This Land Is My Land Review: An American West Sandbox

The fight for America has begun! In this survival adventure, players must take their place as a Native chief determined to protect his home and his people from the paleface invaders. After two years in early access, the full experience of living and fighting in the vast open world of the 1800s American frontier is now up for grabs.

This Land is My Land is described by its developers as an open-world, survival crafting simulator. It was released as an open access title in November 2019 and finally made it to a full release at the end of October this year.

The game places players in the shoes of a Native American chief in the 1800s as he fights to defend and reclaim his land. To do so, players will have to gather resources, establish camps, and eradicate enemy settlements. This can be done in a variety of ways, with a heavy focus on stealth mechanics and strategy; getting into an open fight is a good way of getting killed. With a huge game world to explore that evolves with player choices, the title promises an enticing glimpse into the age of the American frontier.

This Land is My Land is now available for purchase on PC via Steam for your regional pricing.

This Land Is My Land: Official Teaser

Story – For Want of a Plot

The most important thing to know about This Land is My Land’s story is that it doesn’t have one. There is the overarching narrative that you are a Native American chief fighting to reclaim his lands from the invading palefaces, but that’s really just framing. It explains why you want to take over settlements and expand your influence, but it doesn’t guide your actual in-game decisions.

Instead, the game functions a lot more like a sandbox experience. At the start, you’re dropped into a world with one or two quests to teach you the very basic game mechanics – resource collection and crafting – and then you’re free to do whatever you want. There are specific quests to pick up along the way, but they’re almost exclusively limited to hunting down a specific NPC and either killing or intimidating them.

While they’re something to focus on, these mini-quests have a bit of an immersion problem. That’s because, as the game warns you when you first load in, NPCs have been given names by other players rather than ones selected by the developers. This doesn’t harm gameplay precisely, but it’s a lot harder to invest in what little story there is when your current goal is to track down and intimidate a supposedly frontier-era soldier called Bojangles the Wrangler (Yes, this was a genuine quest I encountered).

The anachronistic names, while highly amusing at times, really serve to make the game’s world feel paper-thin at times; with so little actual plot to draw you into the world, this design choice makes it that much harder to create stories of your own.

Stopping the railroad from cutting through your lands is the key to preventing further colonisation

Stopping the railroad from cutting through your lands is the key to preventing further colonisation

Gameplay – An Exercise in Frustration

The lack of story actually feeds into the game’s next problem, and that’s all about player motivation.

To understand this issue, you have to start by understanding the game’s difficulty settings. The first thing most players are going to see when they start the game is a difficulty select screen that offers them three options: Classic, Immersive, or Custom. This is also, incidentally, likely to be a place where are a lot of new players are going to make a mistake.

The in-game text clearly states that the Classic setting is meant for new players, with easier enemies and less of a focus on the survival mechanics of the game. Obviously then, this should be where most players start. However, warding players off making that choice is the fact that the Immersive setting right beside it declares that Immersive is the way that the game is meant to be played. If you’re familiar with survival games or perhaps just gaming in general, there’s going to be a strong compulsion to select Immersive and just assume that you’ll figure out the more complicated mechanics as you go. Unfortunately, that’s a good way to start a bad time.

In order to survive, players will need to hunt and fish for food and resources

In order to survive, players will need to hunt and fish for food and resources

This Land is My Land has been designed to give players a huge amount of freedom when it comes to how they approach a problem. For example, players can attack settlements directly with a war party at their back, go in guns blazing as a one-man strike force, or slip in unnoticed and eliminate enemies one by one. There’s a wide variety of weapons and skills to choose from, and a morality scale to judge every action you make. Even outside of combat, there’s an entire online system to trade items and chat with your fellow players. As a result, there are a lot of aspects and mechanics to consider as you make your way through the world.

If you start a new game on the Immersive setting, the game does absolutely nothing to teach you any of them. Worse, players aren’t even directed to tasks that would allow them to discover them organically. Instead, they’re left stranded in an incredibly dangerous world with no idea how to resolve any of the problems you’re going to be immediately faced with.

Take, for example, the first time I opened a game on Immersive difficulty: Within half an hour, for reasons that I’m still not entirely clear on, my protagonist had contracted a disease called blood vomiting. This meant that alongside occasionally collapsing to his knees, he very rapidly became dehydrated to the point that I couldn’t stray more than a few hundred meters outside of my primary camp. Even having played for some time on Classic to learn the basics, I had no idea how to solve this problem; diseases don’t exist in Classic mode, and the game didn’t give me any pop-ups or hints to explain my predicament.

In the end, I resorted to using the in-game online chat to beg other players for help, at which point I learned that blood vomiting can only be cured by a specific item that I did not have and had no idea how to find. Without the help of other players, this kind of thing would have killed the entire run; even with assistance, it was incredibly tempting to just give up because the game was offering me no real reason not to. 

Enemy settlements range from unprotected tent camps to well-defended forts

Enemy settlements range from unprotected tent camps to well-defended forts

That isn’t to say that the Classic game mode doesn’t have problems of its own. Even though it’s apparently been designed for new players, this setting doesn’t do much more to explain itself than Immersive does. There are a few extra hint cards that pop up to reveal the existence of mechanics you otherwise wouldn’t know existed, but it still doesn’t offer a guided experience. Instead, its main form of assistance is that enemies now come with visible ‘detection meters’ so players know when they’re about to be spotted, and players no longer have to worry about the game’s complicated injury system.

Classic also inexplicably does away with almost all survival aspects, such as needing to eat and drink to stay alive. While this change undoubtedly makes the setting easier, it also cuts out a sizeable chunk of the game’s core mechanics; without them, the title becomes a rather tedious progression of crouching in bushes, waiting for the opportunity to take out an enemy.

The saving grace, then, is the Custom difficulty setting, which lets players pick and choose which aspects of the game they want to keep in. While this provides a very-much-needed middle ground between Classic and Immersive, players new to the game aren’t going to have any real idea of what settings would work well for them. Without that context, the best they can do is to start a game on Classic to learn the mechanics and then abandon that save to start a new Custom save.

Players start each new game by naming their protagonist

Players start each new game by naming their protagonist

The game’s Steam page boasts that This Land is My Land has an ‘extremely steep learning curve’. The developers aren’t wrong to say so, but they may be overestimating the appeal that has to players. It can be extremely rewarding to have to figure out a game’s mechanics for yourself and doing so can often make the experience that much more memorable. However, at the same time, with a game like this, that has very little existing drive in the way of story, making so much of the actual gameplay inaccessible to new players is a tremendous deterrent. As a sandbox, players have to want to play the game for the sake of playing the game and that is a lot harder to do when you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing.

Making the issue that much worse are the game’s bugs. The game was in early access for two years prior to its main release and over that time, it’s clear that the developers did a lot of work to patch some of the most pressing problems. All the same, the full release of the game didn’t come with resolution to all of them by any stretch. In my experience these bugs weren’t game-breaking, but they often involved cheating me out of loot, one of the few incentives you have for completing tasks. With so little else to compel you to play on, these glitches are a huge hindrance to the game’s enjoyment.

The silver lining to all this is that once you get past the business of figuring out a difficulty setting that works for you and you’ve got a grasp of what you’re even supposed to be doing, This Land is My Land can actually be quite a fun world to spend time in. There’s never a lot of variety to what you’re doing, but there’s some reward to be had in meticulously stealthing your way through an enemy encampment. It just takes several hours’ play to get there and that’s not going to be a worthy investment for a lot of players.

The 1800s American landscape is rich in mountains and forests

The 1800s American landscape is rich in mountains and forests

Audio and Graphics – Welcome to the Frontier

While a lack of guidance or clear plot can make This Land is My Land hard to sink into, one area in which it truly does excel is in its sound design. From thunderous rainstorms to distant bird song, just existing in the game’s world can be utterly delightful. In the early game especially, when players are still going to be working out what they’re doing, this is absolutely vital.

After spending hours in this game, all of my personal highlights were not flashes of triumph in defeating enemy settlements, but instead were quiet moments spent hunting or collecting resources alone in the woods.

The graphics don’t have quite the same level of polish as the audio, but with the scale of the world and the variety of things in it, that may be a practical decision for the sake of performance. The most rewarding thing the developers have done with their graphical design is also one of the most frustrating for new players: a lot of the natural resources you’ll need to find blend in very well with their environment. When you first start up a new game, it’s going to be difficult to spot certain green plants among a sea of other, equally green foliage. As a result, early scavenging can feel like a losing battle. In time, however, familiarity will make it far easier to spot the sort of things you’re looking for and resource gathering becomes much, much easier.

The outcome is that players can really feel like they’re getting used to the game’s world and becoming more a part of it. As the player character is meant to be a native of the region and thus should be very familiar with it, this progression can be very rewarding. It’s not enough on its own to make up for some of the other shortcomings, but the style of This Land is My Land is by far its most compelling feature.

Learning when to strike is your best bet for besting more well-equipped foes

Learning when to strike is your best bet for besting more well-equipped foes

Cultural Sensitivity – The Wrong People for the Job

Any content that deals with a topic as sensitive as colonialization is going to be a little fraught. The decimation of the Native American population in particular has been a common setting for modern-day media, often with very mixed results. While some titles win praise for their careful portrayal of historical events, plenty of others have been criticised for playing into stereotypes or perpetuating harmful myths about Native American culture.

Unfortunately, This Land is My Land seems to have fallen into the latter category. The game has come under fire for misrepresentations such as portraying the Native American people as one, cohesive culture instead of a variety of tribes with their own unique beliefs and languages. Making the matter worse is that the developer, Game-Labs, didn’t hire any Native developers or consultants to help them work on the game. Further still, they’ve been accused of deleting feedback from Native players that criticised the title’s approach to their culture.

The result is a game that champions Native American resistance to the ‘palefaces’, while at the same time disregarding actual Native culture. Although this doesn’t necessarily impact the quality or enjoyment of the game for most players, it’s an important detail to note given how much focus This Land is My Land places on its setting.

This game was reviewed on PC with a review key provided by Game-Labs.

Summary
There’s no denying that survival games are a well-liked genre, and for all its flaws, This Land is My Land does do some interesting things. Having a Native American protagonist, for instance, is a genuinely exciting prospect, although the developers could certainly have done more to work with the people they were trying to represent. In a lot of ways, this game feels like it’s on the verge of being something really worthwhile; the setting and the mechanics are both, in theory, really interesting to explore in a video game. It’s just truly frustrating to see them get lost amid the game’s indecisiveness on what it wants to be and the sheer uninviting nature it presents for new players.
Good
  • Excellent ambient noise makes the game world feel very realistic
  • Huge map to explore
Bad
  • A lack of plot makes it hard to stay invested
  • On lower difficulty there is very little variation in gameplay
  • Mechanics are very poorly presented to new players
5
Average

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