First unveiled last week, Ship Of Fools is an upcoming seafaring roguelite where you and a fellow co-op pal take on hordes of horrible beasties as you sail the high seas. Depending on your choice of player two, it's also likely to be an apt description of how you'll feel playing it.
Having waded through an early preview build of its opening Forgotten Waters stage this week, this is one co-operative cannon fest that seems destined to see friends and family not so much walk the plank after an untimely defeat as get absolutely spanked by it. Imagine the visual chaos of a game like Overcooked combined with the frantic, tactile ship management of Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime and you're pretty much there, albeit with several more barnacles, bug-spewing mosquitoes and laser-firing totem poles in the mix. The jangle of Davy Jones' locker is never far away in this storm-stricken archipelago, so beware, fools. You will not be suffered gladly.
Viewed from a distance, Ship Of Fools could almost be the top-down 2D cousin of Sea Of Thieves. When you're out sailing, it shares a lot of similar rhythms. You may not have to worry about steering here, but you will be patching up holes with spare planks you've got lying around, performing melee attacks with your trusty paddle, and loading its cannons and occasionally moving them around the ship to get a better angle on your water-dwelling foes. Alas, I didn't spot any hurdy gurdys lying around in my preview build, but here's hoping one crops up later on when Ship Of Fools launches in full later this year.
If you're feeling particularly daring, you can also venture out alone in Ship Of Fools as well. In a similar fashion to Rare's grand pirate 'em up, though, Ship Of Fools comes alive when played as a two-player co-op game. You can either team up with a friend locally or head online to save The Great Lighthouse from the impending 'Aquapocalypse' - although whose version of the game will end up taking precedence when playing with strangers remains to be seen. I've only been able to sample the co-op locally so far, which saw former vid bud Matthew (RPS in peace) and I waking up on a dreary, guano-stained beachfront as a pair of scruffy-looking sea creatures.
We had five of them to choose from in this build, with each one possessing their own unique 'heirloom trinket' to give them a leg up in battle. Finley, the yellow hammerhead-like chap, for example, has a hat that gives you a random reward every time you make a repair, while the shell of oyster boy Shelbie (Tim Burton would be proud) increases the damage, velocity and fire rate of the cannons you load. Savvy crews will no doubt find some excellent combos here (I'm looking at you, Gill's "gain a harpoon for every harpoon hit" bandana), but some feel like they're more hassle than they're worth, such as Hink's ability to reload all cannons when you score a critical hit - something that happened quite rarely when playing as other characters. Still, I'm on board with anything that encourages experimentation, and I'm intrigued to see how they'll play off and interact with other trinkets you can find in future runs.
No matter which of its titular fools you pick, though, your main objective is to restore your watery home to its former glory. Once we'd got our bearings (and finished harassing each other with our stun-inducing paddle attacks), we discovered an island full of empty, rundown market stalls, hinting at a bustling hub town full of strange wares to peruse further down the line.
Right now, though, the only one we saw open for business was Haiga's soup kitchen (see right), an upgrade shop whose nauseous-looking fare had us a little green around the gills. Still, while the 'Plank Soup' may not look particularly appetising from an art perspective, I'll certainly take the additional health it grants my ship any day of the week. Similarly, if you can stomach the idea of quaffing down a hearty 'Harpoon Soup', for example, then you'll start each run with more two more harpoons than you did before.
These soup upgrades stack over time, too, letting you quickly accumulate a deeper starting pool of money, health and upgrade slots for your ship to set you up for your next run. It makes for a gentler, more generous style of roguelite that's sure to help appease any fractured co-op relationships, and in half an hour I'd managed to gobble down almost half a dozen of them. It makes your ship feel like it's constantly getting better, even if your ability to defend it continues to be a bit lacking. Crucially, the tokens you collect to obtain these upgrades aren't lost on defeat either. Extra cash and treasure-fetching harpoons will always get lost among the wreckage, but those all-important jellyfish shards remain, which helps takes the sting out of any unfortunate deaths.
Once you're tooled up and ready to depart, it's time to head out to take on them thar sea monsters. Its tile-based map screen may not have quite the same path structures as your Slay The Spires and the like, but it functions in a very similar way. Each turn, you can move up, down or forward on the map, directing your ship toward (or away from) certain tiles. Most involve some kind of monster encounter, in which waves of bugs, toads and giant crabs will continually assault your ship until you've cleared them out. It's good, frenzied fun, and we rarely had to shout instructions at each other as it was always clear who had the best line of attack.
Elsewhere on the map, there's a sprinkling of event tiles in there as well. Some will let you move around the map faster, such as gusts of winds giving you an extra go or whirlpools teleporting you to another part of the map, while others hold special treasures and shops. In our travels, we came across extra cannonball options, adding poison and ice effects to the mix, a couple of travelling merchants, as well as a few free planks to fix up our ship.
For every three tiles you conquer, the big boss storm at the other end of the map gradually moves a bit closer to you, blocking off more and more tiles until you eventually meet in the middle. Even at this early stage, however, The Forgotten Waters' kraken boss we faced was rock hard, sinking our ship time and time again with its vicious, circling tentacles and nasty clouds of mozzie boys. It's a tough gig for two players, and quite a step up in pace and tension from the tiles preceding it. It makes me wonder what the other bosses are going to be like further down the line. If they're anything like this cranky cephalopod, I fear my version of the archipelago will remain forever doomed to the Aquapocalypse.
It's early days yet, of course, so it's hard to tell exactly how quickly the rest of its upgrade stalls will open up, or how the items you gain will carry over between play sessions. I suspect this will be what makes or breaks Ship Of Fools, assuming you also haven't tired from Elden Ring-style biffings just yet. From what I've seen so far, though, Fika Productions' debut game looks like it's shaping up nicely. While you may still want to clap ailing co-op partners in irons every now and again, I feel like there's a sturdy foundation here, and I'm looking forward to seeing the full game set sail later this year.