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A few of the regular commenters that orbit my magnificence like a roomful of Comicon attendees around an unaccompanied attractive woman have noticed a curious pattern emerging in my list of favourite games, in that many of them in some way prominently feature a boat. Think about it. Return of the Obra Dinn. Spiritfarer. Silent Hill 2 has that one bit where James Sunderland goes to a boating lake on “world’s most attentive husbands get in free” day. Dark Souls… erm… has a couple of swords that could conceivably be repurposed as a mizzenmast. And look at all the other clues: he likes Horatio Hornblower books, he owns a bath, he’s physically dependent on water to continue living, clearly we have stumbled upon the secret cheat code that will ensure a positive review from Yahtzee Croshaw. Well, I had to get to the bottom of this, I’d hate to think any aspect of my behaviour had become in any way reliable, if my wife found out she’d make me start unloading the dishwasher again. So I played a bit of Sailing Era last week, an open-ended RPG management thing set in the Age of Sail that features boats about as prominently as any game could, and which managed to impress me right off the bat by having the ingenious foresight to come out in the middle of January when there’s bugger all else worth talking about.
Sailing Era is a Chinese game. Which come across not dissimilarly to Japanese games except the characters have this hint of desperate panic in their eyes because they’re afraid of being disappeared by the government. Besides that, the main hint that gave it away was that the fucking thing was in Chinese by default and I had to go bushwhacking through the menus trying to educated guess my way to the language option. Which might as well kick off my first criticism: it’s localised about as well as an American tourist in the Arctic circle. The dialogue’s all badly framed in the rest of the interface with occasional missing spaces and line breaks in the middle of words and generally reads like it got roughed up in an alleyway by Google Translate. Which is in immediate contrast to the vibe of internationalism Sailing Era is trying to bring across, it’s supposed to be about following a range of characters from all over the world in a wonderful age of exploration and discovery when all the diverse peoples of the globe can come together and find common ground in how much they hate Europeans.
Sailing Era is very ambitious and yet at the same time, rather off-puttingly simplified. It sets out to make a playground of the entire clitnibbling world, every sea and every continent mapped out for you to systematically unfog, with every major port and settlement of the era accurately placed. If they want to bring out DLC for this they’re gonna have to let you go to the fucking moon. Trafficking cheese across the Sea of Tranquillity or something. And yet, the sheer number of available ports to visit doesn’t count for THAT much ‘cos all of them are just glorified menu screens and half the ports in Africa use the exact same backdrop with the exact same smarmy, conspicuously European-looking dude manning the trading post. I found the central gameplay loop consisted of filling out your map, that is to say, pointing your ship down the coastline, dropping the sails and hoping to Christ you’ll blunder into another settlement before your supplies run out and the crew have to start harvesting each others toenail clippings for nourishment. But as a core mechanic charting the world is probably the least interesting activity.
Exploring the uncharted regions of one of the most hostile environments on Earth in what amounts to a pile of dead trees and cloth being a notoriously boring pastime. I appreciate there’s a limit to the excitement of nautical adventure that can be portrayed when the camera’s half a mile up from the action, but maybe my crew of suspicious foreign weirdos could’ve faced a little more pushback from outposts in remote or hostile countries? So you’d have to butter them up a bit before they agree to let you fill up on supplies and half price blood diamonds? Or is that asking too much of a game that’s already spreading itself pretty fucking thin over a few too many features? I suppose the naval combat element is within the minimal expectations for this sort of thing; It’s a serviceable enough splashing around with Playmobil toys in the bathtub sort of affair based on using awkward steering controls to get the enemy into cannon range. I wish it could make it a little clearer when your cannons are ready to fire. Again, the ships are pretty small on screen so it’s not like we can squint and try to make out if the gunners have reloaded the shot, primed the fuse and finished their quick game of soggy biscuit.
But as well as ship combat there’s also hand to hand combat when you board each other. Ostensibly. I mean, I’m pretty sure there is. It happened in a tutorial. And… that was the last time I saw it. It’s entirely possible I was hallucinating from dodgy grog. Couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to make it happen after that. Should probably have paid more attention to the tutorial text, I suppose, but with the localisation issues that was like trying to ask directions from a dishevelled person on a street corner screaming about the government listening devices in his urethra. Come to think of it, ship combat on the whole didn’t happen that much. I was ambushed by pirates precisely one time while traversing the Gulf of Aden and in all other cases I had to opt into it by taking bounty missions from outposts. Which are both painfully samey and jolly educational. Because you look them up and they’ll say “Go kill some pirates in the Ligurian Sea” so that’s a quick alt-tab out and trip to Google Maps before I can even think about adding that to the itinerary. Now be honest with me, viewers, who off the top of their head knows where the Ligurian Sea is? Just you? Alright, clever clogs, now YOU explain why the bounty office in Antwerp gave a shit about it.
I would summarise Sailing Era as a game full of misplaced effort. I keep turning over rocks and finding all this complex extra gameplay I can’t really be bothered with. Like the land expeditions. You go to certain ports and as long as you’ve done them enough favours and remembered to wear a tie to the governor’s office you can assemble a team and a bunch of supplies on a menu interface about as welcoming as Hal 9000’s tax return, but get past all of that and suddenly you’re in basically this whole other game cribbing slightly off The Curious Expedition where you explore a hexadecimal continent running into random encounters and treasures. And meanwhile I can make just as much profit from sailing back and forth between Portugal and Sierra Leone a few times to restock all the cafes with exotic African sandwiches. So land expeditions were yet another thing I did all of about once, because it’s called Sailing Era not Cocking About In A Meadow Period. And now I feel bad for whoever had to sit and write all the random encounter text when they’d rather have been enjoying the sun or a game of soggy biscuit. As for the theory that I automatically like games about boats, I’d call this an inconclusive test, because ultimately Sailing Era scratched that itch about as well as rearranging nautical-themed fridge magnets in a rainstorm.