The smell brings you around. Salty, fresh; a hint of palm. The fine, soft sand is warm against your back, and you lay there for a moment, trying to think. It’s a struggle to remember why – or how – you came here. Slowly, you become aware of the gentle sound of water lapping against the shore. It’s touch is far from gentle however, the sting of the brine enveloping cuts and grazes along your skin like the needles of a deranged acupuncturist. These juxtaposed sensations, the serene and the chaotic, the soft and the sharp, leave you with a feeling of melancholic ambivalence. It should be paradise here, but it’s not quite.
This should be a fantastic premise for a hack ‘n’ slash RPG-lite rogue-like adventure game set in the Bermuda Triangle, an exciting journey of discovery with a lust for exploration.
But again – it’s not quite.
I had high hopes for Lost Sea. The premise above being realised via procedurally generated islands, promises of recruiting a crew to adventure alongside you, repair your ship and escape the Bermuda Triangle at the end of a long journey. There was the lure of building structures with the help of your crew, of digging up buried treasure and forgotten sea chests, of finding stranded folks willing to join your hearty team of adventurers. Surviving with your crew whilst sailing from island to island, searching for a way out of this strange combination of paradise and hell.
Even if you hadn’t seen any screenshots or watched the misleading trailer, just the description of the game itself was enticing. Plus, it’s got fun graphics and upbeat Caribbean piratical music to accompany the journey. Sadly, the game completely fails to deliver on its implied premise.
The game runs well and it looks nice, the birds-eye view bright with bold colours and solid textures all depicted in an angular, cartoon style. It all moves along with a super smooth frame rate and has tight responsive controls. It’s just that the game itself is so bare-boned, generic, and – I have to be honest, as always – just downright boring to play. And that’s a criminal shame, it really is.
Forget everything you think you know from the previews. Here’s exactly what happens post-tutorial, the full loop of gameplay:
You start out on the dock (don’t know how that got built) of an unexplored island. Well, unexplored apart from whoever built all the mines, stairways, walls, fences and bridges. And whoever left all the crates, barrels and chests which are inexplicably laden with valuables and useful items.
Anyway. You run around the island, searching every nook and cranny to find stone tablets which, for some reason, allow you to sail to a different island. If anything, it should slow your pathetic skinny sailing vessel down, surely? But no – the more hulking lumps of rock you carry around, the further you can travel across the bright blue ocean. Obviously. Upon returning the tablet to the dock, you set sail (not graphically – you just select the option from menu) and do it all again, from an identical dock on another *cough* unexplored *cough* island. You continue this perpetual fetch-quest until you’ve either escaped the Bermuda Triangle, or decided to stay where there isn’t any electricity. Or television. Or games like this.
While you jog slowly around the islands, you’ll find lost, desperate castaways you can add to your crew. By lost and desperate, I mean fully clothed, healthy and with their own particular set of skills. (If this guy can repair bridges, pick locks and locate buried treasure, shouldn’t he be rescuing me? As I can achieve none of that without him). You can unlock up to four slots to have these people at your disposal, so you can use their skills in the field as they follow your every footstep, the hearts above their heads making them appear like forlorn puppies as opposed to it being a measure of their health. Occasionally you’ll find a broken bridge or a locked chest and you can command your followers to deal with it, if the RNG has given them the appropriate skills. Most islands hold more than one travel-tablet, and crew members can also be commanded to carry extra ones which is handy, cutting down on backtracking.
Along the way you’ll encounter a strange selection of creatures you despatch with your repeated, combo-less machete swings. Your crew cannot fight, of course. It’s all up to you. As these dodos, triffids, dinosaurs, trolls and natives-with-elephant-skulls-on-their-heads fall to your blade, you collect experience which you can use to level up various things, such as unlocking a spinning and a dash attack, and the ability to roll out of danger and sprint (jog a little less slowly). You can also upgrade your ‘ship’, which basically amounts to being able to have extra crew members follow you, or have the locations of goodies appear on your map. You use coins from crates and barrels you smash on the islands to purchase the ship upgrades.
When you’ve fully explored a map, you return to the dock and, as mentioned above, choose to set sail. This brings up an overview of around fifteen islands to sail to, but you get very little choice as to which ones. The overview presents the islands in one long line, as, say, a mobile game might do. The tablets you’ve collected have numbers attached to them, and you can only sail in one direction along the line, and only land at docks which are the same number of islands away as the numbers on the tablet. For example, you’re on island 3 of 15 along the line. You’ve collected two tablets which have the numbers 3 & 4 on them, so you can only stop at island 6 or 7. It doesn’t matter which islands have treasure on them, or the magical trees which regain your health as you shake them – for goodness sake – or whether the island is rated as ‘easy’ or ‘medium’ or ‘hard’. You HAVE to stop at one of them.
At this point I’ll tell you one of the game’s most ridiculous features: You can’t take your crew members with you, apart from ones you have currently enlisted. So, if you go to an island with four crew members in tow and find another three castaways there, you will HAVE to leave at least three people behind. There’s no indication of which skills you’ll need on the next island, so it’s a pure guessing game as to who to take, especially as the skills are randomly assigned. You might end up with four locksmiths, but you need a bridge builder and a buried treasure digger (because that’s a skill) at the next stop.
If you manage to keep plugging away, you’ll reach the end of the island chain. Here you land on a boss island which, when the boss is killed, takes you to the next zone. Then you do it all again, only with a different colour palette and some new scenery. It’s amazing how desert, jungle, swamp and tundra can exist in the same biosphere, but apparently it’s all there in the Bermuda Triangle.
By the time you’ve reached the point where the developer couldn’t be arsed to create any more new objects or recolours, which is after around six zones and three hours, you escape and the experience is over. Should you die during the game, you lose everything and start again. This isn’t totally unfair however – tablets collected get converted to experience points and coins for your next playthrough, and you can choose to restart at the beginning of any zone you’ve unlocked. So it is possible to see the adventure through to the end, barring any catastrophes such as giving your Xbox a drink of tea, or going to bang your head repeatedly against a slab of concrete because it feels nice when you stop.
With a premise such as the one we have here, Lost Sea could have been a fun hack n slash survival game. Sadly it’s neither, and apart from the nice looks, solid controls and great soundtrack it deserves to be left where its name implies.
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