There are few memorable games that have you guiding a vehicle through an against-the-odds situation, with tense, zone-based tactical combat wherein you take direct, tactical control of said vehicle’s full crew. The latest, joining FTL: Faster Than Light, Bomber Crew, Galactic Crew and probably a few I’ve forgotten, is Abandon Ship — a rogue-like set in a Lovecraftian twist on the Age of Sail, with a beautiful, oil-painting theme.
It’s hard to talk about Abandon Ship without discussing FTL. Not least because developers Fireblade Software openly stated it as clear influence, but mostly because it channels FTL in so many ways: swapping out rebels and spaceports for cultists and island towns; swapping out medical bays and cockpits for doctor’s benches and wheels; and swapping out lasers and missiles for warbling cannonballs and mortar shot. However, for all of the similarities between the two, it’s the differences that are undoubtedly the most important.
Abandon Ship‘s world is one in a state of turmoil and looming danger, with most of its residents haplessly unaware of the powerful and erratic cult which has started to stretch its tentacle-like reach out through the world. For the majority of the time, they’re after one thing: you. The player character, at least in the game’s main campaign, begins their story as the highest ranking cultist in the Cult of Haliphron, having an epiphany and suffering a sudden apostasy — just as all your hard work has resulted in the appearance of an ungodly, oceanic horror. This certainly does a good job of introducing the ultimate villains of the game, however also puts you in a strange predicament where every single person (and fish person) who dies in the game does so explicitly because of your character’s actions (pre, or during player control). Purged dockyards, attacking cultists, the slaughtered crew of the ships you find wrecked around the world, yep, that’s your fault. That’s actually a pretty good reason to keep pushing forward, and the game’s story — which, I should note, is both dense and well written — does a good job in moving you forward, especially during the first few map screens.
Movement around the game world comes in two forms. On the grander scale, there is a large, zoned and pipped map the story loosely points you around. On the smaller scale, however, is where one of the bigger changes alluded to above comes in. Players directly control their ship as they move around within the frame of an unfilled canvas painting, peeling back the fog of war to reveal the area below. The artwork is at its most beautiful here, waves like wax ripples wrapping around craggy islands, wave breaks advising you of landmasses before they come into sight. It’s certainly wonderful to look at, but after a few screens the pace of the game ramps up and timers kick in. Passageways to new areas are gated, too, and with the gate locked until you have triggered a certain amount of events it means that escaping the evil forces nipping at your heels becomes priority one — a systematic corner-to-corner, then stripes across the map pattern, becomes the best way to clear the screens and push on.
In many ways, in the current Early Access build, this is one of the greatest missed opportunities. Had each of these maps been slightly smaller, or were there more events, or even simply less needed for the gate, then the pace of this section wouldn’t hang quite as much. Lowering the event interaction requirement is probably the one of those options I would least recommend, as it’s the only way for the game to transfer you to the combat stage — outside of the timer running down, which produces a mini-boss fight.
Ship v. ship naval combat sees both the player’s vessel (in the foreground) and the enemy one, lined up parallel to one another. This is, admittedly, a little jarring at first, especially when combat range visually appears to shift via something similar to lane-merging on the road, normally after somebody’s sail take a battering. Once past this, however, the balance of range, hull and area damage to enemy ships is well done, even if the deftest way to wipe out most enemies is to smash their sails, close range and ram them — if they’re still not gone, ram them again or board and finish off any of their remaining crew. Shot, cannon and mortar fire among the various weapons can cause collateral effects on the vessels in addition to general damage, through fire and hull breaches. Each of these need to be tended to by crewmen. Fire is deadly if allowed to grow too much, and if the boat fills up with water then it’s no longer very good at being a boat — Abandon Ship becomes an instruction rather than the title of the game.
This all gets to be at its most interesting when you reach later points of the currently included campaign (or simply hop into the progressively difficult combat mode), where new weapons and environmental hazards are introduced. Why man the mortar when both vessels are being smashed with raining fire? You’d better have alternative weapons on the other side of the vessel, because those flamethrowers aren’t worth a light when the heavens are generously restocking the oceans.
Enemies have access to the same resources as you, as well as a few more tricks: Haliphron, the namesake of the cult, are expendable fish people and also come in a tougher version which ebbs out acid when struck down. A couple of these getting on board can really ruin any plans, as most beings in Abandon Ship have extremely similar health bars — meaning that dog-piling the enemies, or kiting them around your deck while you fix up your most wounded, is the best way to deal with them. Frustratingly there’s an event on the maps, or when the timers run down, that can spawn in a handful of these red Haliphron in a deadly assault. I’ve only survived one of these all-red assaults and it cost far too much in terms of crew.
If you do fall — should your health drain down or your ship sink — then the captain doesn’t go down with their ship. You and some mates (if you have a lifeboat on your vessel) get another shot. This is an interesting mechanic, and as extra content is added to the game it will likely become increasingly hard to balance these restarts. My luckiest second opportunity saw me waiting, strewn across some flotsam for a few days after a deadly attack by those red chaps I just mentioned. After the days passed a — practically unmanned — ship pulled up alongside me, the sole crewmember also a survivor of a Haliphron attack. They welcomed me on the ship, then realised that my character was obviously more qualified at captaining, likely due to my awesome hat (as opposed to the fact I had obviously lost my previous ship), which I hadn’t lost in the destruction of the last boat. Lancel and I had a decent enough time together, but we were — almost certainly ironically — set upon by another group of Haliphron before finding a tavern to recrew. Four versus two. We didn’t stand a chance.
Should you win an encounter, your ship’s components and your crew all heal up to full health. Your hull health, however, remains weakened. If you’re unlucky enough to face off a dozen ships before the chance to dock and repair appears , you’ll almost certainly lose your vessel. At the moment this feels fairly unbalanced, especially as the avoidable combat encounters are few. The chance to trade off currency for small repairs while travelling between zones may change this, or possibly giving the crewmember who is adept at repairs an ability to repair the ship a small amount at the end of each combat. As ever with Early Access games, balancing and tweaking to elements like this come in molasse-thick dollops as new content is added.
One thing I hope doesn’t change is the pacing of the combat. Initially, it seemed very slow, with combat starting with unloaded cannons, empty harpoon launchers and — generally — not a lot going on. Even if you set up starting positions for the crew it’s about twenty seconds before the first volley rockets off. This delay, which was originally quite frustrating, as the slow slide towards or away from the enemy, is representative of the skill of the operator. As soon as my crew became more talented the differences became obvious; I started valuing them much more, upgrading my ship to suit my specialists, re-laying out my crew starting positions.
Characters certainly seem more forgettable than those of Abandon Ship‘s contemporaries — I feel that this is largely due to the fact that their names are not shown in combat, they don’t get name-dropped in the events (as far as I’ve seen) and they dress based on class and captain colour, so you end up simply treating them based on their skills. Should the game give the crew more customisation, a more visible name and roles in events then the stories people tell about it will vastly improve — I hope such things are on the roadmap.
As it currently stands, Abandon Ship is most definitely playable, and the nimble story-telling, clever setting and beautiful art-style will please those who find pleasure in such. It’s definitely one to watch, and I look forward to seeing what Fireblade Software do with the room they currently have for improvement.