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Burly Men At Sea

Well, this game was nowhere near as raunchy as I was hoping. Two hours of gameplay and not a single cover of “In The Navy?” Colour me disappointed, I must say.

For all my joking, the funny thing is that Burly Men At Sea is something I’ve seen done before. It’s something we’ve all seen before, in one form or another. You know what the cliché image of an Oscar-winning animated film is, right? That stereotype that says it looks very beautiful and has some vague ambitions to poignancy, but nothing really significant happens and it’s all rather inoffensive at the core?

Burly Men At Sea feels like that stereotype, through and through. Our story begins with a trio of the stocky sailors burlying around in a fishing boat, which is, appropriately enough, at sea. Full marks for thoroughness and accuracy.

burlymanThey stumble upon a bottle containing a map, one that doesn’t seem to have been filled in properly, and the wise old coffee shop owner (just run with it for now) tells them that they have to fill it in themselves with all the adventures that they’re going to have. Ooh, how charming and quirky, isn’t it?

There is something distinctly saccharine and occasionally a little too sweet about this game. It always feels like every character has a constant twinkle in their eye, you know what I mean? Thankfully, most of the time it’s played-down enough to be legitimately endearing, but occasionally it pushes things too far and sounds like a kid’s story book – sadly not one of the ones where Willy Wonka tortures fat kids. Old Man Espresso in particular is so sugary that he was starting to make my teeth ache by the third time I met him. By meeting five, I really wanted somebody to come in and tell him that his wife had run off with the young musician who hangs around outside. I just wanted to break that Santa Claus-shtick and watch him angrily drink himself into a stupor, throwing bottles at the customers and swearing at them like a violent cousin of the Swedish Chef.

And maybe he does do that at some point, and I was making the wrong choices that caused me to miss that amazing scene. The basic idea is that the story is on a loop, not in the manner of Majora’s Mask, but more akin to playing Heavy Rain over and over. Every time the narrative starts we begin with the three amigos sailing off into the sunset, and you pick what charming, quirky thing they do when they’re confronted by specific events. At some point circumstances will contrive to drop them back in their home town, where they catalogue their adventure for Captain Cappuccino and set out again.

So it’s very gameplay minimal. There’s no action, no challenge, and very little exploration with everything being presented in flat 2D. What usually happens is that you’re dropped at the far end of a new location, and you send your squad of bearded besties to riverdance all the way to the other end of that location. At some point along the trip a bit more story will happen, and you get a choice of some sort that dictates where you end up next. It’s like Telltale got hold of the rights to Zelda: Wind Waker.

burlymanAnd thankfully, the writing isn’t half bad. The characters are memorable (if a bit simple), the locations are interesting enough to warrant intrigue and the uniquely Scandinavian style of storytelling manages to evoke a certain charm. You can see where another, more stereotypical game might’ve given into peer pressure, and started some silly through-narrative about deciding the fate of the war between the mermaids and the eel people.

Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t have appreciated something a little more… Lasting. Exploring Fallen Stockholm and the Unterhav (hav is Danish for sea, because I’m so terribly clever) is all very well, but there’s not much motivation to keep going. Everything you do feels insular and limited to itself, so the game comes across less like an epic saga and more like a series of small, unpredictable events that don’t connect to anything. Then it all resets with only an in-game coffee-table book to recognise what you did, and it all feels rather pointless.

It’s also nowhere near as meaty as it seems to think it is. Nearly every character you chat with seems happy to remind you that you can take different choices for different story routes, but like most games that make such a claim, you’re not really making much impact on anything. The story is certainly unique each time, but there’s not that many locations and it doesn’t take long before you start seeing certain things over and over. And beyond that point, it starts to get old very, very quickly without the promise of actual gameplay to back it up.

I suppose I might want to play just to experience the superb visual design and audio-wrangling. Brain & Brain’s uniquely stylised and artisanal manner of drawing feels incredibly effortless and yet also very engaging to watch, all simple lines and shapes used efficiently and cleverly. And though the sounds and music are largely formed out of people vocalising into the microphone, they manage to sound plausibly realistic and yet also surreal enough to be interesting in their own right. There’s something very organic-feeling about the whole thing.

burlymanNow I have to decide whether I can comfortably recommend Burly Men At Sea, and also this game ha ha kill me ha. Well, the answer to that is… Um… Maybe? I’m really not sure. The writing is good, the presentation is lovely, the spirit and heart involved are self-evident, but it’s so minimal that I’m not sure how much sustenance it can afford to offer. I hadn’t even hit two hours before I was starting to tire of certain segments showing up again and again, which isn’t a good sign. And you have to play through the early areas repeatedly in order to reach certain locales, rather than heading straight for unknown waters right away. As odd as it may seem, I was really starting to tire of the same sodding whale eating me over and over.

Let’s break it down. Those of you who like storytelling and pretty animation should have a look and probably try it out. Those of you who are more focused on gameplay should steer clear. This isn’t really a game as such, but that doesn’t make it bad, it just makes it a lot more specific in audience. Consider this a recommendation for those with a strong love for animation, good writing and beard fetishes. It’s a noncommittal, half-hearted shrug for everyone else.

About Joel Franey

Joel Franey was born in 1994, and was happy about this fact for about ten minutes. He has since discovered escapist fiction and whiskey, and is determined to consume as much of both as possible, for as long as he can.

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