Video Game Review: Crashlands

I don’t know where or when the “survival” sub-genre of video games originated, but some days it seems like they have taken over the entire hobby. Every indie designer with access to Unity and Steam seems to think they have a unique idea for a video game where you start with nothing, gather and build items and tools over time, build up a base, farm resources, fight against hunger, darkness, dangerous creatures, and try to last as long as possible… and these features are even creeping into massive, mainstream triple-A games. Don’t get me wrong, there are some really great survival games, going back to Minecraft or even further. And some of these mechanisms are inherently interesting. Things like inventory management, resource conservation, exploration, and avoiding unexpected dangers are combined into the survival sub-genre, and some of the games have unusual twists that make them worth playing even if you don’t enjoy the survival aspects.

Some people would call Crashlands, from Butterscotch Shenanigans, a survival game. It presents itself as such, in a way: you start with very little, and you must gather resources from around the map, build them into tools, farm, fight monsters… you see where I’m going. It’s a top-down interpretation of the genre, in the vein of Minecraft or Terraria, but it’s easier, more accessible, and “mission-driven” in ways that many other survival games are not.

I’ve been playing Crashlands on my iPad, and the controls are easy to manage. Everything works as you would expect. While the on-screen display is minimal, it communicates what it needs to clearly, so moving, fighting, and using your items is straightforward. In fact, people used to the more complicated dance of tool-swapping might be a little underwhelmed: almost everything you do in the game is context-based. There is only really one action button. When you are near a tree, you automatically switch to your tree chopper. When you are near an enemy, you switch to your monster chopper. Next to a workbench? The building screen comes up. It streamlines a process that, for some, is an important part of playing well, but for me, has always just been another hassle.

The game involves exploring the land around where your spaceship crashed in order to find the necessary components to fix it and get on with a special delivery you were making. Along the way, you meet any number of native creatures of the planet on which you crashed, and they not only give you quests (which are mostly either killing other inhabitants of the planet or gathering components and building something), but they actually have a bit of a personality, and the story, although not compelling, is competent and sometimes humorous. So, if you play Crashlands, you are going to spend a lot of time wandering around the map and gathering, interspersed with some silliness and groan-worthy puns. Does this work as a game?

Sort of. There are a lot of things to gather and build, seemingly countless tiers of quality for each type of component, which you then use to make armor, weapons, and equipable or one-use items. You can construct and decorate bases, grow farms, and hatch and raise combat pets, all using components you find from hacking around the map and killing monsters. You start with wood and grass, and soon the cycle repeats with slightly different items using stone, and it repeats again, and again, and again, each time providing you new basic elements to build with, a new crafting table, and a new set of monsters to grind… The progression of the game, both mission-driven and personal goal-driven, began as a fun diversion, but quickly, the repetition set in harder than any other survival game I have played.

Let me address the “survival” aspect for a moment: in Crashlands, you are unconcerned about food, or water, or shelter, any of the traditional dangers you might want to avoid. Your items don’t degrade, you never feel “short” on anything you need, and past the initial wonder of starting up the game, you rarely feel endangered by anything. You do have to be aware of the monsters than creep slowly around the map as you explore, and there are some really frustrating moments where a giant, high-level version of a firefly or bat just destroys you… but even when you die, you don’t feel the tension of loss. Death sends you back to your home, and you simply need to wander back to where you died to gather the components you were carrying that you lost. It is less a survival game than it is a low-difficulty adventure game in the clothing of survival.

And that’s a shame.

I discovered Crashlands looking for a game that was going to reward long-term commitment, and feature lots of content to discover as I played, but the fact is that breadth is substituted for depth in almost every circumstance, and heavy-handed direction in the form of missions is substituted for a genuine feeling of discovery. Here’s an example: there are tons of different suits of armor you can construct, but they are randomly generated and relatively indistinct in play… I played the same tactics and approaches without regard for the armor I carried and it didn’t seem to affect my success. And you basically have to build all of the stuff that is available, checking the items off like a list, so there aren’t many meaningful decisions there either. Do I do X or do I do Y? Well, your either only have X as a choice, or the game is going to ask you to do both X and Y as part of a quest.

Despite the ease and humor of the game, the promise that there would be any sort of challenge is, at best, misdirection. Sure, you can screw up in a fight, dodge wrong and bite it. But outside of that? You grind. Then the numbers get bigger, and you grind again. Everything becomes an indistinct amalgam of surface-level features from other games that are actually challenging, surprising, and fun. But Crashlands, in my experience, never reached that height.

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