Review: Abandon Ship

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Review copy provided by developer

The danger of following in the footsteps of another game is that your own might not live up to expectations. After all, games that inspire others do so because there is something great in their design, and failing to capture similar greatness can leave subsequent titles looking like pale imitations. It pains me to bring this up with Abandon Ship because the premise and presentation are so sublime, but comparing it to its clear predecessors is not favorable at all. Perhaps it will evolve enough during Early Access to make good on its promise, but that seems a very distant goal at the moment.

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You had it all, the loyalty of mad cultists, legions of fishmen at your command, and a deep, meaningful bond with the kraken itself. But something in you snapped and you turned away from the cult that raised you, taking to the sea with a freshly-sprung crew and a modest tub of a ship. The cult didn’t take kindly to betrayal, and now you find yourself in a race across the open seas to make your break a clean one, taking the fight to the horrors when you can and escaping when you can’t. With any luck you’ll eventually obtain the means to start chipping away at the cult yourself, waging a guerilla war against a group with dark designs on the whole of the world.

I’m not aware of any other game that mixes Lovecraft and swashbuckling, and now that I’ve seen it in action I’m distressed it didn’t happen sooner. The oceans are home to all manner of eldritch, tentacled horrors in the mythos and they surface here to ravage your ship. Cult vessels feature twisted hulls of alien design, crewed by the bestial haliphron which can swim the gap between your ships and start clawing at your crew. The kraken will appear from time to time to skewer your vessel on its tentacles, pulling it beneath the waves if you can’t dislodge them in time. As the game progresses the cult will gain in power, and you’ll see more of the otherworldly influence across the seas.

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At least, to a point. Abandon Ship may have a sublime premise but it doesn’t capitalize on it as fully as it should. The haliphron and kraken certainly set this title apart from other naval simulators but you won’t see much more than that in your encounters. The map is broken down into connected nodes, each of which is a tile of ocean you can sail around. These tiles are dotted with points of interest that might be ships, lifeboats, flotsam, traders, or other events. Outside of the direct cult encounters there’s very little cosmic horror or any horror at all to behold, mostly just choices to engage normal-looking vessels or pick up castaways. They’re also just dots on the map, with nothing dynamic about your surroundings or anything to search for other than more dots.

I’ve avoided it long enough, but now that we’re getting into mechanics I have to bring up FTL. Abandon Ship is heavily, heavily informed by FTL’s design, which isn’t a bad thing on its face but suffers when you look at how it’s applied here. FTL had you outrunning a fleet, working through a network of jump points until you could reach the gate to the next system. For some reason that design is copied almost entirely in Abandon Ship, despite it making no sense for the age of sail. Your tile of ocean has literal gates leading to further tiles, each locked with a number. You have to complete that many points of interest to unlock the gate, just because. You’re also being chased by the cult but the timer for that guarantees you’re going to eat one unavoidable encounter per node, and once you clear it the timer simply resets instead of pressuring you to actually move on.

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The combat is similarly influenced by FTL, though it doesn’t benefit from the same variety. During battles your ship is set parallel to an enemy vessel, allowing you to change distance but not much else. Your crew is present on the deck of the ship and can be assigned to cannons or the wheel, or sent to repair damage or pump water taken on from leaks. It’s a fine foundation for the combat, and your first few encounters will come with the thrills of splintering wood and shouting seamen. But then you get on to the fifth fight, the tenth fight, the twentieth fight, and nothing really changes between them. With only cannons and boarding as your options for victory, you essentially pick one strategy and repeat it forever. You can buy cannons that do fire damage or stun crew but there’s no reason to when your starter bank of cannons and a basic mortar is enough to carry you through most of the storyline.

There’s nothing here as interesting as drones or teleporters or beams or venting oxygen, and the few additions like pumping water and winching men overboard are just corner-case inconveniences. You also end up with some distinct weirdness and irritations due to the closely-copied design, like the random first aid station at the bow of the ship that sailors heal themselves at. If you’ve got someone at the wheel you can perform maneuvers but right now it’s just escape or turn the ship around, which lets you use the cannons you probably didn’t upgrade on the side of the ship you never use. Enemy ships can also escape without warning, an incredibly frustrating experience that would benefit from some kind of callout like FTL has when the enemy spins up their jump drives.

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Between the lack of variety and the shallow design, there’s just not enough to Abandon Ship right now to recommend. It’s a shame too, because there’s a pretty lengthy campaign that follows your battle against the cult and their minions. I was enjoying the story interludes and seeing how mission objectives played out, but honestly once I beat the first boss after about two hours and saw the map open up, I walked away. I knew what was coming, more rote battles against samey enemies, and the same points of interest repeated over and over and over. There’s a ton of potential here, and the polish exhibited in the story and graphics give me hope that it might one day extend to the combat and encounters. But it doesn’t right now, and that’s enough to make me abandon this one for more varied experiences.

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