You can’t throw a stone (or bash a tree with it) in the direction of Steam without hitting at least half a dozen survival indie games. Minecraft, Rust, and Day Z brought with them not only zombies, logs, and collectible flint, but also a mixed bag of tag-along titles, ranging from the passably decent to the downright decrepit. Savage Lands, an indie survival game with a twist, attempts to bypass the traditional recipe by injecting bits of fantasy into the genre, but how well this works depends solely on DigitalDNA’s ability to bring it out of early-access.
Old, Cold, Naked and Bold
Savage Lands starts players off on the tranquil beach of a snowy island, providing few instructions and even fewer items of clothing (though it’s still not the Rust level of naked). Three meters and a beating heart at the top of the screen indicate levels of warmth, health, and hunger, and it will quickly become apparent that they are constantly on the downward spiral. In an effort to immerse players in the “act now or die” mentality of the survival genre, the game all but kills you within the first ten minutes if you fail to find fire and food immediately, an experience I found to be overwhelmingly distracting while trying to get a feel for the controls (which may be telling of my own mental capacity since walking, jumping, and bashing are basically your only options).
1,427 Logs and 8 Wolf Pelts Later…
The game features a typical hunt/gather/craft system that, for all intents and purposes, felt extremely undernourished in comparison to larger survival hits. While the lack of craftable options was hopefully due to the early-access status, the overall blandness felt like a huge hurdling block that won’t be easily overcome by adding more items. The availability and respawn rate of raw materials and useful/rare items was handy, however, if not a bit too generous, and the different kinds of items only available in certain regions necessitated pleasantly frequent hikes and sightseeing.
The arbitrary number of materials needed to craft one thing or another felt mismatched, and was most notably evident by how much easier it was to build a log cabin than a tiny lean-to. Along the same lines, while I appreciated the fact that I couldn’t just smash a tree down with a rock, but instead had to specifically use an axe to collect logs, the tools all decayed far too quickly, such to the point that mining became cost ineffective. Clunky building placement and the inability to destroy or salvage buildings or re-light spent fires was also a major drawback.
Sundered Isle: Population 1
Since the ‘Fantasy’ tag is really the only thing that separates Savage Lands from the majority of its Steam brethren, you’d almost think they’d try and cash in on the whole concept. While it’s true that I occasionally fought off armored skeletons and saw the ass-end of a dragon once, the amount of fantasy sprinkled into the game feels more like an afterthought. Sure, you can find ruined towers and burnt, olden-time towns if you hike far enough, but the population of mythical critters (both good and evil) was close to nil. While I could have livened up the place by opening my world to other players online, the fear of having all my hard-earned twigs stolen and my head caved in was too much to bare, so I left it at that and moved on.
Which, when I come to think of it, may be a good thing. While I would have liked to encounter more in the way of magical enemies or blood-thirty monsters, the combat system in Savage Lands was nuttier than a fruitcake. The word “Guard” must mean something special to the DigitalDNA crowd, because it certainly doesn’t follow the traditional Oxford definition. Circling enemies or attempting to dodge attacks is also laughably fruitless, and your attacks are about as menacing as a cool breeze on a warm summer’s day. Enemy attacks, on the other hand, deal massive loads of damage, even going as far as to take out half my health as I stood behind my aforementioned cabin’s front door. This is all the more insulting when you understand just how dopey the AI actually is, and I soon realized I could avoid confrontation altogether if I just hopped up on a boulder or hid in my house (away from the door, apparently) for ten seconds.
Sights and Sounds Worthy of the Dovahkiin
While the crafting may be bland and the combat impossible, the audible and visual aspects are actually fairly impressive. Though still a far cry from something like…well…the latest Far Cry, Savage Lands does its best to create an unforgiving wasteland for you to suffer in. The skybox graphics for night and day are absolutely stunning, and the inclement weather further immerses you in what I can only imagine to be a terribly cold place. The peaceful sounds of waves lapping against the shore, or elk calling out to other herds lulls you into a false sense of security, while the keening howls of wolves and gasping cries of skeletons bring you right back to life (or whatever’s left on your meters). Savage Lands, in its current state, is made tolerable by the well-crafted environment alone.
But Before I Go Die…
While a great deal of what I just wrote may sound a bit negative, it’s still worth mentioning that I wish this game all the luck in the world. An open-world survival game boasting legitimate fantasy elements would have my credit card number before I even pulled out my wallet. If DigitalDNA continues to pour in the same love and care that went into the graphics and audio, then Savage Lands will truly set itself apart from other indie-survivors and earn some well-deserved attention.
You can check out my first 40 minutes of play above, and some screenshots of the game and my progress below!