Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Today Was A Fairytale: Secondhand Lands

Because I clearly have no self-control at all, on Monday I decided it was time I tried a new MMORPG. You might think that there weren't many left that I haven't at least looked at but you would be wrong. lists sixty-five MMOs beginning with with the letter "A" alone. I tried to count the rest to get a grand total but I lost patience somewhere in the "Ds". I was already well past two hundred by then, which is the sum total of all the MMOs listed on the Wikipedia list of massively multiplayer games. Clearly the exact number is in some dispute.

If you're just looking for something new to play, it's easy to narrow the choice to a more manageable number. Plenty of the titles listed closed long ago. Others are still to launch. Some are region-locked or only available on specific platforms.

Cometh the hour, cometh the catgirl...
I also rule out virtually everything with isometric or top-down graphics for the simple reason that I don't enjoy playing them. Given that I have, over the last twenty years or so, downloaded something like a couple of hundred MMOs, that doesn't leave a whole lot that I haven't tried.

Somehow, though, there always seems to be just one more cookie in the jar. Enter Secondhand Lands.

The name wasn't entirely unknown to me. I'd vaguely heard of it, or at least I think I had. I remember reading something once about some MMORPG that was based on fairy tales. I think this must have been it.

...cometh the catnip. And that was the last we saw of her.

On Monday I just played the thing. Today I did a bit of research. The more I learn about the game, the more astonishing it seems that I haven't tried it before. Even more surprising, I don't recall anyone else talking about it either, although I'm sure Xyzzysqrl must have at least mentioned it at some point.

Given that I had to excise several paragraphs from yesterday's post because I was describing - as if completely new to me - something I'd actually posted about in considerable detail less than a month ago, it's entirely possible someone's going to pop up and tell me they've not only written extensively about the game but quote my comments on it from their comments column. As Wilhelm once did with Project:Gorgon.

On the face of it, there certainly seems to have been plenty of time for that to have happened and for me to have forgotten it. Secondhand Lands launched in January 2009. As this piece from (a very interesting website I really should look at regularly) describes it it, the game sounds right up my street. You'd think I might have found occasion to play it at least once if it's been running for a decade.
Let's try a Wolf instead.
Except it hasn't. Secondhand Lands, the creation of indie dev Bobby Thurman,  ran for just three years as part of the Pixel Mines Games launcher (something else I've never heard of), closing in 2012 due to "having  a miniscule playerbase".

And that, you would imagine, was that. Another opportunity missed. Except, as we are coming to understand, MMORPGs are about as good at  surviving supposed extinction events as cockroaches are the apocalypse. In 2017, Secondhand Lands rose from the dead, lurching back to life courtesy of Steam's Greenlight project.

Steam was where I ran across it as I was idly browsing the catalog on Monday. It had a "Mixed" rating but the screenshots looked intriguing and the first few reviews piqued my interest so I thought I'd give it a go. The download was incredibly quick - a matter of seconds. A minute or two after having the whim to try it I was in game and playing.

He's got his hackles up already. That can't be good...

Character creation was fascinating. There are no classes, just four races: Sheep, Wolves, Scrappers and Catgirls. The descriptions of each were fascinating, indicating that choice of race had huge gameplay implications. After some consideration I chose "Wolf" for my first character:
"Led by the dark-natured Little Red Riding Hood, Wolves embrace a philosophy based upon strength. Survival of the Fittest is more than a mantra - it's a state of being. Lone Wolves easily make the strongest fighters, and they are also the fastest on foot. A retreating Wolf is hard to track down, and fights with Wolves are rarely fair".
There's more on the wiki, where Sheep are described as having " a strong sense of order" and "amazing jumping abilities, special ramming attacks, and downright baa-zar flocking bonuses". Scrappers are "a motley bunch not very interested in battle" with "a lot of different looks such as skunk, dragon, lizard, sheep, wolf, bear, cat, squirrel, etc"while Catgirls can either "act quite human" or "give in to their more feral inclinations".

Probably smelled the catgirl. Which has to be an album title...
There's a lot more detail and nuance than a few excerpts can offer. One of the reviews on Steam suggested playing through the main storyline on all four options to get a very different experience each time. 

Choosing your race is about all there is to Character Creation, at least right now. The most recent developer note, posted in April this year on the official website, talks in detail about giving the game "a face lift" focusing particularly on "player customization". It talks about eventually giving players the tools to create and upload textures to sell to other players for "ingame compensation", thereby creating "an economy based on talent".

For a game that reportedly still has almost no players, there seems to be a lot of work going on. One of the first things I was presented with when my new character had loaded into the world was a pop-up window with extensive and detailed patch notes from May. Character customization is already available in game via makeup kits. You get one in your inventory although I missd it first time around.

The default option is "Boring Fox". Really.
My wolf began in Cat Village. That's not my description - it's what the game calls it. I just made a Scrapper and a Catgirl to check and they all started in the same place. I'm not making a sheep but I'd bet they do too.

Gameplay at the start is exactly as describes: "the vanilla game systems of standard MMOs". I took some quests from various cats, foxes and wolves I found standing around waiting for me and the promised "rofl-worthy world" made itself known immediately.

Humor in MMORPGs can sometimes be quite heavy going. This has a fairly light touch and a hefty dose of whimsy. The very first quest, the one that introduces combat, has you fighting wind-up clockwork rats and the next, featuring real rats, is called "Save 10 Cats". I didn't rofl but I did smile.

I only noticed the second time through this quest that the wind-up rat says something
about having his own quest to kill ten players.

In short order my wolf had acquired some gear. It wasn't quite the regular medieaval armor. There was a cloak, a baseball cap and a tie. I equipped them and to my surprise they displayed. The effect was positively surreal.

Mama Catt (yes, there's a Mommas and the Poppas joke) tasked me with retrieving her kittens missing mittens. I don't remember the part in the nursery rhyme where the mittens are stolen by a gang of strange young ducks so they could wear them as hats but apparently that's what happened.

While I was in Mama Catt's hut I couldn't help but notice an impressive fishbowl, complete with swimming fish. I took a couple of screenshots and realised it was interactable so I clicked on it. That's how I found myself with a quest to retrieve fishfood from a bunch of Hijacking Rabbits. And that Puss in Boots has a drinking problem.

There's a hole in Mama's bowl where all the water goes. Except it stays in, somehow. Game physics ftw!

As far as the writing goes, I'm sold. I would happily play through the main storyline for more of this silliness. I also like the graphics a lot. They're elderly, for sure, but they have oodles of style.

I'm also more than satisfied with the basic gameplay loop. In that respect, Secondhand Lands plays exactly as you'd expect from a "classic" MMORPG. The problem, and it's a significant one, is the pacing.

I played long enough (a couple of hours at least) for my Wolf to level up several times, acquire some skill points and add some special attacks to his hotbar. Even so, every single fight seemed to take forever. The cooldowns were slow, the animations minimal. It wasn't exactly what you'd call a thrill-ride.

Who are you calling strange, weirdo?
I could live with that. It certainly wasn't any slower or more ponderous than the early levels in classic EverQuest. I never had a problem with those. The real issue for me is the way the quest demands ramp up. The first wanted me to kill three mobs, then it was ten and then a dozen. When I arrived on the rabbit island and realized I was expected to kill twenty of them for the fishfood I'd had enough.

It's too soon to say whether those pacing problems are enough to sink what would otherwise be a very promising addition to my library. It's entirely possible that as my characters level and gear up combat will get faster. Maybe future questgivers won't be so demanding. Perhaps the more craft-oriented Scrapper will side-step the pacing issues by avoiding combat.

The game's strengths and attractions are such that I will persevere. For a while, at least. An awful lot of work, imagination and affection have clearly gone into this game and it deserves some respect and some effort on my part.

I think I'll take the rest of the day off.
It is, after all, exactly the sort of quirky, original take on the established format that many lovers of the genre have been asking for for years, while roundly ignoring its existence. It would be shame, having found it at last, to let it slip through my fingers simply because of a lack of patience on my part.

Also, you can be a fox. I'd put up with a lot just for that.


  1. I've never heard of this, but it appears to have squirrels and fishing, which are two instant attention getters. I'll stick it in my to-play queue, so expect to hear about me trying it sometime in 2261.

    1. I'm reassured you never heard of it either! I was worried it was just me.

  2. As an eclectic game collector, I didn’t think I’d ever come across a game that I wouldn’t be willing to give a shot and try (I played a cheesy grade B movie FMV game called Press X to Not Die for heaven’s sakes) but I think you just found it.

    I’d play a game with furries and anthromorphic furries, I’d play a game with catgirls (grudgingly), but when you mix furries, catgirls, a fairy tale setting and the blob graphics of yesteryear, I think that just crossed a no go line for me. Mix in everquest era layouts and the tedious quests of that time period, a style of humor that doesn’t quite do anything for me, and I think I have a recipe for running away screaming.

    The only way it could get worse in my book is if there is FFA PvP, which based on the Steam review accounts, it doesn’t have and cleaves more to the oldschool consensual flag-yourself-by-doing-something model via drinking some juice at lvl 50. Why one would stick it out to lvl 50 quite escapes me.

    It’s certainly instructive to know what one doesn’t like though, and for that I’m grateful to Secondhand Lands for existing and for your coverage of it. ;)

    1. Hehe! Literally all your red flags are green lights for me. I have to say, though, that the "catgirls", at least on first sight, do not appear to have very much in common with the concept that word generally suggests. I think anyone playing FFXIV would be highly unlikely to recognize them as the same species.

      The graphics are good, I think. I took a lot more screenshots than I needed for this post, most of them of the scenery, and all I've seen so far is the first starting island. Unless it's very different from pretty much every other MMO I've played, things will look better later.

      The combat is interesting. When I wrote the post I had only played the wolf but since then I've played the fox. Being bipedal and having better animations seems to make a significant difference. Although the fights took at least as long - possibly longer since the Scrapper is supposd to be much worse at combat than the Wolf - they felt shorter. This phenomenon used to happen in EQ, where I was often fighting in wolf form. It always seemed slower then, too, even though the only difference was the illusion appearance.

  3. Why Comic Sans though...?! ;_;

    1. Possibly because I completely missed the entire internet witch-hunt over Comic Sans when it was happening, the font has no particular resonance for me whatsoever. In fact, until you mentioned it, I hadn't noticed it at all.

      In general, though, I'm at a loss to understand the hate for Comic Sans. I think you must have had to have been there... It seems perfectly innocuous to me and it certainly has the benefit of being clear and easy to read. I save my personal venom for whatever that abomination is that Blizzard use in WoW - a nasty, aggressive, uncomfortable and above all hard to read font that seems more suited to a badly-mimeographed Neighborhood Watch rota than a major video game.


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