The success of games like Stardew Valley and Harvest Moon is dependent on their ability to pull you in on the promise of simply living your life and maybe growing a few crops along the way. There’s something comforting about just living your virtual life at a pace that real life would never allow.
Stranded Sails: Explorers of the Cursed Islands takes this idea and puts it on an island setting. While getting stranded on a deserted archipelago would normally result in sheer terror, this game makes the most of the situation by tasking you with the mission of making life more comfortable for everyone there. Does this game make island life irresistible? Let's find out.
A Sea Filled With Shallow Depths
For those who follow me on the interwebz, you may have heard that Christina, also known as my player 2, and I, are now engaged. I bring this up because she usually plays certain review titles with me that interest her. It doesn’t take much to pique her interest either. A good story, a unique premise, and farming or crafting will do the trick.
So, when I told her that Stranded Sails: Explorers of the Cursed Islands was a mixture of farming, crafting, cooking, and exploration, let’s just say she was hooked. Indeed, the game’s premise sounds enticing, especially if you were swept up in the Stardew Valley craze.
In Stranded Sails, you play as the son of a ship captain who takes you away from your home in the city to journey north with a crew. Things quickly go awry, and you find yourself stranded on an island within a larger archipelago. Your crew scattered across the other islands, it becomes your mission to seek them out and help them find stability in their new setting.
While Stranded Sails: Explorers of the Cursed Islands has a large world, the story itself is pretty linear and only hints at deeper elements. The same can largely be said of the experience as a whole, but we’ll discuss that in a moment.
In terms of story, you will follow quests that come regularly and usually involve reaching a location or collecting the items needed to complete a task. The writing for dialogue is fine, but does little to really develop the characters.
You do find artifacts around the islands that hint at a larger lore or history behind them, but the story only scratches the surface of what it could do with this setting and some of its ideas. Even when it expands beyond mere survival, it takes too long to get to that point, which makes much of the early hours feel like a never-ending tutorial.
Gameplay is varied and offers many things to do across exploration, crafting, cooking, farming, and fishing. General exploration works well, thanks to a sprint button and access to a small boat eventually when you need to travel between islands.
The islands themselves also have different environments to explore, which make them interesting from a visual perspective. Caves also provide a sense of mystery, but many of the environments themselves can feel very bare. Chests are dotted around the landscape, and trees sometimes cluster in certain areas, but other than rocks, turtles, and crabs, there’s not a lot going on as you explore.
As you explore, you will find things like seeds and ingredients, along with crafting materials you can bring back to your camp. Since you have an energy meter that causes you to pass out if hits empty, the game’s option to always warp back to your main camp without penalty is a lifesaver, especially when you’re clear across the map on another island.
Crafting is done through a workstation and usually involves making components for building shacks for your crew. The process is simple, but there’s no way to customize the buildings or decide where they’re placed, so again, it can feel a little shallow.
When it comes to the farming and cooking, the game does introduce some ideas I really liked. Your farm area is quite small, but you can plant a wide variety of things ranging from corn to onions, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, and others. Other ingredients, like spices, are found through exploration or as gifts from other crew members.
Fishing gives you the chance to catch additional ingredients, and it’s here that I’ve found one of my favorite fishing games in a long time. Like many other titles, you wait for the fish to bite, but once this happens, the surface of the water becomes two rings that collapse onto each other. Pressing the button to pull on the line when both circles interact gives you a star rating from 1-3 and pulls the fish closer.
This rhythm-based way of fishing is just the right mixture of engaging and challenging without being repetitive or annoying. Coming back to the cooking, you’ll eventually get both a cooking station and a stew pot.
The cooking allows you to discover recipes by selecting one of the question marks in your selection screen and then placing ingredients into the slots to test combinations. In a smart move, this does not use any of the ingredients. You only use them when you’re cooking. I really liked that.
The game will let you know what number of ingredients are correct, wrong, or in the wrong slot. This feedback lets you tweak and swap the layout until you discover the recipe. Since it doesn’t identify which specific ingredient is the right, wrong, or misplaced one, trial and error can become a large part of the process, especially with recipes that have four ingredients.
For the most part, cooked food gives you a boost of energy when you’re out in the middle of an island or rowing across the ocean. Some recipes do give you buffs, however, like reducing the energy cost for things like shoveling.
The stew pot is an interesting mechanic as well, which allows you to make food for the whole crew. By assigning ingredients to specific characters, you can learn which ones are their favorites. This levels up your friendship faster, which unlocks gifts from the crew members that usually upgrade your equipment.
The cooking as a whole is one of the most unique elements in Stranded Sails and offers the most depth. I wish this level of development went into the rest of the game, but as it stands the other elements feel good and polished, but never fleshed out.
Another innovation I liked was the quick menu that lets you use the right analog stick to quickly change categories and items without opening the actual inventory. It took some getting used to, but once I had it down, it felt very natural to use. Combat does eventually become an aspect of the experience, but thanks to the long list of quests in the opening hours, it takes far too long to get there.
While I think the structured nature of Stranded Sails: Explorers of the Cursed Islands is good, it can be too restrictive at times. The game has a lot of good ideas, and for me it felt nice and polished after the 1.02 patch, save for some frame rate drops, but it just doesn’t have the depth to really give it legs for the long-term.
A Colorful Island Paradise
Stranded Sails: Explorers of the Cursed Islands is a beautiful game from a visual perspective. The bright blues of the ocean pair well with the rich greens, whites, and browns of the islands and their structures.
As I mentioned earlier, the game can drop in frame rate at times, but it tends to pick back up fairly quickly and never really affects the gameplay. The soundtrack is suitably relaxing and helps keep things from feeling overwhelming.
It’s interesting because Stranded Sails is a fairly large game with a lot of moving parts. It does a lot of things really well, but its ideas never really dive beneath a surface level implementation of the concept. As a result, it feels like a buffet that ends too early. Everything tastes great, but when you go back for seconds, all the food is gone.
I would love to see the idea expanded upon in a sequel. If you’re interested in this type of game, but you don’t want something too taxing or overwhelming, perhaps you should allow yourself to get stranded on this island. It’s a great place to start.
Final Score: 7.5/10
A copy of Stranded Sails: Explorers of the Cursed Islands was provided to PS4 Experts for review purposes.
Article by - Bradley Ramsey
Insert date - 10/25/19