If you are someone that consumes indie games on the regular, then you will be all too familiar with the term ‘Roguelike.’ Ever since the breakout success of Hades, this game format has been reused and repurposed more than ever.
We have seen some incredible uses in the form of Returnal, and equally, we have seen these mechanics wedged into games where they need not belong. I get that you want to give the people what they want, but you want to be original at the very least.
Well, this is the challenge for Team17’s latest in a log line of products this year, Ship of Fools.
This game is, you guessed it, a roguelike adventure, where you must play as a cute and cuddly little anthropomorphic fish, and use your paddle and mounted cannons to tame sea creatures, gather resources, and stop the Auqapocalypce.
It’s a game that promises addictive gameplay, humorous writing, cartoonish visuals, and refined and frantic co-op gameplay. As a sucker for anything couch co-op, I was immediately interested and hopped into this one with high hopes.
However, you are probably wondering if this nautical adventure is worth your time. Is it a game that serves as another roguelike to add to the pile?
Or is this one an example of why this gameplay format has been all the rage in recent years? Well, stick around, and you just might find out. Man the cannons and batten down the hatches! This is Indie Game Culture’s Ship of Fools Review.
Nondescript Cuteness Underwhelms
Let’s begin with the overall presentation, setting, and themes of Ship of Fools. How do I put this? Well, the game’s art style, while having a clear nautical theme, and a very competent hand-drawn style, is just kind of common. When you know you are going into a nautical, ship-based roguelike combat game.
You have a preconceived idea of what to expect, and what I found in this game was exactly that. Sea creature characters which were carefully modeled so that they could be adapted into plush toys, that typical washed-out cartoon color palette and design, and an island hub where you can regroup and go again.
I don’t want to be too harsh on the presentation of this game, because, in truth, the visuals are good for what they are.
My criticism is fuelled by the fact that the gaming world is overpopulated with games of this nature, where cute visuals seem to do a lot of the heavy lifting for the entire game, and when things come across as nondescript and uninspired, it really shows.
To further showcase this, the writing within this game aims to lean on this silly theme, but it all just feels like a means to an end. The central premise is to go to sea and kill sea monsters to stop the everlasting storm, which is fine but hardly unique.
Plus, the characters you control have no personality, because there are so many to choose from, which makes me question why they gave them dialogue at all.
To the game’s credit, some of the characters that occupy the island and merchants that you meet along the way have a little bit of something about them, which makes conversations with them not entirely devoid of humor and charm. However, this doesn’t do enough to carry the game’s delivery of what little story it provides.
Overall, everything about this game’s art style, writing, and story blends into the background. Leaving the game in a position where the success of the title relies purely on the core gameplay.
Takes a While to Catch the Wind
Speaking of the gameplay, let’s talk about it, shall we? When putting together a roguelike, your core gameplay loop has to be spot-on, because, after all, you want players to do it over and over again.
What I can say that is positive about Ship of Fools is that it has all the right components to be an addictive roguelike, and some fun mechanics and ideas to boot. However, it doesn’t quite blend together as you would like it to.
My main criticism is that the game takes a long time to get exciting and multi-faceted, as a lot of those aforementioned great ideas are locked behind a pretty steep difficulty curve.
As you get to grips with the mechanics, you find that the game doesn’t reward you very well for your efforts, and the small incremental gains that roguelikes are known for feel too small to feel satisfying.
Yes, the Tendrils used to make upgrades are welcome and useful, but it means you’ll have to go on several voyages through a pretty dull opening section before you begin to see progress. Just think of Hades.
You don’t might fighting the same bosses over and over again, because it’s fun, they are well-designed, and they often change after repeated playthroughs.
The same can’t be said of Ship of Fools, as the run never changes in a tangible way, and it leads to stale gameplay until you can push further than before. The co-op feature does soften the blow, but if you choose to play on your own, this becomes really grating.
However, when the game opens up, and you get a string of good runs together, you begin to see the appeal of this game.
The blend of melee, gunplay, parrying/reflecting, and resource management is a joy to behold once you break through the Forgotten Waters section, and get to make more tactical decisions, like which items to duplicate/recycle in the magical pools, whether to play defensive and hoard boards to repair your ship, or to go for broke and search for loot.
When you break through the tedium and the monotony, there is a lot of fun to be had. It’s just a shame you have to endure boredom to get there.
The Sea Doesn’t Come with a Handbook
Why does the gameplay not work initially, you might ask? Well, it is largely down to the fact that the game does a piss poor job of onboarding the player or showing the player how the game works.
The game makes a point of tutorializing the main mechanics like firing cannons, moving the cannons, melee attacks, reflecting projectiles, and purchasing upgrades from merchants. However, after that, you are completely on your own, and this would be fine if all the mechanics were intuitive, but they are definitely not.
The game has a map system where players can plot their route at sea, but the game offers no key to describe what each tile means, leaving you traveling into the unknown quite a lot.
The game never takes the time to explain how the cargo slots work, which led to several instances of losing key items overboard, and the game fails to explain how certain mechanics work, like the duplication pools, so when I was awarded wood planks for beating the boss, I sailed onwards without making use of the pool.
There are plenty of moments like this where the game simply expects the player to know what’s going on, and while many players will fill in the blanks eventually, it’s, at best frustrating, and, at worst, for novice players, a dealbreaker.
Now, I rarely have a pop at indie games for lack of accessibility in their games, as they have less time, fewer resources, and less opportunity to pour money into these types of things. However, I expect the bare essentials, and Ship of Fools is laughably absent of these nailed-on features.
You’ll learn as much when you look at the options menu and find next to nothing you can toggle or change. The main issue I found was with the text within the game, and it’s something I found troublesome in another 2022 Team17 title, The Serpent Rogue.
The text is just too small, and when you want to deliver a story, a tutorial, or anything of substance, you need to give the player the option to up the text size. I have great vision, and I struggled here.
Then to add to the pile, the game was very quick to get rid of important info, giving you very little time to read and understand. For example, if you acquire a new powerup to add to the ship, the description will pop up, give you a few seconds and then disappear again.
Now, in theory, this is fine so long as you can find this description somewhere else for reference, but this is nowhere to be found. Meaning you potentially have an item on your ship which you don’t know the function of, and in a game where you have to make critical decisions regarding the best items for the job, this is a terrible problem to have.
It’s small things like this that provide barriers to overcome for, in this case, visually and cognitively impaired players, and for me, it’s simply not accessible in this modern age of gaming.
Then lastly, to end on a more positive note, I have to give props to the co-op functionality of this game. It plays very well when sharing the screen with another player.
There were no performance issues, and the addition of another party offered richer, more engaging gameplay across the board.
It allowed certain players to take on particular roles, like being the main gunner, being the one that charts the course, the one that bats away monsters attacking the sides of the ship, or the player that needs to make those key decisions involving items and powerups.
However, the game has to be praised for offering enough versatility to play solo with minimal issues. Games like Overcooked, for example, have been criticized for being near unplayable as a single-player, as the frantic and fast-moving gameplay requires a certain level of teamwork and cohesion to succeed.
The same is true with Ship of Fools, and you will have an easier time with another friend to help. However, the AI cannon paths over a lot of the cracks and allows solo players to power through if that’s their preference. I still recommend that you play with another human if you really want to enjoy this game fully, but it’s nice to have the option.
If you were a huge fan of Ship of Fool’s co-op functionality, its roguelike features, or its cute and cartoonish art style, then you might like some, or all, of these close alternatives. Check them out below:
Question: Is Ship of Fools Co-op?
Answer: You bet. You and one other player can form a dynamic duo and take to the high seas, all in the hope of killing terrifying monsters and stopping the everlasting storm. You can choose from a large range of unlockable characters, and if your friend needs to hop off, you can still plow on solo if you so choose.
Question: Where Can I Play Ship of Fools?
Answer: Ship of Fools was released on the 22nd of November 2022, and is available on all major platforms, including PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, Xbox Series X, and Series S.
Question: Who Made Ship of Fools?
Answer: This game was developed by Fika Productions and published by Team17. Team17 is the publisher behind such games as Thymesia, Overcooked, and Moving out. Whereas Ship of Fools is a debut game from Fika Productions.
Overall, Ship of Fools is a game that has so much potential to be one of the best indie couch co-ops of the year. Mainly because it’s a pretty barren market.
However, due to a lack of communication with the player, rather generic themes and writing, and gameplay that takes quite some time to burst into life, you have to say that Ship of Fools fails to reach its true potential.
The highlights of this game come when you have gone through the drab and lifeless opening series of loops, and have gradually pieced together the inadvertent puzzle of what each map tile and mechanic wants from you.
However, many players will probably put the controller down before the game begins to show its quality in the latter stages.
The main selling point is that the game has tight co-op functionality, and it offers that same frantic and chaotic gameplay that we have come to expect from Team17 through such games as Overcooked and Moving Out.
However, the game just fails to make a lasting impact on the player, and when trying to make a name in the same small pocket of the indie game industry that games like Cult of the Lamb occupy, then you can’t afford to be forgettable.
In short, if you want something new to play with a pal, it’s not a bad option, but even in the small pool of couch co-op games, there are many better options out there.
Callum played for a total of twelve hours before conducting this review. Earning enough tendrils to upgrade lots of his ship’s components, unlock a cast of new characters, and with each new run, he was, at the very least, reaching the snowy area (The Edge), if not further.
He also made a point of thoroughly testing the co-op functionality with his wife, who said, ‘I Nearly had an anxiety attack because it was all too frantic.’
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