Review: Crashlands28 Jan 2016 0
Released 21 Jan 2016
One day the fearless genre blenders of game design will run out of raw materials to recombine. On that day gaming will either die or be reborn anew but, until then, we can have an awful lot of fun with genre-mixing titles like Crashlands.
Crashlands is a survival crafting game in the vein of Don't Starve, except the developer sucked all the survival out--like stuffing from a Chester plushie--and replaced it with action RPG. And possibly some straw. Either way it's a lot more cuddly than Klei's bleak starvation simulator.
Stranded on an alien planet with only a talking juicebox for company you must somehow retrieve three lost packages and get back on your way. To do so you'll need lots of tools and for those you need a tool station and appropriate raw materials. Get enough wood and sawgrass, for example, and you can build a sawmill. The sawmill will let you build wooden armour, weapons, walls and the like until your base looks like a new-age craft store.
There are no inventory limits in Crashlands and most tool and weapon switches get done for you automatically. If you tap on a tree, your saw will magically appear ready to cut it down. Thumb a slab of rock and the pickaxe will spring from nowhere to take its place. Plus you can collect and carry as much wood, rock and everything else around with you as you like.
That alone makes surviving a whole lot easier. The fact you don't have to worry about hunger and thirst reduces it to a walk in the park. The fact there's no permadeath makes it lying in comfy bed in an ornamental garden. If you should, perchance, die somehow, all you need do is return to your gravestone and pick up all the junk you had in your pockets. A system of interlinked teleporters makes that, and all movement around the vast map, quick and easy.
So, what is there to challenge the discerning strategy fan?
The answer is a menagerie of bizarre yet appealing alien animals. As delightful as many appear, all of them seem to want to kill you. Which is fair enough since most of the time you'll be wanting to reduce them to spare parts to build another widget or weapon.
In combat, foes telegraph the area where they're going to attack with a nice clear red mark, a most handy evolutionary trait for the stranded astronaut, it is. Combat is thus about closing in to smash the enemy over the head with the biggest weapon you have, then dodging madly away from the red lines while also trying not to dodge close enough to nearby animals to bring them into the fray.
It's more difficult and frantic than it might sound. An awful lot of those awful animals have an awful lot of awful hit points. If you die, you might just respawn but you'll have to start chipping away at their health again from scratch. This makes each clumsy ballet of bashing and diving fraught with delicious tension, knowing that one mistake can lead to you having to do it over again. With some of the longer, tougher boss fights, that's quite a bit of motivation.
There are healing items to help you. Some you can pick up and use or keep to later recombine into better ones at a crafting station. You can also brew potions to speed you up or make you hit harder. There are bombs to stun or splash damage. All in all, there's a pleasing amount to consider as you frantically weave in and out of stomping Wompit feet.
As you unlock more and more items to craft, however, a certain sense of deja vu creeps into proceedings. Some of the items don't have much effect except cosmetic ones. Many of the one-shot combat items aren't that helpful compared to just bashing the target with your weapon. Most notable of all, once you've upgraded your weapons and armour, there's zero value in going back to an older version. When you craft items they do get a range of minor random bonuses plus an amusing name, and there are one-off materials for legendary items to stumble upon. That said, this one-way march of progress does get stale, and feels like a missed opportunity for the devs to drop in a little extra strategy.
Despite that, the sheer charm of the game is easily enough to drag you to the top of the upgrade tree. The plot is so much nonsense but then again so is the setting, the dialogue, and all the characters. There are jokes galore, in which running gags keep bobbing to the surface like fart-filled balloons. Somehow, all that daft content coalesces into a unique and believable alien world.
What glues the whole thing together are the quests that propel the plot along. Most are just variants on "go here, kill/collect that" but they're gift-wrapped in the trappings of an alien culture. On one, you'll be bearing remains to grieving relatives as part of a funerary custom. In another you'll be uncovering the sinister truth behind a childhood myth. You can even get closer to life on this engaging, silly world by keeping some of its inhabitants as pets. At its best, it can feel like digital tourism on a far-flung planet.
Sometimes the narrative stutters due to the need to grind and upgrade your tools and items, and you'll remember that what you're playing is just an artfully disguised Skinner box. As you're ploughing over unexplored savannah in search of Glutterfly eggs, however, you'll realise it doesn't matter because it's a hell of a disguise.