Burly Men at Sea review: A pretty, but sinking ship (PS4)

(Image courtesy of Brain&Brain)

(This review will contain minor spoilers.)

Burly Men at Sea (2016) is the tale of three bearded, burly Scandinavian brothers who set off in search of untold adventures. It’s very much an interactive storybook experience, with the player acting as a sort of hands-on narrator for the branching storylines. Countless charming animations, a simple color palette and a soundtrack full of toe-tapping tunes thoroughly immerse the player in this cute and thoughtful experience from husband-and-wife duo Brain&Brain. But is charm enough to warrant the two-or-three-hour playtime when the controls are finicky and the branching storylines culminate in very little?

Out to Sea

The premise of Burly Men at Sea is simple: three brothers set sail from their small fishing village, and the player is responsible for guiding them from encounter to encounter. There are two constants in this branching story — the beginning and end scenes — and though they’re brief, you’ll quickly tire of them.

What happens in between these two is where the meat of the story lies. The folklore of the Arctic is explored in the form of the various people and creatures one will encounter. There are mermaids, friendly seals, the Kraken and a fossegrim (a fiddle-playing troll-pixie-man), all of which add to the charm (there’s that word again) of the adventure. Each encounter is brief, but impactful in its own way. A childlike mountain golem with a penchant for scraggly trees might just make your day.

But just how long do these hold one’s interest? For this reviewer, not long. They are charming (!) and cute, but there’s not much substance. For gaming experiences of this length, one expects a more involved story. Or at the very least, more depth. What’s present isn’t terrible – just not engrossing. And to bookend each storyline with the same opening and ending scene – which amounts to about a fourth of the playtime – is taxing on one’s patience. If you temper your expectations for in-depth commentary on the human condition, you’ll mostly enjoy what’s present.

Sights and Sounds

The asking price for this game is worth it for the art and music alone. (It is available for $10 on the Nintendo eShop at the time of writing, but PS Plus members can regularly grab this title for under $5.)

Quirky, seafaring tunes produced by Plied Sound LLC chronicle the misadventures of the trio of bearded brothers. The minimalist nature of the whole experience bleeds over into the soundtrack as well. The opening ditty, “Rubbish in the Nets,” is a simple tune punctuated by flutes, metallophones and strings which ends with the call of a hunting horn. “Mischief, Aweigh” is an appropriate send off each time the brothers leave the seaside village — the hunting horn and cheerful singing quickly dissipate on the salty, sea air as the tro is engulfed by their surprisingly punctual whale friend. Each track is dripping with childlike mysticism. And Plied took the sound effects a step further, as all of the effects are mouth sounds the team distorted one way or another.

Perhaps what Burly Men at Sea was praised for most upon its release was its visuals. The papercraft characters and environments are undeniably gorgeous. Animations are crisp and the frame rate never dipped. Even the scenes players are forced to sit through over and over are still admittedly charming (number 5? 6?) after having played through all the storylines. (And yes, this reviewer is aware that once a trophy is unlocked, there’s an option on the pause menu to teleport straight back to the village. More on this at the end.)

The color palette enlivens the simple and beautiful environments. Bright oranges and yellows of the village always pop against the tranquil blue-greens of the water. Gray-browns of stormy skies reflect in the sea, glazing the water with a muted blue. In a world full of monochromatic miseries – looking at you, Dark Souls – Brain&Brain has blessed us with something special.

Getting Your Sea Legs

In a non-combat, mostly point-and-click game, one would expect the controls to be tight. Unfortunately, they’re not, and it weights the experience down. The PS4 touchpad is almost too sensitive when used to move the cursor. The joysticks aren’t much better as the cursor becomes inconsistent in its responsiveness.

And sometimes it’s not even entirely clear how to progress the story or trigger a certain reaction. For example, when the brothers are wrangling the Kraken, it took more than one go at it before it became clear holding the cursor down on the tentacles triggers a different reaction than simply clicking on them. Lack of a visual cue didn’t help. In a game this simple all interactions must be intuitive or they fall flat. The latter was the case on more than one occasion.

Is She Seaworthy?

Burly Men at Sea is buoyed by its visuals and music, but anchored down by a shallow story and unintuitive controls. Some of the scenes are repetitive and the duo at Brain&Brain must’ve recognized this as they implemented a feature to skip some by whisking the brothers back to the start. The shallowness of the narrative would be less glaring if they had simply crafted more endings instead of working around the issue.

As one may have noticed, the easiest way to describe this experience is “charming.” That’s not wholly a bad thing, there was just more which could have been explored. There’s a large focus on the journey as opposed to the destination; the journey just isn’t all that exciting. Burly Men at Sea is much more fitting as a single storybook as opposed to a video game, and one can purchase a physical copy of the brother’s adventures via the Brain&Brain website. Though more costly, the story of the bearded brothers may be best experienced on the page instead of the screen, at least for young children. Much of the older audience will likely appreciate the game for what it’s worth then promptly forget about it.



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