Games are amazing, aren't they? I constantly try to reset my expectations and to remember how good we have got it these days. When I first starting gaming you could do a small degree in the time it took a game to load up. But as fabulous as our games are, there is a part of the equation often overlooked: the people behind the title screen. It is easy to forget these developers are real people like the rest of us, just trying to get by and make a crust. So while I am going to review Crashlands, I would also like pay homage to the incredibly moving story behind its creation.
Sam Coster is one of the ultra talented team at Butterscotch Shenanigans, along with his two brothers Seth and Adam. When Sam was told he had cancer everything changed for him but instead of feeling sorry for himself, he decided to channel all his creative entry into making ‘one more game’. Even when he didn't know the outcome of his treatment, this guy found the resolve to carry on working from his hospital bed. I won't even try to imagine the dark days and nights Sam must have gone through: but I do know that his story has inspired me to be a better person and to appreciate life that little bit more.
Crashlands is a title with a few main drives such as exploration, crafting and comedic quips. The game starts with you being pulled out of warp and attacked by a strange creature: sizing up the integral parts of your ship. You crash onto the planet below and thus embark on a quest to save your cargo and more importantly your delivery bonus.
Right from the off, it’s clear this game was a work of passion and intense dedication. From the often hilarious dialogue to the insane world design that screams personality, Crashlands has plenty going for it. If you watch the documentary about the developer (and I highly recommend you do) you can see these guys live and breath gaming: even helping organise local gaming meet ups and events. With the tools available to would-be gaming developers these days, it is to be expected that hundreds of ‘games’ now appear on a daily basis. The problem is most of these titles are shovelware that isn't worth the time of day. So it becomes an almost insurmountable task to sort the wheat from the chaff.
Crashlands stands out from the crowd in a few ways and the most obvious are its wonderful art design. Sam is the key artist in the team and so it is his creative mind that has brought the exotic creatures we see in Crashlands to life. Once you start to explore the space around the crash site you will bump into a whole manner of weird specimens.
The gameplay loop here is a relatively simple one and largely revolves around gathering resources and pushing your way up through the various tech tiers. Research plans drop off enemies/nodes and eventually, you will get the next workstation tier: which lets you build the corresponding set of armour, weapons and items. This then allows you to take on more challenging foes and thus the cycle repeats itself. To combat the mind numbing process of inventory management the team decided to get radical and remove it entirely. That's right: you have an unlimited inventory in Crashlands which also sorts itself. It’s amazing when something you have grown so used to is taken away: I initially hated this design choice. I remember texting my friend who had recommended I play the game and asking how I see how many pieces of wood I’m carrying. ‘You can't’ came the reply. After sulking for a while I decided to press on and now on reflection, it makes total sense.
The problem with infinity
One of my main criticisms with this game is that exploration isn't rewarding and the path through the story is set. Many times I would have a few quests on the go but would just start heading in a random direction. Mostly I would just walk for an hour, killing mobs and gathering resources. Occasionally I would find a structure of some sort but unless it was an active quest objective, it access would be barred. I think when a game gives you so much space you then need to fill it with fun things to do. Yes, you can fish, gather and bop creatures but after a while I found myself getting a little bored. Of course, this game isn't a survival affair and those looking to be huddled around fires or scraping protein from bug innards should look elsewhere.
As the game opens up you are given the freedom to place items on the ground, pretty much anywhere you like. With walls, doors and a whole manner of cosmetic items, you are gently encouraged to build. This is one area of the game I felt was under baked because while you can get creative there isn't a real reason to put hammer to nail. I would have loved it if the local wildlife would have attacked my abode thus creating the need to build strong walls and defences. With that said I have created a few killer bachelor pads for Flux and the process of creation was in itself fun.
Looting on the bus
I have owned an iPad since they were first launched and occasionally use it for gaming. I'm talking about Angry Birds, Plants vs Zombies and sometimes something more meaty like Limbo. However, prior to Crashlands, I have never actually played a game on PC and then on my iPad in a synchronised fashion. If you create an account on ButterScotch’s own servers you can then pick up the same save; no matter what system you are on. There are a few small differences between the versions, notably, you can see more of the game world on PC. With that said the experience is almost identical and even now as I type this review I’m playing Crashlands while watching the world go past in a coffee shop. Looking at reviews, it seems mobile orientated sites like Pocket Gamer, have been more enthusiastic about Crashlands and this makes sense. While mobile also has an avalanche of games being released every day, not many will scratch up to this quality. When looking from a PC perspective Crashlands can be compared to many survival romps such as Don't Starve. However, many of the survival elements are missing and so a comparison isn't entirely fair. I do prefer Kiels offering because it seems to have far more things to discover under the hood, such as tech trees and interactions between systems.
So the big question for PC gamers is this: does the integration between a game that runs on PC and Mobile damage either experience? This isn't an easy question to answer and if I was pressed I would say a little: but that comes with a huge caveat. Don’t just assume that Crashlands is a mobile game just running on PC, it is simply a game that can be played on both systems. More on from that: Crashlands has plenty of content to play through. There have been some moments I’ve wished for a better way to control my character but overall they way the different versions merge together is seamless.
The truth is that Crashlands isn't the best game I ever played and even with such an emotional history: I wouldn't disrespect its creators by giving false praise. However, it is a very good game and one which I think deserves high praise for some of the brave steps it takes. What is really exciting for me is the huge potential I can see within the team at Butterscotch Shenanigans. They have already created an impressive catalogue of games that just scream quality and fun.
Sam’s illness seems to have been a catalyst for these three brothers to step up a gear and start making bigger games. Like Sam says in the documentary, when you have a finite amount of time you really start to focus. I’m going to Gamescom next month and this is going to involve a good amount of travel. I have my own illness which means I may be immobilised at the conference and certainly for a few weeks afterwards. Games provide a wonderful distraction from pain and have shielded me through some of my own dark times. From now on when I’m on a bus or sitting in bed for weeks at a time: it will be Crashlands I’ll be reaching for.
Thank you for reading my retro review for Crashlands. This title was reviewed on PC, an iPad Pro and an iPhone 6. I would strongly urge you to watch the inspiring documentary about Sam and his brothers.