Smalland is an ambitious and enjoyable survival game | Exclusive PS5 hands-on preview

by on January 24, 2024

I’ve done my fair share of previews in my time, and while you often come away liking what you played, you sometimes have questions about whether the completed product will live up to the small portion of what you saw. Occasionally, you’ll be impressed with how its coming together or by certain features you got to try out first hand, but rarely are you left excited like a kid on Christmas morning. Smalland: Survive the Wilds has been in Early Access via Steam since the end of March last year, and with 1.0 and its console release coming some time in Q1 this year, I got an exclusive look at how it’ll play on PlayStation 5.

To say I was left astounded by what’s coming is an understatement, and I felt honoured to be the first to play on PS5 in the UK. Merge Games is working hard to make this possible, and having that delay in November makes perfect sense giving the scale of what content players are going to get when it does get released. To those that might not be familiar with it, Smalland: Survive the Wilds is a survival game that puts you in the tiny shoes of your own created character, part of a civilisation known as the Smallfolk, who, after centuries living underground, has now emerged from hiding to head back to the Overland and reclaim what was once theirs.

In its essence, Smalland starts off like many survival games. You begin with nothing but your character and some cloth on your back, left to explore the world around you while collecting valuable resources in order to craft simple tools and weapons. From the get go, I was enamoured by the scale of it, and how dense the opening biome was. A vast forest filled with gargantuan trees and a flowing lake, ladybugs and dragonflies flying around and existing in the same space as me, never sure whether I was safe or not. While you do feel vulnerable, there’s also a sense of wonder as you live amongst these beautiful creatures.

Bearing in mind you’re not much taller than an ant, everything towers over you and you feel overwhelmed in such a special way. It highlights the beauty of nature and allows you to appreciate the life that exists under our feet. Yet despite how magical it feels, there’s danger all around. Some critters will scope you out and decide for themselves if you’re a threat while others leave you to go about your business. Other times you’ll be attacked and chased regardless so you can never let your guard down. Thankfully, it doesn’t take long until you’ve crafted your first weapon, making these encounters a touch more bearable knowing you can defend yourself.

Every facet of Smalland has been carefully thought out, and combat has certain attributes to it that can give you the edge. Being able to perfect guard an enemy attack leaves you a short window to deliver a powerful return blow. You can use light and heavy attacks as well as dodge, and knowing when to pick your battles is just as important as knowing when to stand up and fight back. Resources are all around you, whether you’re collecting wood or amber from the ground or trees, you can also collect scraps off of fallen enemies to be used for specific armour sets and weapons, like snakes, scorpions, and spiders.

There’s a use for everything, and within hours you’re beginning to get to grips with what can be crafted to help make your adventure easier. One of the coolest features I saw was the ability to climb massive trees within the environment via some platforming gameplay, and once you’ve made it to the top, you can claim it as your own permanently across servers. It’s a huge open world, but having your own personal settlement for you to build yourself a home is such a cool feature. Building is yet another part of Smalland that is staggering in scale, with endless possibilities for what you build and how you do it.

I was shown some of the Smalland community’s structures they’ve built in Early Access, and quite honestly, they’re ridiculously good. One was a cathedral-like building, with intricate architecture that must have taken hours to work out and build, and it left me excited to see what kind of structures I’d be able to create once I finally get my hands on the console version. With so many different materials and crafting parts to scavenge throughout the world, and a system that respects the player in order to make whatever they want, it’s yet another facet of the game I can’t wait to spend more time with.

I could honestly talk about Smalland all day. I spent most of my time in the forest, especially in the early stages of the game, but later in the day I got to see some of the other amazing features it offers. On top of its dense crafting, fun exploration, and intense combat, you can also tame certain bugs and birds to help you get around and also aid you in combat, which I found out in the most brutal and funniest of ways. I was able to ride around on a Blue Tit, and wow, was it liberating. I got to see the scale of it from up high, taking in sights I never would have known about from down below. Watchtowers and children’s playgrounds, car parks and broken bridges. There’s so much to see, and that’s before I’d even stepped out of the forest.

There’s never going to be enough time in the day to see every area, but from seeing the forest, a desert area, and some of the swamp, this game is going to swallow you up and keep you playing for weeks. Merge respects its players, and it knows that not everyone wants that hard-as-nails survivalist experience. Sure, it’s there if you want it, but there’re certain quality-of-life features that make Smalland welcoming to everyone. If you die, you’ll lose everything you’ve collected, however, you can return to it on the map and pick it up again. What’s more, if you die again on the way back to it, you don’t lose it forever like you would while hunting for your souls in a FromSoft game.

Other tiny yet important features that make it more accessible is the ability to craft on the go, whenever you want. You don’t have to visit a crafting table, instead you just open up the menu and do it from there. Also, if you’re on the go and need to craft something only to break it down afterwards, you’re refunded all the resources it cost to build in the first place, not leaving you short if you want to build a bed to speed up time in the morning. Darkness it a much more dangerous time of the day, and getting back to daylight is going to be a priority, but you not punished for doing so.

On top of all of the freedom you have to play however you want, Smalland also has a story that helps connect its deep lore and world together. There are various NPCs littered around the map, with some willing to help and others wanting you dead. I didn’t get to see a lot of the story, but from the bits I did, I’m fascinated by this fantasy world that feels like its set in your back garden. Quests can be undertaken to learn more about what happened, and Owl effigy’s are found throughout the map to give you background. It never failed to amaze me while playing, and furthermore, knowing you’ll get to do everything with up to nine other friends in multiplayer is so cool.

You can play however you want and be whoever you choose to be. If you want to be a master builder and craft obscenely beautiful structures, you can. If you want to become a warrior and craft stunning armour sets a grand weapons, go right ahead. Every possible path is filled with both freedom and guidance, and you never feel lost with what to do next. You may feel lost at first, but once you grasp the basics and get stuck into crafting, anything is possible. Getting around becomes so much easier thanks to the ability to tame creatures and build wings for gliding and jumping higher, and there’s also a grappling hook.

Visually, the PS5 version I played looks stunning. There so much attention to detail in the way creatures move and interact with both you and the environment, and the world around you is so full of colour. It also ran smoothly from what I played, giving me hope going into the full release. I’ve not been this excited by a survival game for a long time, possibly ever, and when the time comes, I know I’m going to be investing far too much time in building my own place in Smalland: Survive the Wilds when it drops on console. I want my pet bird, dammit, and I will get one!