Game review: Crashlands for PC

Crashlands gives me fits trying to decide how to score it. The biggest hurdle I have in giving it a better score lies in several glitches and in the lousy controls, problems that frequently and consistently plagued my playthrough even when they weren’t always fatal.

Before I begin my review properly, I want to mention two things that are slightly related. First of all, I picked up this game because Kotaku ran such a glowing review about it, and the activities they listed certainly made it sound funny, fun, and unique. But–and this is what irks me–what they mention is all stuff that happens in the first half hour of what is a very, very long game. This would be like me doing a book review based off the first paragraph without finishing the rest of the book. (I’ll be returning to that book analogy again later for another issue.) It’s a pretty lousy review that is written even though you’ve not even made it to the first boss of the game. I know y’all are in a rush to do these things quickly, but damn, this is some seriously lazy reviewing, ya know? At least beat the first boss before you rush to the keyboard to gush.

The second thing I want to mention is that this is a cross platform game, and someone pirated the Android version and is selling it on Amazon’s app store as their own game. Whatever my feelings for the game are, this is so not cool, even before you take into account that one of the three brothers who made it has cancer. It takes a special kind of scumbucket to steal the hard work of an independent artist, but this particular scumpuppy stole it and then sold it as their own product. What the ever-lovin’ fuck, y’all.

These are not triple A developers with a few million in profits per game. They’re a group of guys who are doing something they love, and they need the money from every sale, especially right now. Moreover, these are not the folks charging 70 bucks for their game so poor little you can’t afford it. It’s 14.99, or 20 if you buy the PC version and get the mobile version from Apple or Android. If you still can’t afford this, don’t pirate it. It’s a video game, not a vital necessity like food. If you really must have it, save up the money and get it later.

(By the way, there is no Win Phone version, which is why I make no mention of the cross save or mobile features.)

Knowing this second thing in particular is what makes having to write a bad review that much harder, but I can’t lie and say I’ve come out at the ending with any positive feelings. But before I get to the problems I’ve had, I can at least cover what’s good in this game. For starters it’s certainly diverse, and big. The main character, Flux, is a “super genius” whose college bills combined with an economic depression led her to working as a space truck driver. (A basic premise that’s realistic if I take anecdotal evidence from my college graduate associates into account.) During one of her deliveries, an alien floating head shoots down her spacecraft over a primitive planet. Once stranded, Flux must find a way to radio HQ and request a pick-up. (Though this quest soon expands out with lots of sides quests, as most RPGs do.)

There’s humor in the game, and while a lot of it is trying too hard, some of it can be charming. Quite a lot of it relies on the standard indie nod to pop culture references, but there’s others that require a bit more nerdy familiarity with science and history to get. It’s a fun diversion trying to sort out if that animal name is a riff off of the Ermagerhd meme, or whether the planet’s name is a play on Roanoke, or sorting out that plonktan is actually plankton. This sort of fun is all over the game, like a character named Riikrol, (I think they missed a golden opportunity by not having him pledge never to give up on Flux. But maybe that’s just me.) and an entire race of whales who apparently communicate long distance using dub-step.

Even setting aside the humor, there’s a lot to like in many of the side stories, and a few characters’ story arcs were genuinely touching. One particular character has cameos in every region of the game, and their final exit left me feeling warm and fuzzy for having helped them. For a game built mostly around puns and name jokes, that’s pretty good writing to make me feel something for a briefly seen NPC.

The game is HUGE. No, I mean HU-UGE. There’s three regions, each quite massive, and each with its own unique ecosystem. If one were to attempt to uncover the entire map for just one region, I think it might take several months to do so. Scattered across these lands are animals to hunt and resources to collect so that Flux can craft new armor, weapons, and workstations. Additionally, Flux can take an egg from each animal and raise a pet to fight with her. Some of these pets are useless as fighters, but feeding them will always produce items vital to crafting something you need. So much like Pokemon, you gotta catch them all eventually. (Fortunately, there’s not that many per region, and all the variations come in color variations of the same six to seven beasts.)

What you don’t need is food, a plot device conveniently explained away by the nano-suit Flux is wearing. Think of Samus’ power armor minus the cool gun. It will store her tools and keep her fed and hydrated indefinitely. It has no armor rating though, so you have to keep crafting new gear to wear over the suit. It also has no weapons, which seems a bit odd to me. I mean, space trucking probably carries with it a high risk of space piracy. So, why no guns? Because reasons, I guess.

The RPG elements are almost non-existent, as the only real choices you get come in deciding which gadgets and trinkets you will wear. There’s a limit of four slots, and a much larger number of toys to plug in. I don’t see this as a problem because you can always swap out items you need, provided you aren’t in combat. So, say you need a little lure to make extra fish appear in each fishing hole. Well you can swap out this other trinket that gives you an extra 10% chance of casting fire damage with your attacks. Then once you’re done fishing, you can swap them back. Easy, at least until you’ve got a lot of trinkets to sort through.

And now we start to run into the first problems. You’ll note that I mentioned Flux being a “super genius” in quotes, and that’s because this is something mentioned in the manual, but is never really seen in the game. She crash lands on a planet where half the animals have some kind of ranged attack or a charge that makes melee fighting deadly. Early on, she finds gunpowder and resin capable of fashioning a gun, but she never does. She relies primarily on pointy sticks, and it’s not until several days into the game that I met NPCs who suggested making ranged weapons. The primitive locals have an extremely limited grasp of technology, but even they can sort out “hey, wouldn’t it be great to shoot something from a distance?” (There’s few other ranged weapons given out during the later regions, but one thing I liked was that the damage done by them was always 100% of my current melee DPS. In this way, every new weapon built gave a little damage boost to my poison darts, flamethrower, and “fingerang.” (And while I’m struggling to find good things to mention, the fingerang was awesome because I could sometimes manage to hit an enemy twice with the same attack flying out and coming back.))

The ranged weapons would be great if the controls weren’t so consistently awful. I could often click on an enemy and watch Flux run up armed with her little dart gun or flamethower, and then she’d run past the range of the weapon. If I didn’t click away to move her, she would happily go stand beside the creature and get mauled. It isn’t that I missed with my targeting click. When you select an enemy in the game, a red circle appears under them to confirm that you’ve targeted them. Missing them would result in a white circle on the ground nearby indicating a travel target. (While selecting a resource to harvest results in a green circle. At least visually, the interface is helpful.) I lost track of how many times I was fighting something that could kill me in one hit, watching with growing agitation as Flux again and again failed to use a ranged attack even though I could clearly see I’d clicked on the enemy and targeted them. Even if I had out her latest pointy stick, she would still walk up to the creature and stand there without attacking, waiting like a dumbass to be slaughtered.

This one problem alone is enough to wreck my appreciation of the game, but then there’s the nonsense with the inventory. The game boasts that there is no inventory, only a contextual variety. Which is to say, you can’t check to see how much of any raw item you have without tracking a schematic requiring it, or checking the left hand side of the screen while harvesting it. The updates fade really fast, so if you miss seeing the updates and you aren’t tracking that schematic, you’re stuck without a reference on how much you need of any one item.

The other problem with this idea is that the workstations you use to craft are themselves inventory menus, and instead of unifying everything within Flux’s nano-suit, crafting often requires wasting time moving back and forth between stations just to make one item. The process can also be made more time consuming if you can’t remember which station was responsible for a certain recipe, so you have to wander back and forth trying to find it. Okay, it’s here on this station, and you don’t have this one item. Oh, that item must be harvested from a domesticated pet. Oh, you don’t have a rare item you need to feed the pet, so instead of tracking the one assembled item you need, now you can only track the food item you need to harvest for your pet.

What I’m saying is, in the act of trying to simplify inventory management, this system actually makes the process more complicated. Additionally, there is an inventory for devices, gadgets, and trinkets that can be accessed from the character menu. See the problem? It’s not true that there’s no inventory. There’s an expanding number of inventories, each with their own separate menus.

AND there’s a problem with all of these menus that clicking the back button will sometimes randomly minimize the game to your desktop, and instead your mouse click will activate another program on your taskbar.

AAAAND after playing for just a few minutes, the game sometimes stops allowing me to click on items in the workstations unless I find one pixel that still works. Exiting and restarting clears this up, but it happens frequently enough to be irritating.

AAAAAAAAAND there’s a memory leak, meaning that the longer you play, the slower the game lags until it pops a dialog box that you’ve used up all your memory.

It should also be mentioned that sometimes an animal and a plant are standing very close to each other, and the mouse will flat out refuse to recognize the one you actually clicked. Why is this relevant? Because lots of animals don’t get aggressive unless you attack them first. So, let’s say you need that ultra rare resource right next to some critter that can kill you with one hit, and which your current pointy stick won’t even tickle. Well you go click on that resource, and the game will instantly make the animal aggressive even before you’ve taken a swing at it.

God help you if you do swing at it and your pet gets involved, because many pets have a wide range attack that will draw the aggression of more and more animals. In MMORPG terms, you’ll soon be kiting around with an army of pissed off animals, all of them with their own patterns of attacks. So you either give up and pull a Monty Python and “RUN AWAY!” or you die horribly, trampled by all the animals your pet pissed off.

Let’s see, what else? Ah, right, the day/night cycle. This is a very short cycle, which shouldn’t seem like a problem except at night several more critters come out, and almost all of them are aggressive without provocation. Let’s say you need a certain rare item from a creature that’s extremely high-level. Regardless of whether you opt for melee or ranged fighting, this will invariably lead to a fight so long, you head into the night and find yourself attacked by a large number of critters you don’t have the hit points or the DPS to deal with. Your only option is to run away, head back to HQ and use the bed to skip to the next day cycle. This will reset the health of the creature you’re hunting and can mean several failed attempts just to kill one beast.

But so you finally kill it, aaaaaand yet the RNG decides not to drop that one ultra-rare item you needed. So now you have to wander aimlessly for anywhere up to several hours looking for another one of these bastards, unable to fight any of the surrounding critters because they’re all too high level for you, and often unable to even harvest resources because you need a better tool to do so. Then it’s all walking all the time, and it’s boring, boring, boring; dull, tedious, and not at all fun.

This is without mentioning how schematics drop in crates from all sorts of encounters, but often the tool or weapon you need won’t come up. Instead you’ll get a flood of junk plans. When you need a better saw or a better sword, the last thing you want to see is another potted plant or piece of furniture you can’t even use. You finally do get the tool plan you need, which leads to more busy work gathering resources and alternately running for your life from giant beasties who can end you with one hit. And yeah, eventually you reach a point where you have enough resources to craft whatever you want. But just when you reach this point is when you will move to a new region to start the whole wandering crawl all over again.

I really didn’t think there was any other way to annoy me as I neared the end of the game, but I was so, so wrong. The second to last boss is virtually immune to everything except your pointy stick. Picture it: you’ve spent two days in real world time harvesting stuff to build these newer bigger bombs, and they’re useless when you need them most. You spend just as much time training a pet to get it to an “epic” level of size, and every attack it does unleashes a stream of zeroes. Your newer, bigger weapon barely nicks the fucking paint job of the boss you’re facing, and every one of his guided missiles and guided lasers hit you for almost all of your health. Oh, and the boss has a flaming wall that swipes horizontally and vertically every four seconds, so good luck even getting in one hit before you’re dancing around doing nothing but losing health.

My solution to this scenario was to load up every last slot in my hotbar with health potions, walk up to the boss, and beat him to death while guzzling potions like a frat boy at a keg stand. It’s not elegant, but it worked.

Which got me up to the final boss fight, where the enemy has one-shot one-kill lasers in two patterns, drones armed with lasers, mines that cover most of the floor, a tractor beam that can pin you down, and health pods that can help it recover hit points until you destroy them. When the boss gets tired of shooting at Flux, he can also hop around and do a crushing attack. Yep, that’s pretty much instantly fatal, too. So there’s no standing still and using health potions. There’s no pattern to exploit because the boss is literally throwing everything at you all at once. If you manage to drop a quarter of his health, your reward is that he now drops three and four health pods. So you can watch bitterly as what little damage you did is quickly erased and you are back at square one.

This is the point when I said, “Fuck you, I’ll YouTube the ending.” Only, I can’t. Nobody as of yet has made it to the end as far as I can tell. Or at least, no one has done it in a Let’s Play video.

But ultimately, I stopped caring about seeing the ending. I got tired of fighting the controls just to score one hit on enemies. I got tired of having to fight one enemy for ten minutes, only to find out the game decided to deny me the item I desperately needed, AGAIN.

Oh, and I forgot to mention how often quests have no specific goal or marker. You’re given a task to locate an item that’s out there somewhere, and the only way to find it is to search random locations. You might need to fish a battery out of a lake. (Took me five days to do so.) You might need to pick up space trash, again by fishing in random lakes. (Two days. In real time. Who thought this was a good idea?) But the capper to this kind of nonsense was locating a creature hidden in geysers in the last region. I’ve spent five days looking in these damned holes, and I’ve never seen it. I made a freaking garden of geysers to try and increase my odds of finding it, and it’s never happened.

For every little bit of goodwill I’ve felt toward the story, the diversity, and the scope of the game, I’ve been hampered by the controls and glitches, and by the long, long stretches of doing nothing because I haven’t got the right schematic or item yet. Even after I’ve finally upgraded to the next newest weapons and armor, the improvement is often so marginally small that the only way to appreciate it is to port back a region and stomp down some formerly high-level beasts. While this is somewhat satisfying, there’s no real point to it because most resources from one region are not all that useful in the others.

Finally, there’s another gotcha to crafting and RNG, and that’s the quality and stats on your armor and weapons. You can potentially get a new item that’s really crap, and the only way to fix that is to go out and grind for all the items again. But you can potentially reroll the same item a dozen times and still not end up with a decent set of stats. It got to the point where I just gave up and took whatever I got on the first roll because I didn’t want to suffer through another ten hours of grinding just to get a similar result.

I actually feel terrible giving Crashlands 2 stars, because it’s so huge, and it’s made by this small crew who obviously put a lot of love into their work. I can identify with their problems and I almost wish I could lie and say something like, “A charming contender for game of the year!” But that’s never been my style to lie, and I can’t say I enjoyed this game very much. I certainly wanted to because the story and the world are great. But the controls and the interface–my tools for accessing the world–are so sub-par that I cannot enjoy most of my time in this game. I might have had a better time if I could have used a controller, or if I could have modified the controls to let me move with the keyboard. But even setting that aside, I kept wishing I could somehow unify all these damned menus into one actual inventory screen. Sure it might be a bit messy, but it can’t be worse than walking from one workstation to the next trying to find that one new schematic I just unlocked. (But didn’t see which station it came from because I was busy dodging lasers and ice crystals.)

I want to return to that book analogy for anyone who thinks I am being unfair or too harsh. Let’s say you buy a book from me, and on every page you find typos. Not just random strays, but the same consistent mistakes in grammar and spelling on every page. It doesn’t matter if the story is really good and it’s the most detailed and fantastic idea you’ve come across. After a few chapters, it’s not going to be the world or the characters you notice. It’s not the setting that you’re going to mention to others. No, it’s all those mistakes. You’d be right to do so because that book needed to be polished better before it went on sale. If all you can see are my mistakes, it’s my fault for not putting in the work to make it worth your time and money.

In conclusion, to the makers I have to say, I’m sorry for knocking your baby around like this. I wish you all the best on your next project, but I can’t lie to you, and I hated most of my time in Crashlands. It needed more time in early access to work out the kinks, and I’m sorry, but I can’t see the great things you’ve accomplished because I’ve reached the point where the mistakes are tainting my view.