It’s a warm subtropical afternoon. The sun is beating down on you through a cloudless sky. The ocean gently caresses your scalp as you open your eyes; your wet clothes clinging to your body. You push your hands into the wet sand as you wearily get to your feet.
You are on a beach.
How did you get here?
This is how you begin Lost Sea.
Lost Sea cleverly borrows contextual flavour from contemporary pop-mythology by setting itself on a series of archipelagos within the Bermuda Triangle – a real world area of the ocean where ships and aircraft are said to have disappeared under mysterious circumstances, often attributed to the paranormal. Soon you meet with a scientist conducting research in the area who will inform you that you were brought to the island through a dimensional rift and that in order to escape you will need to gather magical tablets that can be found on the islands in the area.
It’s an interesting premise, although ultimately not a lot is really done with it beyond the introduction to the game. What follows here is a fairly repetitious and mindless hack and slash adventure game with procedurally generated island areas to explore. That’s not to say the game is bad per se, but the promise of exploring a real-world paranormal hotspot like the Bermuda Triangle makes me want something quite different than hunting down island relics to power up a ship. It’s a game that could easily be set anywhere, with any other half-baked motivation for progressing and it wouldn’t change the core experience much at all. It could stand to dig a little deeper into the X-Files trappings is all I’m saying.
The goal of the game is to collect tablets and gather resources on each of the islands to spend on upgrades and help progress through the later levels. The more tablets you bring back to your ship in a single level, the farther your ship can sail along the archipelago. This does add an interesting dynamic to the game’s difficulty, as each island is explicitly designated a “easy”, “medium”, or “hard” on the level select screen. This means you are rewarded for exploring easier levels in more depth with the possibility of skipping more difficult ones on the way to the boss island that marks the end of each island chain.
The game operates on a strict ‘one life’ policy, meaning that once you die you lose all of your progress. The once exception to this is that once a boss is beaten you unlock the next area of islands to explore, and these stay unlocked for you to skip to in subsequent play throughs – albeit without all the character upgrades you purchased in your previous life.
The gameplay is pretty straightforward. At the beginning of each run you select from a small roster of pre-made characters and from there you navigate the island – hacking at bushes, crates, and enemies with your machete as you go. The game is presented from an overhead, isometric view of the area surrounding the character – which presents a decent perspective from which to survey the area for treasures and enemies.
Aside from money and the tablets that are essential for progressing in the game, each level also comes with a fair share of one-use items and companions for you to recruit. Each companion has a set of skills to be utilized such as the ability to unlock chests or rebuild bridges into new areas – which helps give each island a sense of progression as you recruit new allies to meet new challenges. It’s a shame that this isn’t utilized in a more compelling way, as the somewhat randomized nature of the game means that more intricate designs and uses for these allies never actually occur. This means that some of the treasures you gain access to with these characters can be completely useless, and there’s often little incentive to swap one ally for another. It’s also a shame that whilst there is racial diversity in the models for the companions on the island, that same diversity can’t be found in the selectable character roster for the game. So whilst you can have a dark-skinned character following you around and carrying stuff for you in a way that definitely feels uncomfortable to me, you can’t actually play as a character like that yourself. C’mon folks, you have the models right there: let people play as them.
There are a lot of good ideas in Lost Sea. A lot of things that sound like they’d be fun, but then don’t quite get there. It feels like a game where almost every aspect of it could have been developed a lot further – as though everyone involved just ran out of energy and decided to half-arse it before going to the pub. It’s not as though the game is bad or broken, it’s just that it’s a bit bland. It’s something mindless to play around with whilst you listen to a podcast or wait to be put through to a telephone operator. It might even be a good game for children if you want to introduce them to roguelikes or dungeon crawlers? This is perfectly fine of course, these are needs that games like this can meet. But it’s a shame that whilst I play I constantly run up against ideas that make me think ‘I wish they’d done more with this’.
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of Lost Sea for Xbox One.