Very rarely do I pick up a game that vastly differs from my expectations, only for me to end up enjoying it more than I could have imagined in the first place. Somehow I know that I won’t be alone in this feeling when it comes to ‘Stranded Sails: Explorers of the Cursed Isles’. Developed by ‘Lemonbomb Entertainment’, this pirate themed open world adventure game has garnered lots of attention to its apparent similarities with games like ‘Stardew Valley’ and ‘My Time At Portia’. But just how far do these similarities carry? And what, if anything, does this title do to stand out from the pack?
As the more astute of you may have gleamed from the title, the game is centred around a ship’s crew that, after a ferocious storm, find themselves stranded on a tropical island in the middle of an archipelago. You play as the captain’s son who, once reunited with your crew, must go about ensuring that you have what’s needed to survive in the harsh new environment you find yourselves on. Though it’s slow gong at first, with a little time and effort, you’ll soon have the early workings of a small society. Exploring the islands to gather food and materials to help you on your journey, as well as provide a home for the other members of your crew.
Going in blind it’s not hard to see how people made the connection between this and ‘Stardew Valley’, along with other giants of the social-sim genre, though to be perfectly honest I don’t feel that this is a very apt comparison. True, there is an emphasis on farming and living with the NPCs, as well as a short day cycle with actions that drain your energy; all staple mechanics of social-sim games. The difference here however is the change to the player’s incentive. Other titles for example, offer a lot more freedom to follow your own path, and as such have a lot more time put into RPG mechanics. In ‘Stranded Sails’ there is really only one very linear quest path, and no side missions to speak of.
Whilst there are upgrades for your tools, and the ability to improve relationships with your crew, these all feel under-utilised when compared to other titles that this game has wrongfully been compared to. In fact, it was only once I stopped trying to hold one game up to the other’s metric that I was able to fully appreciate what Stranded Sails has to offer. The truth is this is not a social-sim game, but more an action adventure game with some social-sim mechanics added in for good measure. The emphasis lies heavily on exploration, and following the games mission path for a cohesive narrative is by far the most entertaining way to approach your time here.
For the most part I found the game’s open world to be fantastically charming. The art style is colourful and cutesy without looking like it belongs on kid’s TV, and some of the tracks in the soundtrack could not have been paired better. Every action you do from farming, to rowing, to cutting wood is well animated, and visual clues to what tasks require attention are also handled well. I rarely faced any issues exploring other than the somewhat obtuse map, and only ever noticed frame drops when out in open waters when rowing to a neighbouring island – though this is to be expected as it’s likely the game’s biggest loading point.
As I mentioned before, you are stranded on an archipelago – a small group of islands – and as such you will have to navigate and explore all these islands in order to survive. You see, once you have the makings of a basic camp going on your central island, you’ll need to use your raft and map in order to venture to the islands beyond in search of specific materials and resources that only spawn there. Though not very similar, I did have strong reminiscing feeling of ‘Windwaker’ whenever I got in my raft and took to the open waters.
This is actually where I felt one of the games biggest strengths lay; there is no quest marker in the game, only a basic description of where your objective was, and as such you are forced to take a more engaged role in finding your destination. Compare this to the majority of titles these days that have a waypoint showing you exactly where to go, if not a literal line marking your path. It was incredibly refreshing to play a title that didn’t treat me like a child and instead gave me the tools to solve the problem for myself. Not only was it more satisfying to achieve, it also felt very fitting for a game where exploration is the main focus.
Of course, exploring is hungry work, and that’s where the farming comes in. Though the game does have a farming system very similar to titles like ‘Harvest Moon’ and ‘Stardew Valley’, once you look past it you’ll find that its a far more basic system, rightfully streamlined to the point where it is no longer the primary focus such as in the previously mentioned titles. I feel this is where a lot of the confusion surrounding the game’s genre comes from. If you were to judge the game purely based on the promotional material, you would be forgiven for thinking that farming was a bigger focus than it actually in. In truth, the farming in the game is more a means to an end; a way to grow the ingredients needed to make the meals that provide enough energy to keep exploring for longer. Every action in the game uses up energy – some more than others – and if you run out you’ll be forced to start all the journey again, and because just the action of rowing to another island can use up nearly half your energy, it’s practically essential for you to prepare and take along meals to allow you to do more with your time.
From your camp you’ll be able to make a variety of meals – provided you have the right ingredients – though you must first discover the recipe. At first this seemed a tedious addition, but with the variety of different ingredients available to farm or fish for,, combined with the staggering amount of recipes to discover, making meals quickly fell neatly into the established gameplay loop. Using a basic “process of elimination” method you’re able to combine ingredients into more and more advanced meals, each offering a larger energy boost than the last. Some meals are even able to give you temporary stat boosts, such as being more efficient with your energy when rowing, or a higher defence stat etc.
Whilst I like this mechanic in principal, the problem is that none of these bonuses are listed with the recipe, which means if you wanted to utilise one of these boosts you would need to remember which meal gives you what. Not an easy feat when there are dozens of potential recipes available. It’s important to remember though that the meals you make at your camp are the only way of replenishing your energy; there are no health drops from enemies or food sources on the surrounding islands, so forward planning is a must if you hope to go exploring.
Despite its basic mechanics, farming is also key to the relationships between you and your crew members. Early on you’ll craft a cooking station that offers the option to make a stew for your entire crew. You can add one ingredient per crew member, and each of them can have a different reaction depending on how much they like that particular ingredient. The more the crew likes the stew, the more points you’ll gain for each one made. Gain enough points and you’ll increase the level of your camp which will unlock certain gifts from members of the crew. These range from a new type of crop seed, and increase to your tools, or the option of constructing new buildings for your camp.
Unfortunately this is the extent of what your able to do with your crews relationships; they don’t have individual opinions of you, your actions outside of the stew have no affect on them, and even if you completely neglect all of them for the entire game it won’t have any negative ramifications. Generally I found that this makes the stew a very useful function, but ultimately one full of unrealised potential, and one that, in retrospect, makes the social aspects of the game rather inconsequential. If the gifts from crew members were tied to an individual opinion of you based on your treatment of them, rather than a collective experience, it would’ve fleshed out this side of the game considerably.
Luckily the emphasis here is not on building relationships, and instead on exploring the islands for resources, and in this regard the game is a huge success. Each of the island is large and varied, with multiple sections that can only be reached once you’ve progressed far enough. It’s important in a game like this that the areas feel unique and offer enough incentive to be revisited, without making it feel like a slog. Once again ‘Lemonbomb’ knocked this out of the park with each island having a tendency to spawn more of a certain resource that can’t be found on your main island, as well as different fish to catch and caves to explore. And it’s here that the main gameplay loop takes shape; farm to gather ingredients, use these to create meals, that in turn gives you more energy that helps you to explore surrounding areas for new materials with which to craft upgrades for your camp. As you progress you’ll move from creating new camp buildings to the ultimate goal of repairing your ship and launching your escape.
Unfortunately the game never really moves past this loop or develops on it in any meaningful way. Missions, whilst different on the surface, all have a very similar structure, and by the end the cracks start to show. There is some combat that gets introduced later into the game, but like other features this feels quite underdeveloped. Each combat encounter starts with you interacting with an object and takes place inside a small closed off area. What this means in practice is that you will never have a fight that you’re not already expecting, which in turn strips away any potential tension from the encounter.
Combat is also very simple in its execution; you have one weapon and one button to press. It never evolves past swinging your swords and moving out of the way of enemies attacks. Combine this with the lack of enemy variety and extremely obvious telegraphed attack patterns from them, and you end up with a system that feels more like pointless busy work than a swashbuckling duel. Considering that the combat is only introduced later into the game and could have offered a way of adding some variety into the gameplay loop, it’s all the more frustrating at how basic the fights are. Even just the addition of a roll/dodge mechanic would have gone a long way to improving what I consider to be the weakest aspect of the game.
Thankfully though as I said there aren’t that many instances of combat, and most of them only pertain to late game quests. And truth be told I possibly would have preferred there be no combat in the game at all and instead have an even greater development of the exploration. That being said, I’m not completely opposed to the idea and think that with a little polish it could be utilised far better in a sequel. Maybe have encounters that happen dynamically in the open world? Just a thought. For now though, I could do without.
Overall it’s not a very hard game, and the addition of some extra challenge would have been nice, as well as a bit more incentive to do things outside the main quest line. Currently once I reached the end of the game, I didn’t feel any desire to go back and finish upgrading my camp or fully explore the islands. Should ‘Lemonbomb’ ever make a sequel, I think that some side quests and a revamp of the painfully basic combat system are greatly needed. As it stands though, the linearity is somewhat unavoidable.
All that being said however, I think what strikes me the most when I look back on my time with the game is how wrong I was in my assumptions, and how ultimately that didn’t matter in my enjoyment of it. Though it shares aspects of familiarity with other titles, ‘Stranded Sails: Explorers of the Cursed Islands’ really strives to do its own thing, and the sooner I accepted that, the sooner I could really start to appreciate and enjoy the game. And despite its differences, ‘Stranded Sails’ still manages to offer that addictive “one more go” gameplay loop that social-sim fans like myself absolutely love. I feel strongly confident in saying that if you pick this game up, you’ll have a hard time putting it back down.