Review: Despite its Charming Presentation, Stranded Sails is a Shallow Sea
When Doom Eternal was delayed to the same release date as the new Animal Crossing game, much discussion was had on the internet about who will be playing what that day. As odd as it may seem to some, I’m one of those people who was torn. Lots of people consider games nothing more than glorified murder simulators, but they’re obviously so much more than that. They can be about anything, and something as simple as farming and building a community can be extremely rewarding. When I caught wind of Stranded Sails, I imagined a Stardew Valley-esque (or Harvest Moon, if you’d rather) adventure with the added thrill of the open ocean. And while it can be described as such, this ship isn’t as sturdy as I’d hope for.
Stranded Sails starts off with your character and his or her shipmates getting stranded on a small island, which is part of a small cluster of islands. Once stranded, you’re tasked to establish means of survival for the small group, while reuniting the survivors who have been scattered throughout the island chain. To survive, you’ll have to plant crops, and build shelter for your crewmates.
Planting, gathering, building and exploring are the main activities you can do in Stranded Sails—and strangely, it doesn’t feel like there’s very much of any of that. You have a small (upgradeable) plot of land to farm on, but even the smallest plot generates more than enough food. You can use the food to contribute to the camp stew, or use them to cook meals for yourself.
Food is an integral part of Stranded Sails. Everything you do consumes energy, and food replenishes that energy without the need for sleep. Cutting down trees, digging holes, fighting, and rowing to different islands takes away precious energy—and once it hits zero, you wake up back at camp. Fortunately, there isn’t much of a penalty for running out of energy, but that also makes things feel a little low stakes. But low stakes is fine sometimes—especially if the rest of the game is fun. Unfortunately, Stranded Sails tends to be tedious more often than fun.
Even cooking precious food in Stranded Sails is tedious, and the cooking system itself is horrible. The more ingredients you have, the more potential recipes you can unlock. But the only way to unlock recipes is by selecting one of the unknown recipes and specifically trying to guess ingredients to unlock it. Even more frustratingly, you can’t randomly stumble across a new recipe, instead, you’re forced to trial-and-error your way through. What makes it worse is the fact that ingredients need to be put in a certain order, too, and the only clues you have are whether the ingredient belongs, and whether it’s in the right spot. Not what ingredient is wrong, etc. It’s just a lousy system, that feels inspired by Breath of the Wild, but it has none of Breath of the Wild’s emergent feel—replaced instead by rigid tediousness.
One thing I always appreciate about these farming and social simulation games is the ability to choose what you want to do. Stranded Sails has a degree of freedom, but the game is always railroading you into one objective or another. I thought I was still playing the tutorial after several hours, only to realize that it’s just how the game is—extremely structured. And structure isn’t always bad, especially for those who like to have direction in their gameplay. But most of that structure consists of a series of fetch quests.
Interacting with your crewmembers is sadly limited, too. Most of the time they exist only to stand around and give you quests. When you cook enough camp stew, you will receive gifts from them. These gifts are usually upgrades—like a better watering bucket, or a better fishing rod. So feeding your camp ends up feeling like way to gain experience points—even if you can get away with dumping all of your excess vegetables into the stew. Not that food is scarce at all, as it grows so fast that I could hardly keep up with harvesting it.
Most of the things you do in Stranded Sails are horribly simple. Fishing is a matter of waiting, and then pressing a button a few times. Watering plants (until you get the upgraded bucket) is a tedious exercise in selecting the right square to water. Combat, something that doesn’t come along until near the end of the game, is equally simple, with only a few enemy types, and most encounters consisting of walking up to attack, and then walking back to avoid being hit. Combat feels tacked on, and ultimately unrewarding.
Sailing between islands—the thing I was looking forward to the most—is equally simple. Exploration just isn’t fun, and doesn’t feel rewarding so much as just necessary for progression. And if you’re playing a game just to finish it, what’s the point?
Stranded Sails doesn’t take away your freedom completely, but it certainly railroads you to do the things it wants you to do. While it has a charming art style, its lack of social interaction and too-simple game mechanics make it a disappointment. I’ll have to stick to Stardew Valley and New Leaf to get my fix—at least until March.
Stranded Sails is available tomorrow on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch
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