It seems in the past few years, at least to me, that one particular genre has exploded in popularity. I'm speaking of the building/crafting/slice-of-life type games. Titles like Harvest Moon, Stardew Valley and My Time at Portia have helped propel the genre from rather niche, to firmly in the mainstream. Many gamers, including me, are eager to snap up any new games of this type and are always on the lookout for new announcements, which brings me to "Stranded Sails- Explorers of the Cursed Island" by Lemonbomb Entertainment. Describing itself as an "open-world adventure full of story-driven quests" and including farming, building, crafting and cooking as gameplay mechanics, I was instantly interested and knew I had to request a code for review.
We join the story as you, a young and eager explorer, are running through the city to join up with a ship in the harbor. Captained by your father, you're joining the crew for the first time as they set off to sea on their latest endeavor. Reports of a frozen continent have reached their ears, and they've decided to be the first to explore, settle and exploit this newly discovered landmass.
Obviously, things don't go as planned though and after a mysterious accident, the ship is smashed to smithereens and the entire crew set adrift. You wash up on a beach, alongside some of the smashed remains of your ship, and quickly deduce that this tropical island cannot be your destination, and that you've been stranded in an uncharted area. This first location acts as a tutorial of sorts with you quickly discovering a crewmate who can build a raft. Unfortunately though, he's been badly injured in the wreck and can't help with its construction, leaving you to gather the necessary bits and pieces. Luckily this island is also very small and you quickly gather the materials from the nearby remains of the ship, allowing you to build a fragile raft and head off to the larger island that's close by. It's here the main part of the hull washed up and also where your father, the captain, is now located. Gravely injured and unable to command, it falls to you to take over and you decide to set up a camp here before heading out to locate the rest of the crew.
Sounds good right? And on paper it should be, most of the ingredients are there but why did I ultimately feel disappointed with this game that should have been right up my street?
Well, I think it comes down to freedom of choice. In many of these games, you can really mix up your time. You might spend one day building your house and customizing its rooms. Another might be spent crafting items to sell or using your time to make friends. Well, Stranded Sails doesn't really feel like that, with the questline providing a pretty linear path you have to go down. Basically you'll be sent to area X to locate crewmember/item Y before returning to base. You'll then speak to a few crew members, before repeating the whole process over. Building the camp is also extremely linear, with houses and buildings only being place-able where and when the story allows. You'll also be asked to collect the same set of resources over and over to build houses for each new crew member. These again have no use after their initial construction, and each crew member quickly feels completely useless. They have no friendship meters, you can't seduce or marry them, and they don't sell objects or provide services. Instead they mostly act as waypoints during missions, sending you to further away locations or to find more crafting materials for some usually minor build.
Now exploring the 5 major islands could have been relatively fun, each looks slightly different and has various areas that can be unlocked when you have the relevant blueprints. However, the islands also feel extremely empty and unfinished. There's only one specific area, on one specific island, where trees can be harvested, so the few scattered palm trees you see when wandering become simple window dressing, with no use at all. Same with most of the flowers you come across, or the little turtles and lizards that scurry from your approach. They look pretty decent, and provide atmosphere, but can't be interacted with. There are no animals to hunt, enemies to avoid or secret hidden locations. Instead, apart from the mission objective and a few scattered lore items, there are only really three things to watch out for; seeds for your garden, fishing spots in the sea, and chests with crafting components. These chests are the only way to find the basic construction materials available in the game and will respawn regularly, changing location when they do so. Each also has random contents making seeking out a specific resource impossible. At one point I needed some rope to construct a bridge and advance the story. I spent a ridiculous amount of time running around an already well-searched island, seeking out newly spawned chests. It took three different islands, loads of traveling, and 20-30 chests opened before I got lucky and collected the 6 frayed rope pieces I needed. Be prepared to search the same locations, on the exact same islands, many times, especially if you want to build the optional unlocks.
And this repeated exploring brings me to another annoyance in Stranded Sails: The stamina bar. It's extremely restrictive and every action you do will drain it. Even walking will quickly exhaust your supply and it becomes a real annoyance when exploring. Another thing to consider is that fast travel is only available to your camp, so all your frequent trips to the islands start with a long run, and a few minutes of rowing before getting back to your previous location. This leaves you with a stamina bar that's already well-drained by the time you get there, making exploring islands way longer than they needed to be. Travelling is one of the weakest parts of the game, especially at sea. You spend a lot of time traveling through the water but there's nothing to do but point in the required direction and press X. This rowing quickly becomes a hassle, as not only do you need to do a good minute of it every time you travel to another island but it also quickly depletes your stamina, lessening your available time to explore. Actually depleting your entire stamina bar will have no real penalties, however, you'll simply wake up back at camp, but with travel being so boring, you'll want to up the stamina as much as you can. And, of course, there is a way to do this. By combining certain ingredients you can create meals to slightly replenish your stamina but you can only carry a few at a time, and not only do they require ingredients to create but they must be cooked back at camp. This is where Stranded Sails shines a little brighter. I had the most fun here but it's still far from perfect.
During the opening missions, you'll get a few basic buildings for the camp, built by collecting scraps from the chests I mentioned earlier. Although you build houses for almost all of the 8 crew, you can't interact with them or even decide their locations. You don't even get a house of your own and your camp ultimately has only 3 real points of interest. You have a crafting table for the extremely basic crafting you'll do, a garden for planting the seeds you discover and a kitchen to prepare recipes. The crafting table does the obvious; it lets you turn the 5 or 6 simple resources into items necessary to complete certain quests. It's really simple and involves about 15 recipes in all. Rather more fun was gardening but it won't surprise anyone who's played these games before. You use your spade to dig a hole (only in the areas it allows) before dropping in a seed you've discovered. Keep them watered, and after a few days, you can harvest the resulting crops. Some plants like corn or pumpkins will start to regrow again after they've been harvested, while onions or potatoes must be dug up and replanted, but apart from that, there's nothing much more to do. The basic farming is fun but hardly revolutionary or unique and I've had preferred a little more complexity. There's no quality to worry about, there's no manure to add to increase the yield or anything like that. You can't sell them (there's no money or shops) or give them as gifts to make friends but they do have a use in your kitchen, which was another part I genuinely enjoyed. By opening your cookbook you're given a list of all your available recipes, as well as potential recipes available from your collected ingredients. Showing as a question mark, by selecting the unknown recipe you begin a sort of guessing game where you try to discover the needed ingredients. You must put a certain amount in a certain order and will be told whether they are correct, in the wrong location or simply wrong. You get a good amount of different vegetables, fruits and spices from your gardening, as well as various sea life by fishing, so there are many different combinations to discover. The rarer ingredients create better dishes that give more stamina, and can even add temporary special effects like more efficient fishing or rowing. Guessing these recipes was a good distraction from repeatedly searching the islands, and it was something I looked forward to with every new ingredient I discovered.
Also located in the kitchen is a giant stew pot, and it included a feature that although basic, I also rather liked. Called "Stew for the Crew" you can earn equipment and camp upgrades by filling your people's bellies. Each member will allow you to add one ingredient to the pot and will grant points based on the result. Any food will work, and grant a few points for each crew member but feeding a person their favorite gives a bonus. Feed them enough and you'll fill the bar and earn yourself an upgrade. There's a few of these to get, including things like a better bucket or spade, and also allowing you to build shortcuts through camp, making your stamina burning journeys slightly less draining. Another nice feature of the cauldron was that you can eat from it too, refilling your stamina and making these shortcuts nice, but ultimately unnecessary. Gathering the resources needed to construct them might be annoying too, as it will require yet another trip to your already well-searched islands for more of those resources filled chests.
There are a few areas that are reasonably well done in Stranded Sails though. The art style is bright and colorful, and the few character models you see are charming enough. There are little clumps of grass and flowers, as well as little animals that help get across the tropical island feel. The planting and growing of seeds is fun in most games and works here too, but it's hardly unique. The fishing minigame is also well done, with a rhythm game of sorts where each fish has a different pattern you must complete. In the end though, it just wasn't enough. I wanted to enjoy it SO much but was ultimately left wanting. The story is instantly forgettable; bringing up nonsense about an ancient curse it's predictable and bland. The crews have no use whatsoever and provide no benefits or services. The camp construction is bare-bones, with most buildings having no function whatsoever. You can't enter them, they can't be customized and you can't even decide their location. The world is empty and unfinished feeling, with nothing to hold the interest when traveling the boring distances involved. Stamina severely hampers exploration and combined with no outgoing fast travel, you'll make the same journey, to the same locations repeatedly and it gets old quickly. Even when combat is eventually introduced it does nothing to spice up the game, amounting to nothing more than spamming X at a few glowing skeletons, in a few arena-like areas spread throughout the islands.
Alongside the bland gameplay issues, I also experienced various bugs and glitches during my playthrough. I regularly got stuck on trees or rocks, but most annoyingly I had both disappearing quest items and a corrupted save file, both requiring me to restart the game from scratch. We have been told that patches are in the works but right now, the game does have some issues.
A bland story, linear gameplay and frustrating exploration, along with restrictive stamina make it a hard one to recommend. Those desperate for a simulation type game, or a young kid, might get a few hours joy here if they don't mind the repetitive nature and lack of choice. Those expecting a deeper experience like Stardew Valley or My Time at Portia however, will be left disappointed.
*Note: A copy of the game was provided for the purpose of the review.
Final Score: 5/10
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