You’ve got to love an apocalypse. A fictional one, that is. It seems like just sticking your protagonist in the aftermath of some civilization-or-other’s ambiguous, probably mysterious demise puts your narrative at a huge advantage right from the very first page, scene, or screen. I should be sick of the formula by now, but I’m not. I don’t think anybody is.
Far: Lone Sails plays the ambiguous post-apocalypse card but supplements it with art, music, and mechanics that are unique enough to keep the contextual cliches feeling fresh and shiny. As fresh and shiny as they can be in a game that’s 95% grey, at least. It’s very pretty and atmospheric but equally simple and short.
You play as an endearing little character dressed in a striking red raincoat that contrasts nicely with the landscape. Movement is restricted to two dimensions, but heavy use of parallax gives the environment a real sense of scale. This grandiose visual style is put to good use as you hop into a bonkers, steampunky land-boat thing and set off on a road trip through desolate wastelands and derelict industrial compounds. The vehicle is high-maintenance, requiring your constant attention as it trundles along. You leap around the interior refueling the engine, releasing the steam valve, and operating other gadgets acquired along the way.
Just a quick note on what this game isn’t, because I went in expecting something slightly different: it isn’t a strategic management game that forces you to make careful choices about a complex piece of machinery. My cursory inspection of screenshots beforehand for some reason gave me the impression I’d have to apply a large portion of my very limited brain power to maximize the efficiency of an intricate mechanical system. Not the case, it turns out. The machine is very simple. You just whack the right button at the right time to keep it functioning. Occasionally you have to multitask, which can get at least slightly intense. But the enjoyment comes mostly from the atmosphere and discovery rather than any kind of deep micromanagement system.
You know how some games just feel good the moment you fire them up? Far: Lone Sails is one of those. You start out beside a grave, presumably a lost loved one. Maybe they gave you that wicked cool raincoat. In which case this is truly a tragic loss. It’s a strong statement to open with. It tacitly informs you that the game intends to speak to you on some kind of emotional level, without being too blatant and pretentious about it. And then you start to move around and notice that the control is solid and responsive. Everything feels right, and when you factor in those greyscale delights gracing your eyeballs, you can’t help but feel positive and receptive to whatever the game has to offer from here.
While I’m on the topic of quality, I have to mention the atmosphere that Lone Sails creates – it’s really bloody excellent. I imagine the dramatic, melancholy-yet-hopeful spirit of the art style is oozing from the screenshots as we speak. Even so, you won’t get anything like the full experience without the sound design, which is phenomenal.
I’ve noticed a trend in games striving for the ultimate isolated survival experience atmosphereTM lately, which is to pretty much do away with in-game music altogether. I’ll be analyzing (or perhaps just moaning at length about) that phenomenon in an article right here on OGG soon, so keep your eyes peeled for that one, folks. I only mention it here because Far: Lone Sails refuses to board that particularly soulless gaming bandwagon. Instead, it braves the near-extinct musical isolation vision, and nails it.
Melodies drift in and out as they please, often leaving you alone with the gentle whispering of the wind and the rumbling of your vehicle. When the soundtrack does kick in though, it might be a couple of delicate, sweeping scales from a piano, an ominous, synthesized bassline, or even a brilliantly placed mandolin and saxophone piece. It’s contextual, but feels incredibly organic.
And as if that weren’t enough of a treat for the ear holes, the sound effects are just superb. The game very nearly transports your brain directly inside the trusty 2D truck when you hear the rainfall clattering onto the roof. Much like the rest of the game, it doesn’t evoke a feeling of foreboding necessarily. More like that quiet contentment of being at home alone on a rainy day, listening to the drops tapping on your window. And like home, the vehicle ultimately isn’t an impenetrable sanctuary. It experiences its fair share of problems, after all. But it’s still standing, and thanks to the little trinkets you pick up along the way, it’s uniquely yours.
At this point you must be thinking, by jove, this is the perfect game! Because my target audience is 19th century aristocrats, apparently. Well before you get your bloomers in a twist, there are a couple of things to note.
While the atmosphere is an absolute triumph, I can’t help feeling like the world could use a bit more depth. Of course abandoned homes and warehouses and lighthouses and whatever else show up to reinforce the primary, post-apocalypse narrative, but I really wanted to find more personal touches. Maybe some cryptic, unexplained hints at individual stories. Or some recurring clues about a person you never meet but feel some connection to by the end. I actually suspect the developers were thinking along those lines at the beginning of the game. The little protagonist’s home is filled with details that give the character a background, albeit a vague one.
Even better on account of its simplicity was the small, balanced tower of rocks I passed not long into the journey. It was clearly built by a person. Carefully, maybe even with pride. Were the developers hinting at life nearby? Was the mysterious beach architect still around here somewhere? It didn’t matter. It meant something. Obviously the stones were placed after the catastrophic event took place, and so in a way they became a tiny, unassuming symbol of hope. Which ties brilliantly into the game’s unique ‘optimistic melancholy’ vibe. Thinking about it, I’d better move on from these stupid rocks before I end up spewing two thousand words of absolute bullshit about them. Maybe I’ll write a full analysis as a separate article if we get 10,000 likes on this video. Hold on, that’s YouTube. I’ve been watching too much YouTube.
Anyway, the tragedy is that these meaningful minor details all but disappear not a quarter the way into the game. I found myself desperately searching for any conglomeration of pixels that I could conceivably over-analyze, only to end up disappointed.The atmosphere is amazing and the story is, y’know, fine, but there should have been something more.
Lone Sails is far too easy. It’s an artistic work that aims to properly tickle your feels, but it absolutely is still a game. And it isn’t one about frolicking in a field with fairies and rainbows, either. It goes out of its way to make the world look imposing and you look vulnerable. And yet my first death, very late in the game, was self-inflicted. Literally just to see if it was possible to die. Or fail in any way. Obviously difficulty level is irrelevant in some games, but in this case, the complete lack of challenge undermines the narrative. Even that incredible atmosphere takes a hit when there are no consequences for mistakes. The dangers presented to you are less impactful when you know they can’t hurt you.
During your trip, you regularly encounter obstacles. They usually require you to leave the boat-car and investigate some building or structure on foot, effectively solving a puzzle to clear a path. Unsurprisingly, these little brain teasers wouldn’t trouble a toddler. In fact, it might be unfair to criticize them as puzzles. They’re so straightforward, it’s possible they’re not intended to be puzzling at all. But then what are they? Detours from the fun, atmospheric core of the game to do a couple of chores in a less interesting environment? They’re not massively long or obnoxious, but it seems like an odd decision from the developer.
Should you buy it?
I’m very glad that this game exists, and not just because of that pile of pebbles (like and subscribe). Far: Lone Sails pairs the creativity and authenticity of top indie games with the solid control and quality sound design of big-budget titles. It’s a shining example to any aspiring indie developer. You won’t get more than three hours out of it, and it’s just a touch too simple to achieve its true potential, but if you like a bit of atmosphere and emotion in your video games, you absolutely can’t go wrong here.