Are they trying to invent a new aesthetic here? What’s a good name for this?
Sailpunk? Nah, it’s not edgy enough for that.
Well, whatever you want to call it, it’s pretty weird. On one hand you’ve got robots and teleporters, space empires and interplanetary travel; but then you’re sailing around on magical rivers with archaic wooden ships that look like they’re from ancient Egypt or something, and when you go down onto the planets it’s as if you went back in time to 3000 years ago.
At first I wasn’t quite sure what to make of all that, but like steampunk I figured you’re just supposed to roll with it and not worry too hard about whether it makes any sense or not.
You play as an archaeologist, which was a good idea for a couple of reasons. For one thing, this nebula where the game takes place is basically one big ruin stuck in a space Dark Age where the past has been lost, so it seems like a natural choice. Also, they have to do a lot of explaining to get you up to speed and that lets them do it as an integral part of the main story.
That side of the game, where you’re slowly piecing together the history of this strange setting is by far its biggest strength. As your discoveries lead you from one mysterious site to another, you’ll brush away the dust of time from layer after layer of lost knowledge, hidden beneath the surface like geological strata, each find influenced in a distinct way by what came before. It reminded me a lot of Age of Decadence, if you skipped all the combat and focused on the lore.
Now it’s probably not for everybody. When I said “slowly” up there I really meant it. No raiding tombs or fighting monsters here. In fact, there’s no action at all. You’re more like a grad student than Indiana Jones. The gameplay itself mostly revolves around two things: sailing your little ship around a tangle of rivers while you hunt for lost sites and random artifacts; and trying to figure out the vocabulary of this ancient language so you can use your lexicon to translate the lines of text that you find everywhere.
Yeah, expect to do a lot of translating. The main purpose behind all of those relics you find is to give you new words to decipher, and so even though it seems like sort of a point-and-click adventure it’s closer to a puzzle game in that sense.
I guess spending hours staring at a bunch of squiggly lines might not sound very fun. At first it does feel awfully dry and academic, but it really builds up steam as you as you get more invested in the story. The thing about this game is, there’s not really one aspect in particular that stands out as exceptional, but together it’s all surprisingly immersive.
The visuals, for example. They won’t exactly blow your mind in a technical sense, but there’s a thoughtful artistry to them that makes this world they’ve created feel solid and coherent.
Then there’s the dialogue. Sometimes there’s too much of it and you wish they’d just shut up and stop distracting you while you’re trying to explore. Other times you wish they’d tell you more and fill in some of the annoying gaps. They also make the mistake of trying to motivate you on a gut level with things that you never experienced, and therefore don’t resonate. Look, I’m not going to be mean to my robot just because you tell me the main character has some grudge about something that happened in the past.
And once in a while the musings get a little eye-rolling, like you’re in a floating freshman dorm room:
Maan…what if, like, rivers aren’t really rivers, but they’re, like…souls…
But for all that, they seem to understand what they’ve created here and know when to back off. Wisely, the interpersonal soap-opera stuff is kept to a minimum so you can focus almost entirely on your quest. They trust their game enough to put it in your hands, and as a result you really do feel like you’re the one running the show. All paths lead to the same destination–which isn’t a surprise, since the prologue shows you that–but you have a lot of leeway to decide how exactly you get there.
For example, I didn’t trust my advisor at all. She seemed really suspicious, like she had some ulterior motive. I was afraid she’d try to sabotage my research or impound my ship or something, and so I just ignored her messages and blew her off the whole time; and the game was perfectly fine with that. I’m sure you miss out on some stuff that would happen if you went back to the university, but the degree of control that it grants you makes up for it.
That middle phase of the game frees you up to just explore, to go where you want to go, talk to who you want to talk to, and all the while you’re unraveling bit by bit with your own ingenuity the forgotten mysteries of this intriguing world. It’s engrossing in a way that you don’t get when someone else is leading you by the hand through a “cinematic” story. For all that people love to talk about whether games are “art” (whatever that means), it’s funny how often this unique aspect of the medium is ignored in favor of trying to mimic film.
The deeper you go, the more the whole experience grows on you because you’re a part of it, using your brain and making meaningful choices that shape the course of your journey as well as your understanding of the past. It creates a real connection with the player. I found myself feeling more and more at home on my ship, sailing around manually even though I didn’t have to, watching the wings dip into the ghostly waters, admiring the scenery and wondering where the river was going to take me next.
Maybe they ought to call it “Sailtrance.” At times it’s downright meditative.
It’s not every day you find a game that manages to hit the mark so well on both an intellectual and an emotional level. Now that it’s over, I still look back on being there with a bit of longing.
I mean, it’s a pretty enviable life. Everyone you meet is grubbing around in the dirt struggling to survive in the real world, while you live in this bubble, just kind of drifting around lazily up in the clouds, pondering things no one else cares about while trying to keep your lab director off your back.
See? It really is just like academia.