The Stomping Land is a game of co-operative survival and dinosaur hunting. Set on a heavily forested island, players spawn in the wild and then must craft shelter and weapons, scavenge and hunt for food, and form tribes with fellow players to accomplish both without being picked apart by the island's larger dinosaurs.
Or at least, that's the pitch which earned the game almost six times its Kickstarter target last year, and which saw it bounce immediately into the Steam best sellers list when it launched in Early Access last week. (At the time of writing, it's still there, at number 5.) The reality of the game is, at this stage, something else.
Do you feel the constant dread and anxiety associated with having too many games to play? Do you feel as if you're constantly lagging behind the zeitgeist, snapping at the heels of cultural relevancy? Then good news! You can strike The Stomping Land off your list of games you "need" to play for now.
Here was my first experience in the game. After fighting against its missing or near-invisible menu buttons to change resolution and join a server, I connected to a PvE game that was in the middle of a night cycle. It was pitch black, so I couldn't see anything other than the sky and, when standing at the right elevation, the trees silhouetted against it.
I ran for a while, eventually seeing a small torch on the ground. I ran to pick it up but it vanished into thin air just as I reached it. I ran around in the dark some more, trying to find any of the other players on the server, but failed. I pressed the "Main Menu" button on the UI so I could switch to another server, and was instead booted back to my desktop.
Here was my second experience in The Stomping Land. I joined a PvP server and it was daytime, but I spawned inside a small wooden cage. I hit the stick-walls with my starting axe thirty or forty times to no result. There were other players outside the cage, roping and dragging each other around. I would later discover that those ropes, used to kidnap players, cannot be broken by prisoners. Neither can cages. Luckily, another player eventually spawned inside the cage with me and used their own axe to kill me.
I respawned on the beach and explored for a few more minutes before it became dark again. I ran straight through the forest for fifteen more minutes in the dark, finding no one, before disconnecting (back to desktop) again.
My third, fourth and fifth experiences in The Stomping Land were the same. Darkness. Aimless jogging. No sight of the other players. Occasional dinosaurs.
Every player in The Stomping Land needs to eat. It's this hunger which is supposed to lead your experience. In order to get food, you must hunt smaller dinosaurs or herbivores, or scavenge the remains of larger predators. Everything else hangs off this need: you craft a base to act as a place to store and cook food, team up with other players in order to take down larger prey, and form tribes to protect or steal food from other, rivalling players.
It sounds like a recipe for thrilling, dynamic experiences. There's little glimpses of magical ideas, too. For example, each dinosaur on the island is represented by a star in the sky, and those stars are faintly visible even during the day. If you want to track a dinosaur, the first step is to look upwards and follow a nearby interstellar avatar.
But every single system in the game is currently unfinished, or ill-considered. For one example, you spawn with a full stomach, meaning there's no great urgency to do anything inparticular when you connect to a server. It can feel aimless.
For a second example, it's a third-person game. Looking up at the stars means positioning the camera between your legs.
"Is that two dinosaurs fighting?" "No, that's my perineum."
Tired of jogging fruitlessly in search of the island's other inhabitants, I decided to instead engage with those mechanics I could experience alone. If you hit a tree with your axe four times, you get wood. If you hit a rock with your axe four times, you get stone. Items in the environment never deplete, so I picked a lakeside spot with a rock and a couple of trees and decided I'd set up a camp there.
I built some torches, I built a fireplace, I crafted myself my own cage and some tombolas should I spot anyone who needs kidnapping. Every step of resource gathering and crafting is awkward too, though.
If you put two items on the ground, they combine into a wicker basket. Keep putting items inside and the wicker basket increases in size until it's as big as you are. If you then click on that basket to craft a torch, the simplest in-game item, it'll use every item in that basket to do it. If you've collected 20 pieces of wood by hitting a tree 80 times, losing all of it in an instant is infuriating.
This is assuming that the crafting works at all, and doesn't simply play a glitched animation to no result.
And this is assuming you can be bothered to craft in the first place, since there's currently no working method of saving your items and progress is unavoidably transient.
Eventually night fell on my little camp. Even with my fireplace burning, there was so little light that I could barely see my own cage. No player ever came by, and it was too dark to hunt, so I waited a while before giving up and changing servers again.
This time, I spawned on a server where I had more than the starting axe. I also had a spear, and some sort of wooden board that looked like it was maybe a stretcher. I decided I'd go straight for the action; forget other players, forget crafting, let's go hunt some dinosaurs.
There are great plans for how this should work: placing traps, or leading herds of smaller dinosaurs into predators so you can scavenge the scraps, or being able to use experience and herbs to take dinosaurs and turn them into mounts.
I don't have traps or herbs yet, so my goal is only to bag my first kill. I pick a dot in the sky and head off into the forest, crouching but moving quickly till I start to hear telltale growling. There's something close by, and I slowly pick through bushes till I spot a small carnivore with its back to me, moving away.
Still crouching, I move after it till I'm close enough to hit it with my spear. I lunge and… I don't know, I sort of clip partly through it? I don't seem to make contact, but I'm close enough now that it knows that I'm here. It turns around and… I don't know, sort of walks directly through me? We tangle like this for a moment, passing through one another as it turns out there's no bodily collision detection, until it lands two hits on me and I die.
I later successfully kill a herbivore and harvest its meat, but my every encounter with the game's supposedly ferocious enemy is like this. Most of the dinosaurs can't really hit you. They'll give chase, but circle strangely behind you so that you can almost always outpace them even at walking speed. A lot of them struggle to land blows even if you're standing still.
This is where my patience ends.
I played the DayZ mod early in its development and it was a rough sketch of a game, but there was something there. The need to eat was immediate, giving you an objective; the loot system pulled you around the map with urgency; the zombies were omnipresent, making the environment a constant threat; the items you collected were hard-won, persistent, and therefore imbued with meaning; encounters with other players were rare, but tense and terrifying.
In its current state, The Stomping Land is a child's scrawl. I can see what it's trying to be and I want it to get there, but there's currently no single system in the game which is fun or even fully functional.
Given that it costs £19, I'd spare the expense and take the developer's own advice:
"If you wish to jump into a more finalized gameplay experience, it is recommended to not purchase the game until release, as all features require balancing, bugfixing, and updates for smoother implementation."