Review: Savage Lands

Store page / View this review on Steam

The explosion of survival games in recent years has been fascinating to watch, because everyone has a different idea about what makes them appealing. There are some like Subnautica that go light on the survival elements to emphasize exploration and building in a vibrant world. Then there are others like The Long Dark that push you to learn and master the mechanics to survive in brutal conditions. Savage Lands appears to go in a third way, opposite the ones I just mentioned, and I’m not really sure that’s the best direction to strike out in.

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Savage Lands casts you as an outcast, sent to the frozen reaches of not-Skyrim presumably to die. You can customize your waxy, lumpy character with mohawks and tribal tattoos before embarking upon your exile, but harbor no illusions of making Goku or Kanye West with the handful of options present. Once you arrive in the arctic wasteland you’re given a laundry list of survival tasks that act as a tutorial, directing you to chop wood, gather stones, and hunt animals. It doesn’t actually tell you HOW to do these things or WHERE to find them, but I was able to puzzle them all out in fifteen minutes or so.

From there you’re on your own. The landscape is helpfully dotted with ruins of shacks, cabins, and villages which you can repair with the right resources. This makes a good first goal once you find your footing, working your way up the extensive structure tree from workbenches to smelters in order to patch up your new home. In the meantime you’ll have to attend to your survival, represented by two bisected gauges. The top one is health/temperature, restored with bandages and fire, and the bottom is stamina/hunger, restored by eating and not running around all willy-nilly. It’s arranged in this way so that hunger and temperature can eat into your other resources if left unchecked, which becomes a major consideration in blizzards or on long treks.

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As you scavenge across the land you’ll find notes scattered about that give bits of lore or hints at how features like armor work. You’ll also find quite a few points of interest like ruined forts and towers that usually contain some loose tools to appropriate. The other thing you’ll find are monsters, and in no short supply. Your starting area is mostly populated with rabbits, deer, and the occasional brittle skeleton that needs to be smashed. Travel more than a hundred meters in any direction, though, and you’ll have wolves tearing your throat out. Preparation is a must for longer journeys, as just one tough foe getting the drop on you can spell disaster. They won’t give up once they spot you, either, a fact I was distressed to learn after leading a wolf back to my camp.

There’s plenty more to be distressed about, too. Creatures in the world have some of the worst collision and hit detection I’ve ever seen, vibrating through rocks and walls and hitting you from a yard away. If you’re not beating on monsters you’ll probably be beating on mineral deposits, because mining is key to progression and takes a ridiculously long time to dig out anything more valuable than coal. Other resources like clay are bound to be a complete mystery unless you try literally everything or consult a wiki. And in a perfect example of how little quality-of-life there is here, a basic container to place in the world takes fairly advanced materials to make, meaning all your junk is going to be sitting in a pile in the snow for a few hours until you can finally craft a fucking wooden chest.

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I would be more willing to stick out the rough gameplay if the game had some other appeal, but it really, really does not. You may have noticed that the screenshots on the store page have a lot of similar daytime scenes. That’s because this is probably the grayest game I’ve ever played, and that’s counting stuff like LIMBO. The world is almost completely devoid of color; the snowfields are gray, the foliage is brownish-gray, the stonework is blueish-gray, even the monsters are all grays and browns. There’s not much detail to the models either, and the animations tend to be slower and stiffer than you’d expect.

There’s certainly potential in Savage Lands, but it won’t be realized without some major overhauls that probably aren’t within the scope of the project. The visuals are a dreary mess and the progression is needlessly tedious and complicated. And even if you come to grips with that, you’re likely to be eaten by a wolf or a dragon and spat out to the main menu. I get the appeal of open-world survival Skyrim but this is missing so many simple balance and accessibility elements that I don’t know how you get there from here. If this game ever shapes up I’ll revisit the frozen hells therein, but until then I have little interest in sticking it out.

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