Review: Burly Men at Sea

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It’s wonderful to see how diverse and experimental video game storytelling has become of late, especially in indie development with recent titles like Virigina, Firewatch, Oxenfree, and Wheels of Aurelia finding fascinating new methods of turning narrative into an interactive experience. Burly Men at Sea can now be added to that growing list, a light adventure game played out in the form of an adaptive children’s storybook.

From the husband-and-wife studio Brain&Brain, Burly Men at Sea tells the seafaring story of the Brothers Beard–Brave Beard, Hasty Beard, and Steady Beard. The three fisherman, joyfully bearded and bellied, discover a mysterious map in a bottle caught up in their nets. After a trip to the local village in search of guidance about the sea chart’s meaning, the bearded trio embark upon a voyage to see what grand, heroic adventures await them on the high seas.

This whale of a Scandinavian folktale unfolds in a digital vignette style consisting of multiple branching pathways that lead the Brothers Beard in many possible directions. A streamlined point-and-click interface is used to interact with the game by clicking on NPCs to initiate dialogue, or click-dragging elements of a scene to extend the framed view in the direction you wish the brothers to travel. Progressing through the game world has the feel of turning the pages of a book, except here some of the pages can be turned in different directions to change the trajectory of the story moving forward.

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All told, the story has 12 possible variations. After the initial playthrough, which will likely take around 20-30 minutes, playthroughs thereafter average around 10-15 minutes. I played through to all of the outcomes in about three hours. The branching narrative has a sort of live-die-repeat flow to it, in that once you reach the end of one path, the game loops back on itself, returning you to the starting village area to begin a new voyage. Each subsequent playthrough remembers your previous paths by condensing or removing certain scenes that would become clutter if repeated every single time, as well as slightly altering the story text and conversations to indicate scenes that have been experienced before. This helps to cue you on when to look for an alternate path.

The only problem with this format is that it leads to a general lack of conclusion. You go through the different stories, where the burly fishermen either sink to the watery depths or find a new vessel to reach landfall on the other side once their ship inevitably becomes wrecked, and they just end and start again. Achieving all 12 outcomes is recognized in the closing dialogue scene, but the story still just continues to loop thereafter. There’s never any meaningful sense of payoff.

Another issue I encountered, in relation to the story continuity, involved a bug during one particular path where the characters became perpetually stuck in motion. I passed by a particular waterfall scene, where I was given a log raft to set sail on. When I moved the brothers onto the raft, they just kept paddling endlessly across the sea, because whatever waypoint that was supposed to transition to the next event never triggered. Fortunately the pause menu provides a “return to village” button, so I was able to escape the bug to start again. However, once I restarted and attempted to redo the same path, the brothers similarly got caught in an endless swimming animation at the first possible branch point, like the previous playthrough’s glitch was still affecting the system. So on the next try I went down another path I had already completed, just to see if I could complete a story and refresh the system. Thankfully it did the trick, so on the next run I was able to complete the previously attempted path without it glitching again. Though it did upset the overall continuity as the story path I redid for the reset run was still counted in place of the playthrough that glitched in progress, which means I got the full ending dialogue when in actuality I had only fully completed eleven of the twelve path variations. I was able to go back and complete the last branch I was missing thereafter, though, so it all worked out in the end.

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Each story closes with the presentation of a sea chart mapping out the explored path with a series of emblems that indicate the main decision points. A bookshelf also catalogues each of the different story variations you’ve earned, the book bindings showing the sequence of key moment icons as well as numbered code tags. Similar to Firewatch‘s disposable camera photo development tie-in, these codes can be entered at burlymenatsea.com/mystery to turn the various tales you’ve experienced into real hardcover companion storybooks, each consisting of 50 fully illustrated pages. Right now the books are only available to pre-order for $30 plus shipping each, with orders scheduled for delivery later in the fall. So they’re not exactly cheap, but it’s still a neat idea for players who find a particular favorite story path and wish to have it immortalized as a physical book for their collection or to read for their kids.

I don’t know what the physical books look like, but if the art in the game is indication they’ll be just lovely. The minimalistic style captures the eye with its quaint charm and vibrant pastel color palette, and the Brothers Beard, along with the various characters and sea creatures encountered along the way, are drawn and animated with great imagination and personality. The vignette presentation–the way stretching and dragging the central viewpoint opens the scenery to its full-page splendor–brings an unexpected level of sophistication. This is children’s storybook illustration done as fine art.

What you won’t get with the physical books is the game’s aural magnificence. The score has a sort of old fashioned barbershop quartet composition that infects the heart with pure joy and happiness, and fills the soul with a feeling of childlike adventure and whimsy. There are no actual words sung, just a lot of humming, whistling, hand clapping, la-la-la-ing, ba-do-bopping, and ba-da-bumming to go along with simple, cheerful instrumental melodies. (Go listen to it on Bandcamp, like RIGHT NOW!) Better yet, all of the sound effects are performed a cappella, by actual humans vocalizing the whooshes, whirs, gurgles, squirts, clings, flaps, squeaks, and rumbles associated with a hammer banging an anvil, a rolling pin squishing over dough, the pitter-patter of rainfall, splashing water, gusting wind, creaking doors, chickens bacawing as well as other animal noises.

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Burly Men at Sea isn’t so much a game as it is an interactive build-a-storybook adventure. You’re not solving puzzles or performing tasks that require complex interactions, but rather reading a digital short story and figuring out ways to take the narrative in different directions while soaking in the lovely artistry and cheery sounds that envelop the senses at every turn. While there isn’t a grand conclusion to be reached, the humorous, well written story is relaxing like a good bedtime story yet also engaging to the point of continuously drawing you back to see where the adventure will go next.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Endearing children’s book art style and presentation
+ Delightfully whimsical music and a cappella sound effects
+ Many branching playthrough possibilities
+ Well written story brimming with lighthearted charm and humor

Cons:
– No real payoff for each playthrough outcome
– Potential continuity-breaking bug

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC/Mac, also on mobile devices
Publisher: Brain&Brain
Developer: Brain&Brain
Release Date: 9/29/2016
Genre: Adventure
Players: 1

Source: Review coded provided by developer

Buy From: Steam, Humble Store, or itch.io for $9.99; or Google Play or iTunes App Store for $4.99.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!