four hut and I couldn’t even manage that without standing around for ages waiting for a wall piece to snap into place. And if it moves at the last second and I’ve placed it in the wrong spot, then I have to dismantle it and lose some resources.
Even the crafting menu has its issues. You can pin recipes to your HUD, but this is the same button that you use to turn your torch on and off (unless you remap the buttons), so if you turn your torch on you’ll lose the recipe that you have pinned. I also found the ‘select’ noise really irritating, the bleep is quite loud and there’s no way to turn it off. Without much in terms of background noise or music, all you can hear coming from the game is a consistent bleeping every time you select something. I also noticed that once you have a recipe equipped to build, you’ll often drop it once the item has been generated. So, if you want multiple builds of the same item then you need to keep going back into the crafting menu and scrolling down the list to reselect it. There are not many categories either, so it’s mainly just scrolling through lists. On top of this, the fact that you have to traverse between three biomes means that you’re not consistently working on the same camp throughout Retreat to Enen. There’s no place to call ‘home’ unless you hang around the same biome for ages and each time you progress in the game and move to a different biome, you start again.
I also noticed there’s not really any growth in the building aspect. You only pick up the basic materials to craft with; sticks, rocks, dead plant fibre, clay, gemstones, and then sometimes the other biomes will have a few additional materials to try out. Because you’re not cutting down trees or farming, there’s no need to work towards getting certain tools. You’ll unlock new objects to craft each time you find a new ruin, but these are mostly just building parts, nothing to make harvesting materials any quicker or hands-free so that you have more time for the advanced stuff. Retreat to Enen’s marketing material shows off some remarkable builds that you can create using the crafting system and it displays a wide range of different styles and looks that you can generate. However, I didn’t get this far as I felt no desire to progress further than a basic house with only the necessities, especially because I had to start over twice in order to reach the end of the game.
Retreat to Enen’s gameplay not only lacks in the basic survival aspects of the genre but also trying to find the ruins isn’t very fun at all. There’s no way to tell where these are, and you also don’t have a map to mark off where you’ve already been. So, you end up just wandering aimlessly around the map, trying to rely on your memory and sense of direction to determine which areas remain uncovered. You have no idea how big each map is and, although you can place flags to mark off where you’ve been, the forest is so dense that you need a lot of these for them to actually be of help. There is a difficulty climb as the different biomes introduce new challenges and hostile wildlife to combat, though even this isn’t enough to pique your interest for longer than a few minutes.
Retreat to Enen starts off with an interesting premise which gives high hopes for a unique survival experience which sets it apart from other games of the same genre. Unfortunately, it also strips back anything enjoyable about survival games and serves up a bland experience. Why spend your time exploring ruins when you could be sitting in your fifth meditation pod of the day doing breathing exercises? There are also annoying glitches in most aspects of the gameplay, including the build function not snapping pieces together properly and sometimes the select option doesn’t appear over interactable objects, making you hang around and move back and forth until it works. Although Retreat to Enen looks visually gorgeous, it lacks an interesting level design, engaging gameplay, and even fails at providing a complete building experience. It forces you to abandon and move on from a project that you’ve worked hard on each time you progress to the next biome. Therefore you are only being able to stick around and work on a build if you stay in the biome without progressing in the game or returning to it later on, so you’re not naturally building a more advanced base as you journey to the main goal. The only reason it doesn’t completely fall flat is that it does run well aside from the few glitches, looks good, and there is the backbone for some creative building if you have the patience to stick around and work on it.
Jess reviewed Retreat to Enen on PC with a review code.