At its heart, Burly Men at Sea is an interactive story that you will share alongside three gloriously bearded men. Is it a story worth experiencing?
At a Glance – 9 / 10
Burly Men at Sea isn’t as much a game as it is an interactive choose your own adventure story book that is filled with whimsy. Every moment of the game is infused with an amazing amount of personality and charm; from the minimalist art style to the playfully voiced sound effects of the game, I found myself constantly smiling at the love put into this experience. Of course, in these types of games the writing is everything, and the narrative is brisk with witty dialogue and outlandish characters that touch on Scandinavian lore.
Yes, the game is a brief experience, one of which you can see everything there is to see in as little as two and a half hours, faster if you read quickly. In addition, if you don’t like these types of games, than my score applies little to you. However, my children engaged with it in a way I didn’t expect, and for the last two nights it has become a staple in my household. If you also have kids then you likely know that these two nights will not be the last, especially with my younger daughter. As you complete the game you’ll even have the option to have a physical version of your favorite adventure from the game printed and sent to you, giving you and yours a unique ownership over the experience.
I have a feeling that Burly Men at Sea will be gracing my Switch, and my bookcase, for a long time to come.
I first experienced this indie game at a convention called Games Xpo, that is held not far from where I live. There at a small booth surrounded by other indie games was Burly Men at Sea. The booth was staffed by an affable duo, with an art style that instantly beckoned me over to try it out. I had my son with me, so we didn’t tarry long, mostly because I recognized this as a game I needed to experience on my own time, in a quieter space, in order to fully engage with it.
Though I knew the basics of what to expect from the game, I was otherwise unaware of what I might encounter on my journey. The first thing to get out of the way for anyone interested in this game is that it is more of an interactive choose your own adventure story than what you might consider a traditional gaming experience. This isn’t anything new to the gaming space, some of the best video games available are more about the experience than the actual gameplay, but it is worth noting regardless: anybody looking to blow things up or platform over obstacles has come to the wrong place.
The game itself opens with three bearded men locating a map in a bottle, and heading to the nearest town to see if the locals know anything. Instead of controlling them directly you’ll actually move a limited area of vision, similar to a periscope view. As it stretches out to show more of the environment the facial hair blessed trio will move along with it. At first it isn’t an immediately intuitive control, but as you become accustomed to it you’ll find it creates a new layer of exploration that wouldn’t exist otherwise. It tends to engage a constant childlike curiosity of what is just beyond that circle. Often the game recognizes that, and will suddenly expand giving you the whole picture of the area, and broadening your perception of what is going on. It is a clever design choice, one that sets it apart from other games in a fun manner.
There isn’t a ton of interaction with the environment outside of small novelties, your main job is to move the protagonists through their journey. Often this involves speaking with other individuals, and reading some fantastically witty dialogue that is presented for you, before moving on to the next area. You are essentially the games erstwhile page turner, and at times you can interact with the game by making small choices that changes your story.
This narrative is presented similar to a children’s book in the way you move from one outlandish situation to the next. Steeped in Scandinavian folklore, you’ll find yourself engaging with all sorts of funny and interesting characters along your journey, a voyage that ends right where it begins. Each playthrough of the game is short, and can grow shorter depending on how quickly you read. Some of my adventures were over in as few as thirty minutes, though I had to play for around two and a half hours to see everything the game had to offer. As you play through the game you’ll experience different branching narratives depending on your choices, and it changes how our trio makes their way through the world.
Each time you complete a voyage the game recognizes that by providing you with a book on a shelf, that has small icons indicating which events you experienced. Even more clever is that it provides you with a numerical code, and if you go to the website mentioned in the game, you can have an actual digital or physical print of that particular story sent to you. In this way it creates a wonderful ownership over the stories you create, picking your favorite path through this brief experience.
The game’s greatest strength is that it absolutely oozes charm from every pore, with an art style that is whimsical and minimalist. Audio follows suit with this minimalism, with all of the sound effects done by an individual mimicking that noise. For instance, walking into the blacksmith you will clearly hear an individual saying the word clink in a high pitched tone each time the hammer strikes the anvil. It immediately brought a smile to my face, and you’ll hear similar sound effects throughout the game. None of that upstages the music however, which ranges from deep and mystical, to one of the most jaunty themes I’ve ever heard. Ultimately this underlying wit and charm are what elevates the experience to another level, making it something you want to engage with again and again.
Originally I started in handheld mode, sneaking in some game time while my children watched a cartoon on the big screen. This game was originally a mobile and PC game, and a good deal of the experience mimics a point and click adventure. As you can imagine, on the phone it is controlled by touch, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the touch controls were moved over to the Switch; which makes perfect sense as an input mode. As I played the game it was my preferred method of control, as it simply feels like the game was designed around that tactile engagement.
That being said, it wasn’t the only way to control the game, as you can detach one Joycon and point it at the screen, clicking with a pointer at the things you want to engage with. As I mentioned earlier, movement in the game is handled more by dragging a periscope like field of view along, more guiding the bearded trio than actually controlling them. You can also click on items in the background, for often trivially fun reactions, such as a baby chick hatching from an egg. The pointer control method works well enough that I had no issues employing it, though it certainly wasn’t as satisfying as touch. You can also use the analog stick to move the screen to the left and right, but you’ll still need to point and click in order to talk to individuals.
After I played through my initial voyage I was delighted with the game, but was also disappointed by the brevity. I knew I hadn’t completed everything yet, and was enticed to immediately begin again and see the other paths. This time I placed the Switch into my dock, and was surprised as my family slowly found themselves seated on the couch. I hadn’t expected this at all, though it makes perfect sense once I pondered on it. The game was essentially a witty and high browed children’s book that you could interact with, why wouldn’t my children be engaged? I have two children, one of which is twelve at the time of this writing, and the other five. Both had fun with this game as we made our way through the story, my daughter interacting with everything she could in the background, and my son by impacting the narrative.
We saw everything there was to see in the first night, and my children have been begging me since to buy the physical copy of their favorite iteration of the voyage. At this point I decided we were likely completely done with the game, a wonderful diversion we would remember for a time to come, but likely not repeat often. I was shocked to find I was wrong yet again.
The next night before bed my daughter asked me to bring the Switch to her bedroom, instead of one of her storybooks. As we played through her favorite iteration of the story I found myself smiling the entire time. Rare is the game that can bring a family together in such a way, one in which I feel confident will be requested again and again as time goes on.
Your mileage here certainly will vary in the way you interact with this game. As a hardcore gamer that plays pretty much every genre I enjoyed myself greatly, even though there wasn’t much in terms of actual gameplay to be had here. There is also the ever present question of time vs value, but one that I’ve sidestepped neatly as my children have demanded multiple playthroughs.
Still, there are other versions out there aside from the Switch version that are cheaper and carry no discernible differences. At ten dollars if you choose to play it only once it can be a bit of a steep pricetag, but luckily, if that is a little too rich for your blood you can certainly play it on mobile for half the price, and however you choose to experience it, I highly recommend you do.
Final Score – 9 out of 10
A copy of this game was provided to me by the developer for purposes of review.