If you’ve read my Nantucket review, you may remember that I used every nautical pun in existence. There are no nautical puns left now, so this piece will be 100% nautical pun free. No nautical puns whatsoever.
Lovecraftian cultists, eh? Just can’t seem to heed basic health and safety advice. Primarily, clear warnings against summoning rituals and strict company policies banning tentacles. Slow day at work? Tentacles. Bored at lunch? Tentacles. Deborah’s leaving party and forgot to buy a present? Sure hope she likes tentacles. So yeah. Rituals. Tentacles. Many nightmarish visions of elder deities, much fleeing for your life. Abandon Ship wraps it’s eldritch suckers around you and drags you through a fantastically atmospheric introduction, conveyed through painterly slides and rich prose. After a brief tutorial, you make your escape from your former cultist brethren, and out to sea.
Exploration takes place on gorgeously rendered, procedural map sections. Each surrounded by ornate picture frames, existing at the intersection between realism and representation. Jagged rocks pierce through foam crested waves. On some maps, lush jungles sprout from white sand coated isles. Others, cracked ice floats menacingly at the peripheries. Uncovering these procedural vistas can be breathtaking. Like unfurling a wrinkled map, rich with the sensation of a vast ocean opening up before you.
When navigating, though, Abandon Ship lacks the lasting unease or tension that the art and vivid prose work so hard to establish. In the early game, cultists hound your voyage. Their looming approach signaled by a timer. Initially, this escape feels desperate. Your first instincts are to put as many leagues between you and your pursuers as possible. But this sense of urgency soon became an annoyance as I learned to hang around ports when the bar was close to filling. I docked when it got dangerous. The cult slunk back to their cult hole. You can tell this mechanic is designed to evoke constant dread, but ends up just being mildly inconvenient. Mild inconvenience on the high seas, yo ho ho.
Aside from these easily avoidable attacks, the choice to engage with potential threats is always yours to make. Each map has one or more gates. To make progress you’ll need to complete a set number of encounters. These take the form of ship combat, saving drowning sailors, investigating wrecks, or random events. The latter mean a brief moment of uncertainty in the time between left click and loading, but the most dramatic results were often just a loss of resources or a brief confrontation with easily dispatched Dagon-esque fish dudes. This results in disparate pockets of tension that feel detached from the act of exploring. Some players may appreciate being given a chance to prepare. Personally, I felt a great sense of constant danger would have compliment the narrative stakes.
That’s not to say these events are boring, as they’re conveyed through more of Abandon Ship‘s excellent writing. But they lack the sense of a continuous narrative being built upon, feeling more like disparate vignettes, soon forgotten.
They occasionally offer moral choices, which are interesting, but monochrome. It’s clear which options are going to annoy your crew, causing morale loss which can eventually result in a violent mutiny. This approach to morality, with clear and immediate consequences, doesn’t convey the sensation of forging one’s own journey, more manipulating a system for desired effects. In tandem with other factors, it does promote wariness, but fails to contribute to any meaningful sense of character.
Combat is frenetic, but with well telegraphed threats that can be responded to easily, making Abandon Ship less about long term strategic planning and more about being constantly focused and ready to respond. While the blasting cannons, cracking wood and roaring ocean keep fights intense on a superficial level, it’s easy to fall into a safe rhythm once you find an approach you’re comfortable with.
For me, this means keeping a helmsman constantly at the wheel, steadily building up a manoeuvre bar. At the same time, one of my sailors mans a chainshot – a long range armament meant for tearing through enemy sails. With the sails weakened, and their crew distracted with repairs, I use the huge metal spikes on the sides of my boat to ram into theirs, causing catastrophic damage to their hull. Their crew stunned, I let loose with flamethrowers, grapeshot and a mortar, weakening or outright killing a good portion of their men. Still within jumping range of their boat, I send my sailors over and give them a bit of the old cutlass-in-the-eye. Pro tip: The old cutlass-in-the-eye works every time.
The first time I worked out how to do this was one of the best, most piratey-ass pirate times I’ve had in a pirate game. The problem is that it’s so efficient – and taking out the crew without sinking the ship nets you a precious loot bonus – I soon ended up repeating it for every encounter. Sure, there’s a lot of variety to combat approaches depending on which upgrades you’ve chosen. Once I find something that works though, I’m hesitant to experiment too much. The constant threat of permadeath means a tendency towards playing it safe.
Fortunately, Abandon Ship features a short combat campaign aside from the main story, so you can try out different approaches and see which one floats your bo…which one works best for you.
Eventually, you’ll sustain enough ship damage through combat that you’ll need to stop at a port to repair. Ports also offer ship upgrades, new weaponry, and the chance to add new crew. You’re never absolutely flush with resources, so you’ll often have to choose between new canons or a new medic. This helps keep the economy feel necessary throughout. Though visually distinct on the exploration map, aside from offering different upgrades and crew, each port is identical. I found myself wishing for some port-specific side quests, or at least some flavour text, to make each feel unique. Abandon Ship is currently slated at around a year before full release, however, so there’s plenty of time to expand on this sort of thing.
Here Be Clusterfuckery
It’s worth talking about that melee combat some more, because it’s easily Abandon Ship‘s weakest aspect. It controls like an isometric RPG, but your offensive options are limited to attack orders. If a crew member loses all their health they go into a ‘bleed out’ mode. You then have limited time to stabilize (click on) them before they’re lost forever. Dedicated medics perform this action faster and can be used to heal crew members in combat. There’s also a sick bay on your ship so you can quickly pull wounded crew out of combat to heal them if you need to.
The issue here is it’s an overwhelming clusterfuck. If the same models occupy the same space, they tend to melt into each other like a big piratey fondue. The bottom left of the UI displays individual health, and can be used to issue commands, but things can become unreadable quickly. Melee won’t be as frequent if you choose to take down ships long-range, but it is forced on occasion, and it’s frantic and tense for all the wrong reasons. Losing hours of progress because of an incomprehensible scrum is, frankly, a load of big slippery Narwhale bollocks.
Worth Your Time?
Abandon Ship is visually and technically excellent. The ship to ship combat is detailed and exciting. Similarly, the baked-in narrative is engaging, even if the procedural storytelling falls short. It’s main issue is that it fails to surprise after a gripping few opening hours. Also, the melee combat is salty seadog shite. In summary, there’s a lot to like if the themes appeal to you, and lots of time before release, but I’d still go with Nantucket if you’ve only got the time for a limited amount of swashbuckling. Though if you don’t have room for more swashbuckling in your life, it’s probably time to reassess things.
Available from: Steam
Abandon ship was reviewed using a key provided by the developer.