When I first loaded up CardLife: Cardboard Survival, my first thoughts were, “Wow, this might not suck after all”. It’s no secret that the last few years have seen a massive influx of early access survival games. Many of those are pretty low quality, derivative, or just blatant cash grabs. So when I get an early access survival game to review, I tend to be cynical. Despite the fact that developer FreeJam’s previous offering Robocraft, was pretty awesome, my cynicism remained.
However, when I saw how polished everything was, I started to think that maybe this would be fun. An early access game with a decent server browser? A single player option? Mod support? All from an alpha game, yet to be fielded on Steam Early Access? Before I even got into the game I was starting to cheer up, looking forward to a day spent hitting cardboard trees with cardboard axes in my… cardboard hands.
The premise of the game is that you are a cardboard person living in a cardboard world, and somehow trees and stones are both made out of cardboard but also have different properties. Don’t question it too much okay? Anyway, much like other survival sandbox games you punch the tree, get some wood, make an axe, get more wood, build a house, put some wood in a box in the house, and so on. Also much like other survival games, you do all this for what seems like ten minutes, then look at the clock and it’s 4 am and also you are a year older and you’re being evicted from your flat.
The unique element of the game is that when you craft an axe or a sword or whatever, you can draw the outline of the parts of it yourself, thereby creating your own unique looking tool that appears that way in the game. At first, this seems like a novel concept, but after crafting your tenth tool, it very quickly just becomes a quick ‘connect the dots’ mini-game so you can get on with whatever you were doing. Or, in my case, an attempt to make as many things as possible look like penises.
When playing one of these games, comparisons to Minecraft are unavoidable, so I won’t be avoiding them. The main difference I noticed fairly quickly is that currently, CardLife offers an experience that leans a lot more towards the grind than Minecraft does. One of the great things about Minecraft is that it allowed you to get basic things quickly, leaving you free to explore the world and be creative with building. CardLife offers an alternative to this in the form of making you grind for five minutes to build one wall.
In the first hour of a new Minecraft game I’d usually have built a small house and a full set of tools, made a little mine and mined a few diamonds, and have gone exploring for a nice place to build a more permanent base. In the first two hours of CardLife I managed to make a small hut with a bed, and a couple of wooden tools, and I was starting to get pretty bored of knocking down two trees for every small panel of my house. That’s when I noticed that the buildings have decay too. Great. The classic combo of grind and decay, probably invented by a developer who decided that because a game was their job, it should be a job for everyone else too.
The boredom that started to surface as I realised the inevitable pointlessness of my endeavours made me start to notice other issues behind the shiny exterior of CardLife. In five hours of play, I fell through the world a total of four times. I was never quite able to figure out what the animals were doing. Sometimes I could walk past a deer and it would ignore me. The next time it would run away. The time after that it would suddenly rocket at me from a hundred meters away like it was being launched from a railgun, and start headbutting me in the face, presumably because it overheard me talking about having deer steak for dinner or something.
For a game in pre-alpha, these kind of bugs are inevitable, as is a certain lack of direction in gameplay. My hope is that FreeJam can turn what is right now a fairly solid idea into a game that’s actually fun to play. The framework is there for something great, but if the direction of the game veers towards a grindfest, I’ll certainly be avoiding it. For now, I’ll be watching with interest and hoping that moving into early access proper also means adding some fun.
CardLife: Cardboard Survival (PC)
If everything is made of cardboard why can’t I just eat the rocks instead of chopping a cardboard deer up with a cardboard sword?
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