We talked about Burly Men At Sea's [official site] absolutely charming art and animation at length yesterday, but I wanted to make sure we also covered how the game is to play. Can the experience of heading out to sea with the hopes of filling the empty-at-first chart match the strength of the aesthetic? With that in mind, I set sail for adventure! Here's Wot I Think:
So without faffing around, it's a lovely game. Each playthrough is brief - maybe 40 minutes if you savour and poke at everything, maybe a fair bit less in subsequent adventures? - but it suits the game's scope, letting you head out and collect a few individual experiences to form an adventure tale of around the length you'd find in a children's storybook. As such it works in harmony with the stylised Scandi-loveliness of the artwork which reminds me so much of some of the books on my own (and now my niece's) childhood bookshelf.
With that out of the way, let's go back a bit. What is game? Burly Men At Sea has you direct the exploits of the Brothers Beard; a trio of bearded blokes who have discovered a blank sea chart stuffed in a bottle. An early encounter suggests that you get back into your boat and set about filling said chart in with what you find.
I don't want to spoil what's out there if I don't have to because finding the little adventure snippets is such a big part of the delight the game can evoke, but I will say that I sent this screenshot to Alice immediately:
Hopefully this conveys a little of what I'm talking about - the unexpected surprise encounters, the sparse, clean animation style and there's also a really pleasurable use of language appropriate to the tale - womenfolk, maelstrom, mournful. They all contribute to the various senses of place and character.
Beyond that, when you're encountering a scene or an event there are often little Easter eggs to find. In a barn clicking chickens causes them to lay eggs which you can then hatch. A bakers lets you quish the air out of loaves on a shelf and they gradually re-inflate. I've also hassled tiny puffins, prodded at campfires and waggled the books on a bookshelf.
But some of the interactions themselves seek to augment the action with changes of animation, switching to a different viewpoint or changing the parameters for your own interaction just enough that they come in line with the spirit of the action. Again, I'm struggling to express this without a concrete example because the game is so little picking particular examples can feel like a major spoiler!
I'm also not sure if the following counts as a spoiler so maybe stop reading now if you want to go in without knowing too much. I'll wait.
Sort-of spoiler talk
Okay, so something which I really like about this game is that it loops endlessly if you want it to. While I was waiting for it to come out I had a demo build which I played more than a handful of times and, even though the section on land at the start is delightful, I soon tired of needing to do the same thing again and again to get to the sea part and wondered if that would trouble the main game in terms of replaying and finding more adventures.
What the game actually does is after your first playthrough you land back on the island, add the story of your completed voyage to your own bookshelf, and can loop back around, heading back out to sea immediately if you fancy. It's such a pleasant way of handling the idea of replaying. The game just gently loops, allowing you to keep going if you fancy or leave as many or as few completed charts as books on your shelf.
End of sort-of spoiler talk
I think there are maybe a couple of things which didn't quite work for me - none of which spoilt the game, but just that they stood out as not quite in line with the rest of Burly Men At Sea's neatness. One is a segment where you interact with a jellyfish. It's a cute bit but it was a rare moment when I didn't understand what I was aiming for. So there was pleasure in the interaction, but growing confusion as to what the end point of the event was.
The other thing was just a colour palette thing - there's one encounter where I found the action hard to make out because the palette for that segment was so pale. At other points in the game you can see that the action is being obscured intentionally - maybe with a pale fog or similar - but this was an instance where I think you were supposed to be able to see everything, it just ended up being too pale for my comfort.
But goodness, it's a tiny-but-then-not-tiny, lovely thing with so much character and a wonderful sense of adventure. It's a gentle seafaring tale I'm looking forward to playing through with a child when I next see my smaller family members but which I'm more than happy to play for my own enjoyment as well. I think I'm on my sixth distinct playthrough at the moment and still discovering new things.