Savage Lands: Skyrim Meets Minecraft, Dragons’n’All

Forgive the prosaic X+Y headline but, y’know, it is. Savage Lands (released on Steam Early Access back in March, but suddenly doing rather well for itself in the charts) is built entirely from other game’s ideas, but in a such a way that I can’t help but think, “Yeah, of course that would be popular, and why didn’t anyone do it sooner?”

It’s also part of that ongoing trend of, “DayZ but with [dinosaurs/naked dudes etc],” which is either going to be a bounteous source of high concept, multiplayer open worlds which reliably top the Steam charts, or will prove to the subscription MMO of this decade and burn out any month now.

I increasingly approach these things with some cynicism, but Savage Lands has quite a lot going for it even in its initial early access state. It’s set in a low-tech, vaguely medieval land which might just have a touch of the Nordic to it. It definitely comes across a little like Skyrim without any NPCs, including regular snowfall and a bloody great dragon sat on a tower somewhere near the middle of its sizeable island. I somehow had missed that there were dragons in it until that point, so it was a lovely surprise, right up until the point I decided I should probably run away and hide.

As in Minecraft and a gazillion other survival titles, the heart of the game is tree-punching. Punch those trees! Leave no tree unpunched. That’s the key. Punch a few rocks while you’re at it. Punch enough trees and rocks and, in time, you’ll be suitably well-equipped to punch wild boars, wolves, angry skeletons and far worse. You know how it goes.

Many key resources are improbably scarce, however. It’s not as simple as see thing, punch thing, get thing, but instead requires active scouring of the environment for a cotton bush, a frost fern or a mineral-rich rock. All the while you’re losing heat and growing hungry, and often enough you’ll be ambushed by wolves or boars and left bleeding as a result. This is a game that’s trying damned hard to kill you at almost any given second.

There’s a critical hurdle to be jumped early on too, which is the acquisition of hide with which to make, well, everything. Armour, anything like a decent weapon, and most of all bows with which you can hunt deer. If you don’t have a bow, hunting deer is a difficult and slow process. You can sneak up on one, clobber it with a hatchet once, at which point it sprints off and you’ve got to hurtle after it until such time as it slows down, at which point you resume sneaking. You’ll need to do this several times just to get one piece of leather, and there’s every chance you’ll run right into something that’s all teeth and attitude in the process. It’s hard work, basically. And that’s Savage Lands all over. If your goal is to take on that bloody great dragon, resign yourself to a whole lot of graft first.

Fire management is key, too. You’ll freeze to death out there in the snowy wilds. and while carrying a DIY torch will keep the elements at bay to some degree, it’ll also reveal your whereabouts to prey and predators alike. So, at least in the early game, before you’ve built hardier clothes, a great deal of time is spent hanging around campfires waiting for your body temperature to recover after an outing. In a multiplayer game, these fires can become social hubs. Tired, wounded men (only male avatars so far, I’m afraid) hanging out, swapping tips, swearing about wolves or simply staring into the flames and waiting to be strong again. It reminds me a little of STALKER, and those roving bands of weary mercs who’d sometimes settle around a fire, sigh and play folk songs. Strangers in a strange place, and silent companionship makes it just a little easier.

All this is presuming you’re on a friendly server, at least. I haven’t braved the open PvP ones yet, but I imagine I’ll get the Trotsky treatment any time I try to rest. Given the general focus is survival rather than conquest there’s no pressing need to murder other players, but technically the same is true of DayZ, and we all know how that goes, don’t we? The game also drops small inducements to hunt your fellow man, such as a type of club which requires a human skull to craft. And no, you can’t use a skull harvested from the corpse of one of your earlier, failed attempts.

On friendly servers though, there’s a rare and pleasant air of companionship. The map has a derelict village players gravitate towards, where they hang out, swap knowledge and spare items and co-operate to restore the buildings. There’s no freeform construction, but fixed plots can be restored and used as storage and shelter, and more importantly lend you the sense that you’re not simply waiting for death in this lethal place.

Much of Savage Lands is deeply familiar, from the rush to reclaim gear from your corpse after a death to the way the crafting works and, of course, all that tree-punching (tree-hatcheting, to be specific). This is primarily applying a different theme to a now tried-and-tested survival structure, rather than meaningfully altering the experience. But it does have a wildness to it that many other such games lack; it isn’t really a game about fear and it isn’t even remotely wacky. It’s about surviving the elements, most especially the cold. The random animal and skeleton attacks definitely make it pay more than lip service to Skyrim’s wilderness, although it’s restricted to basic clobbering and arrow-shooting rather than crazy magic. For now, at least.

Part of me looks up the tech tree and sees nothing but ultimately meaningless work, but a bigger part of me takes enormous pride in simply making it through another night. Despite the dragon and despite the skeletons, in the main Savage Lands doesn’t feel at all fantastical. I can’t even hope to find canned goods: there is nothing but that which I make with my own hands. It’s difficult and unforgiving; death is frequent and requires constant resource management to avoid. Go into it because you want to give yourself fully to a survival fantasy, not because you want a playground to romp around in. That dragon’s more of a totem than a promise, I think.

As for early access aspects, after six months or so of development there’s quite a bit there and it’s been perfectly stable in my experience. I thought the interface was clunky and ugly, and I did have to turn off ambient occlusion cos it was killing my framerate, but otherwise all good. Multiplayer servers currently support up to eight people, but you can also play solo, Minecraft-style, and it completely works that way. Almost more so, in fact: that sense of being washed up somewhere unknown, alone and without any hope of help is critical to the fantasy Savage Lands is trying to evoke. The community I’ve encountered so far has been surprisingly pleasant, however. That won’t last, naturally, so if you’re curious you should probably explore Savage Lands sooner rather than later.

24 Comments

  1. salgado18 says:

    Thanks! I just found out about this game yesterday, and it was not covered by RPS.

  2. dawnmane says:

    Regarding what you’re saying about playing it in singleplayer: I feel the same way about ARK: Survival Evolved. It’s not really a deserted island if it’s full of other people.

  3. hollowroom says:

    Hmm. I’m definitely interested in the single player. One to keep an eye on I think.

  4. WdMeaun says:

    Thanks for this review.. Although I’m still completely unsure of where this game is going, I think I might try it tonight. (it’s on sale, it seems)
    I really, really, want a Rust like game for the PC.. only without someone like Garry leading it.
    (Garry gave ad-hoc a new meaning and I think Rust still hasn’t come close to something ‘stable’.. they probably done another rewrite by now, realising their ad hoc work didnt work.. again)

    Somehow the immersive visuals seem to do the gameplay well here.
    .. couldn’t help referring to another post.

    Also mostly in it for single player.. or at least non pvp online. Did not really enjoy the pvp players on DayZ and Rust. (both played for a little while)

    • OmNomNom says:

      You are disappointed in games explicitly designed for multiplayer because you (try to) play them single player.

      *waves hand* these are not the games you are looking for.

      Maybe try The Forest or (modded) Minecraft instead

      • WdMeaun says:

        Yea.. good point.
        I do enjoy playing online, but it would like it more, if the focus would be more on environment than other players.
        What I mean.. In the time I played Rust, before experimental, people would dedicated such an incredible time just to take another down.. it was undoable with a fulltime job.
        – Made quite a tall building against robberies to find out someone took a lot, and a lot, of time to get to that 1 tiny spot all the way up, I missed. (only the hauling of stuff would have taken a lot of time)
        It’s part of the game, but then decided it didn’t fit my time schedule.. and it went off to unplayable for me after the rewriting.

        – DayZ, was just too hectic for me. (I still absolutely love zombie apocalypse survival, but.. maybe movies should be the thing for me)
        – Space Engineers might actually do it for me later on. (even alone you could do huge things, if you know how to actual engineer ;) / no idea about Medieval Engineers
        – Life is Feudal had (didnt check up on it) great gameplay elements in it, but found the future plans completely vague and was too hard to accomplish something alone (given cooperation is a big thing in a game about making castles and whatnot) + Love Mount&Blade and got all ‘cept the Pirate one.
        – Savage Lands is too early for me to tell. I do like to say it looks like it has the right effort into it. Not finding a cutting tool 3x at start and not able to craft one is my reason not to continue at this moment :P

  5. Myrrmidonna says:

    Comparing it to Ark, that I picked up recently and fell in love with (with some reservations, though), I have a few questions, maybe one of you’d be able to answer:
    1. in multiplayer, does your body stay in the world when you’re offline?
    2. in single player – is it a normal game, or a bubble-world server that pops, never to be seen again, the moment you log out? If normal, does the time still pass while you’re logged out?

    • Kittychix says:

      Myrrmidonna, I can answer that :):

      1. in multiplayer, does your body stay in the world when you’re offline?
      No it does not. Your character joins and leaves worlds when you enter and exit them. You can also take whatever is on your person (in your inventory and/or hot bar) between a single player world, and a multiplayer world. It’s all stored in Steam Cloud.

      2. in single player – is it a normal game, or a bubble-world server that pops, never to be seen again, the moment you log out? If normal, does the time still pass while you’re logged out?
      It’s a ‘normal game’ as you are thinking, but time stops when you are not in it.

  6. 2late2die says:

    I’ve been enjoying Ark the last few days and this game popped up on my recommended list. It looks interesting, but considering how much of a time investment Ark is I just don’t think I’ll have any left for this one.

    I do have to say, I’m no necessarily a huge fan of this very heavy early access approach to these types of games. Or rather to be more precise, I understand why it started this way, but after all these games and after many people playing them I wonder, why hasn’t a developer come around to make a game like that with a proper backing from a publisher so that it’s more or less polished and complete (at least as complete as any game these days – with the DLCs, and patches, and expansions) when it comes out?

    Like I said, I’ve been enjoying Ark, but I kind of wish it wasn’t “alpha/beta”, you know? I wish the graphics were optimized so that I could run it at decent settings, I wish the recipes were complete, I wish the resources were balanced, I wish all of the critters were finalized, and just all that stuff you expect from a finished title.

    • Michael Anson says:

      I can think of at least two reasons. First, such titles tend to benefit greatly from increased involvement of the player base during development, helping guide things such as game balance and direction. Second, such games tend to add to the game in increments, erring more on the side of giving existing players more to do. This has the benefit of increasing the life cycle of the game, increasing its visibility and thus providing more development time/money for the developers.

    • PenguinJim says:

      ARK is a ridiculous time-hog, though – it’s needlessly time-sinky. You can accomplish so much more and have so much more fun per hour in games like The Forest and 7 Days to Die.

      As for Savage Lands, it was $6/copy in the 4-pack last week, and I grabbed it. It’s more NPC-less Gothic than NPC-less Skyrim. ;) Certainly not a “good” game yet, but you can see the potential for an 8/10 game, and I figured I’d be buying it for $5 in 2017 anyway so may as well get it for $6 now!

      TL;DR: ARK takes too much time; Savage Lands is OK and might be good next year.

  7. cpy says:

    Pros: you have option to get refund on steam
    Cons: it takes few days to get refund cash back

  8. Wowbagger says:

    I’ve been interested in this for a while but was waiting for a sale… which happens to be on today! you may want to mention that? it’s currently £6 instead of £15, yet to give it a go mind you.

  9. Blackrook says:

    Savage lands is okay but there’s very little content, plus no dedicated servers yet.
    You can host your own server for friends or single player (which saves when hosts closes it).
    Graphics and gameplay okay, but not enough mobs or stuff to do/make.
    I bought it in the summer sale it kept me amused for 3 evenings by then I had seem everything.
    Saying all the I’ve not checked for new content since.
    Nice start but needs more content is the bottom line.

    Ark on the other hand has a ton more content and dedicated servers inc Linux.
    Plus new content every week it seems. Had a good month’s play out of ark
    before taking a break. BUT the optimisation/FPS are pretty bad.
    I’ll be back in a month or two to have another go.

  10. skyturnedred says:

    Is the combat as bad as it is in other survival games?

  11. SaintAn says:

    Seems like a game that needs seasons, weather and the effects season and weather would have on people. Survival games should be about surviving the elements as much as it is about surviving monsters. When it rains and gets cold you should want to take shelter inside a house or inn or risk death or sickness like real life. I’ll stick to Skyrim and its mods until one of these survival games adds survival to the game.

    • Kittychix says:

      A quick comment on this – Savage Lands (and the Sundered Isle, the actual location of the game) did previously have seasons (part of the history/lore of the game) but Kur (the jerk dragon that he is!) has caused the world to be come trapped in winter’s icy breath. Whether it always remains winter in the forseeable future, well, that’ll depend on design choices in the future!

  12. Juppstein says:

    I’ve played this with friends for a few days. We stopped playing it because there was just not enough to do. Aside from killing bears/boars/deer/insert other animals and building some buildings that you could not even fill with furniture or other stuff there was not that much to do yet.

    At the moment I do not recommend this game since the content is quite thin in my opinion. But since it is Early Access they is still a chance this might turn into someting good.

  13. gi_ty says:

    I would be very into this if there was free form construction planned for the future, does anybody know if thats the case?

    • Kittychix says:

      Yes, a revamped (and more customized/able construction method *is* in the plans, but down the the line!

    • Pantalaimon says:

      Yeah… I was interested until I read that line and then I suddenly wasn’t remotely interested.

      There are so many of these mechanically inbred survival type games, the fundamentals are important. Badly implementing them or missing them out entirely (even if it’s on the future features list) doesn’t bode well. What’s the point of launching a Minecraftian survival game without construction? Very little.

      Running before you can walk – in the sense of launching your game and making it available, before basic key features are included – should be considered development sin and can negatively effect your game long after you’ve rememied the situation with later updates. I am not really likely to care very much about this game for a long, long time, simply because my first exposure to it was lacklustre. First impressions matter, devs.

  14. spacejumbo says:

    Isn’t it more skyrim meets dayz? Bit disappointed to see no digging or proper building.

    I’ve recently going back to 7 days to die, which I’m enjoying a lot with friends in a private server.