Review: Abandon Ship

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Review copy provided by developer

The idea behind Early Access on Steam is that developers can put out an incomplete game, and the public can support its completion through both purchases and feedback. Not many games that launch into EA use this opportunity to its fullest, and it is in fact rare for games to evolve much from their initial appearance. I mention this because it is honestly remarkable to see how far Abandon Ship came in the journey to full release. This is a game I was markedly disappointed by when it originally launched, and now find myself eager to explore new seas and battle more strange vessels night after night.

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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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The main campaign of the game is a lengthy affair that can be broken down into very different acts. To give you an idea of what this means, the first few hours are spent fleeing the cult and the mighty kraken, in a very FTL-ish pursuit across the seas. After an intensely gratifying encounter that resolves that act, the next opens up the entire world for you to explore, with varied objectives and many different exotic locales to visit. Throughout this journey you’ll be doing some very familiar ship management, stopping at ports to repair, upgrade, or trade up your vessel for the trials ahead. You’ll also hire and fire crew, manage their quirks, gather supplies, and take on the occasional side quests. Some ports will have special circumstances to deal with, such as wars with neighboring isles or ravenous plague outbreaks.

You’ll find these ports on vast, ornately-framed maps that you sail your ship around. In another nod to FTL, Abandon Ship organizes its world as nodes on a map, with each node being its own animated map of a chunk of ocean. The paths between discreet maps are represented as gates, which are locked until you complete a number of events scattered across them. Events can be anything from ship battles to plot events, raiding sunken wrecks to aiding damaged ships. There’s a wide variety of encounters to discover, though with the impressive length and open nature of the campaign you’ll inevitably start recognizing some of the common ones. Overall it’s a bit of an odd system, since the game forces you to choose encounters before you can leave the area, and aside from the time pressure of the early-game pursuit there feels like little reason to have to sail around the map at all for encounters, aside from aesthetics.

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Originally, this is where the game lost me. The pursuit counter was too tight, the battles were too punitive, and the encounters became tedious. But apparently these were common complaints and the developers listened carefully, because all of these issues have very much been resolved. Outrunning the cult is better balanced to keep you on your toes instead of constantly warding off the kraken. Battles are much easier to end in your favor, with a profit of salvage rather than a maintenance deficit. And there’s so much more to see in terms of encounters, with whole factions and trade routes and friends added since I last tried the game. Even the maps themselves are so varied and interesting that I’m enjoying exploring them purely to see what neat little isles and landmarks they features.

The improvements to the gameplay carry over to the combat in a big way as well. Battles are fought one-on-one, with your ship and the enemy ship sailing parallel for maximum broadsiding. You can adjust the distance to bring different weapons or boarding into play, or bring the ship about to give your other bank of weapons a chance, but mostly battle is about managing your crew and salvos. There’s a huge selection of weapons here, from traditional round shot and chain shot to flamethrowers, acid mortars, berserk darts, lightning guns, and time bombs. My current build holds enemy ships in place with chain shot, harasses their crew with cannon and sniper fire, and then explodes their vessel from within using a pair of hull-cracking mortars. It’s extremely effective but I have to vary my tactics for each battle, because that huge wealth of weapons can be found on enemy ships too, and there are dozens of modifiers like tidal waves, fog, and giant spiders to complicate battles further.

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I really want to stress how varied and interesting the gameplay has stayed a dozen hours in, because that was my chief complaint about Abandon Ship initially. Every aspect, from battles to events to ship management has been expanded with a remarkable amount of options and variations. Every new map is an adventure, and every enemy ship is a wild ride of harpoons, firebombs, and men overboard. There’s a little balance weirdness here perhaps stemming from the variety and rebalancing, I think, but it seems to be in the player’s favor. I’ve been able to progress all the way up to the best ship not even halfway through the campaign, and the only fights I’ve had trouble with are the sea forts. You’ll also find a few annoyances lingering in the design, like encounters that incapacitate your crew with no recourse until you treat them at a port, or key plot missions that require ship upgrades that only randomly appear at shops.

These are hardly complaints though, considering how far this game has come. The enormous, story-driven campaign isn’t even all it offers, as there’s another three mini-campaigns included with different themes and challenges to tackle. The writing is solid and tells an interesting story, and it’s all held up with a fantastically visceral presentation of tall ships blasting each other to splinters amidst raging storms. I still can’t get over how effectively this game went from tedious and shallow to thrilling and engrossing, but the results speak for themselves. Not only does it feature a unique mix of eldritch horror and swashbuckling, Abandon Ship offers all the variety and action you could ask for in such a colorful setting.

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