Crashlands

Harvesting and crafting stuff is all the rage in video gaming nowadays. If you look at a cross section of the indie titles that are coming out on Steam in any given week, you are bound to see a game or two that involves collecting lots of raw materials so that you can build a base and some weapons.  St. Louis-based Butterscotch Shenanigans has now added their own take on this genre into the mix with their recent release, Crashlands. Fans of games like Don’t Starve, Minecraft, and even Nom Nom Galaxy will feel right at home with this title, but that doesn’t mean that it's not bringing anything new to the table.  Between its colorful scenery, humorous dialog, and alien elements, Crashlands has plenty of unique qualities that separate it from the pack and make it quite enjoyable right away.  The game has a lot of the pieces in place to be a great experience, but it also unfortunately grows repetitious and tiresome a long time before it is over.

In Crashlands, you play as Flux, an interstellar package delivery robot.  One day, as you are in space travelling past a random planet, an evil overlord steals an important component from your ship and causes it to crash.  Stranded in a strange world and needing to get those packages to their destination on time, you set to work, gathering whatever you can while defending yourself from all sorts of hostile monsters.  In the meantime, you encounter a large cast of colorful NPCs who, of course, have no shortage of favors to ask you for.  In return, they reward you with loot, recipes, or progression in the story.

The core gameplay in Crashlands is the harvesting and collecting of materials, which you then assemble into tools, wearable items, consumables, or decorations.  These materials can be plants that you just pick right off the ground, hard items that you have to break with an advanced tool, or drops from creatures that you kill.  As you craft better weapons and armor, you can defeat more powerful creatures and thereby gain access to more powerful crafting tables.  You can also find giant eggs and craft a hatchery for the various creatures that you encounter, allowing you the possibility to take a pet with you as you travel the lands.

These elements are not unique to this game. Where Crashlands separates itself from the pack is with its beautiful assortment of colorful environments, creatures, plants, creature parts, gizmos, and junk that you encounter as you play.  For the most part, the game makes a terrific first impression.  Arguably its greatest achievement is the world that it builds.  Immediately when you step onto the planet, you sense what a unique and alien place it is. Crashlands does not sport any high end technology, but it is very easy on the eyes and it benefits from a lot of quality artwork.  Another area where Crashlands differs from most games of this type is in its humorous dialog and focus on story, which is more or less linear.  The story itself isn’t memorable, but the dialog between you, your companion Juice Box, and the NPCs that you encounter along the way are good for at least a few chuckles.  The game’s lighthearted atmosphere will provide you with a fresh change if you are burned out on all of the “dark” and “gritty” games that dominate the landscape today.

Besides the story, combat against increasingly difficult creatures is the main motivation behind upgrading your tools, weapons, and armor. There are about a dozen categories of creatures in the game, each with their own unique attack patterns and drops.  To defeat them, you generally use hit-and-run tactics, whacking them a couple of times and then running away from a danger zone (highlighted for you in red) before they can retaliate.   The enemies sport a fairly wide variety of tactics, although they generally boil down to doing some sort of short-ranged area of effect attack.  As an open world game, Crashlands is perfectly content to let you wander wherever you want to go, including areas where you are so hopelessly underpowered that you will get killed in a single hit.  Wisely, the game does not punish you severely for death – you immediately respawn with most of your goodies and a portion of your health, and you need only do a corpse run to get the rest.

It isn’t horrible by a long stretch, but combat is where some of the game’s design flaws start to appear. One of the game’s biggest sins, if not the biggest, is its control scheme.  All movement is done by pointing and clicking with the mouse.  There is no option for WASD movement, nor is there an option to use a controller, which would fit the action-oriented combat perfectly.  A lot of the enemies that you encounter, or at least the ones that have worthwhile drops, are highly dangerous and require quick movements in and out of attack range.  This type of combat is clumsy with pure mouse movement and would be much more enjoyable if it provided a control setup similar to that of a game like Don’t Starve.  Lots of enemies that you encounter are also brutal and can kill you in one or two hits even when you have the best available equipment.   These tough enemies may require more than fifty hits to destroy, which makes fighting them a tedious and frustrating experience.  It is not a minor flaw either, since combat is a big part of what is ultimately a long game – you will fight upwards of hundreds or even thousands of creatures by the time that the end credits roll.

The control issues are part of a larger problem, which is that Crashlands was clearly designed to be friendly for mobile devices.  These types of games make you appreciate the nuances of games that were designed to take full advantage of the mouse and keyboard.  For instance, Crashlands also only allows you to hotkey four items, as opposed to the ten allowed by games that use all of the number keys.  This issue becomes annoying as your inventory piles up with dozens of different useful items that will likely end up forgotten as you rotate just a few items in and out of your hotbar.  Furthermore, the inventory has no drag-and-drop feature, but instead requires more mouse clicks than should be necessary to change your hotkey items or put on a new helmet.  As your time in the game adds, up, so do those extra mouse clicks.  The Early Access movement on Steam has attracted a lot of criticism, but Crashlands is a game that would have benefitted from some sort of public beta where these types of little problems can be brought to light before release.

Tedium and repetition are ultimately what bring down Crashlands, from a game that is delightful at first, to one that you may have mixed feelings about by the end.  The world of the game is absolutely massive, but it is packed with a lot of copied and pasted content and randomly spawning (and respawning) monsters.  In addition, some of the items that you will want to build require an obscene amount of materials.  In some cases, they require 100 or more of a certain item, or one of an ultra-rare item that is next to impossible to find.  For instance, upgrades for your pet may require you to kill an epic creature, which rarely ever spawns.  In my game I spent an hour looking for one of these creatures, only to find one of them.  That creature then killed me a long, drawn out fight.  I quickly returned to the area, eager for a rematch, only to find that it had despawned.  After that, I gave up, having wasted a lot of time in the process.

Crashlands also perhaps suffers from having too many different raw materials, many of which become obsolete after a few hours.  Some of the genius of a good crafting game comes from having core resources that never become irrelevant, like iron in Minecraft or grass in Don’t Starve.  In this game, you progress through materials much like you progress through the story.  Rare and valuable materials eventually become abundant and worthless once you have crafted the most valuable equipment that you can make with them.  Much of the game’s crafting system is also squandered on cosmetic improvements to your base like walls, furniture, and doors.  These elements are the game’s attempt at integrating user creativity into the experience, but Crashlands doesn’t give you any motivation to use them.  Since your goal in the game is to escape from this planet, it is practically begging you to not make yourself at home.  Instead, it encourages you to just adopt the practical approach of just crafting what helps you progress through the game while ignoring everything else.   The grinding nature of the resource collection does not help in this regard either.

In the end, the question is less about whether you will get some enjoyment out of this game, and more about whether you will want to finish it.  Crashlands has a lot of content, although much of it feels like padding and the story is guilty of loading up on fetch questing.  It is a quality title that gets a lot of core elements right, and its bigger problems (such as the interface and controls) can theoretically be fixed with a patch.  By the time that you reach hour fifteen in the campaign though, those problems will weigh heavily and test your tolerance for repetitive gameplay.  It is easy to appreciate the effort and creativity that went into this title, but it is probably one that you will want to tackle in thirty or sixty minute spurts.