Curse of the Sea Rats - This Curse Is One Which Won't Lift Easily
PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch, PC
When it comes to indie games, one of the more popular genres for developers to take on is the Metroidvania. But being as popular as they are means developers need to do something unique to make their game stand out from the crowd. Which for Curse of the Sea Rats is about taking those mechanics, and combining them with tropes made popular in FromSoft’s Souls games.
It opens as you might expect – it’s the 18th Century, and you’re a prisoner on a ship heading back to Britain from the Americas. The nefarious Pirate Witch Flora Burn has turned everyone on board into rats, and used the distraction of a shipwreck to escape, taking the Captain’s son as hostage.
As one of the four remaining prisoners, you’re tasked with recovering the kid in exchange for your freedom, with your first task being which of them you wish to play as. Each offers a slightly different gameplay experience, and I greatly appreciate that you’re free to change which character you’re playing as should you find yourself not clicking with their play style.
The Metroidvania side of the experience presents itself as you’d expect – when exploring the world, you’ll encounter areas you can’t reach until you gain new abilities. Those are earned by defeating the bosses you’ll encounter. Though not all bosses carry one, as some instead offer artefacts you’ll need for the endgame.
As for those FromSoft influences? This comes in the form of your character upgrades, because yes, you don’t just gain new abilities, as each of the four prisoners has their own skill tree, which can be upgraded with the spiritual energy harvested from defeated enemies. Energy which can also be lost should you die, and fail to recover your stash before dying again.
This keys into the first of my frustrations, the game’s uneven difficulty curve. Part of this stems from the choice to have rooms offer fewer, tougher enemies over batches of weaker ones, as even the lowest level enemies can take quite a few hits from your attacks before they’ll go down.
It’s also reinforced by the game’s hidden RPG mechanics – defeating enemies earns you experience alongside the money and spiritual energy they drop. Eventually, you’ll level up, increasing both your damage output and overall health. Sadly, the game offers no indication how close you are to your next level up, so if you need to grind, you don’t really have an idea of how much you should be doing as you enter new areas and find yourself struggling to cope with any new enemies you encounter.
More than anything, I guess this is the draw of the Souls experience, but the levels don’t quite fit with that playstyle to offer the measured adventure those games offer. It also leads into what I believe are some major pacing issues, particularly during the final parts of the game.
The central problem with the pacing stems from how the threadbare story is delivered. Once the opening sequences are delivered, you’re more or less left to your own devices. There are a few cutscenes which are played as you explore deeper and deeper into the world, but those don’t do much to advance the story.
Now, you may think that’s traditional for a Metroidvania, but there’s times when you want a little gentle nudging, preferably in a way which relies on the environment. I just couldn’t help but feel a little lost at times, especially when part of the framing device is only explained not long before you reach the end.
But right when you think you’ve faced your final confrontation, the game throws up one final sequence, which requires you to backtrack all the way to the start. Not only that, but most of the map becomes blocked off, meaning you can’t just backtrack through the way you know, but now have to explore already explored rooms in order to find the new way back. By this point, I was starting to feel like I was just backtracking for time’s sake, something not helped by the number of bugs I encounter. Some were minor, like having button glyphs not appear or a character portrait blank out during dialogue.
Others were more irritating though, like the backpack upgrade mysteriously being disabled, which meant I couldn’t carry as many items, something which stung me quite hard during the final confrontations, where I used some healing items and died during a later phase. When respawning, I was locked in the final room, preventing me from obtaining more of them, greatly limiting what I had to hand resulting in me being soundly beaten far too many times than I’d have liked.
This, this was the point which broke me. After the challenges of beating the very first boss, most of the later encounters were a breeze to win, including the final encounter with Flora herself. But to be pushed into a further encounter, one with a multi-phase battle that I couldn’t properly prepare for left me feeling incredibly ticked off, and wanting to put the controller down.
Which is a shame, as Curse of the Sea Rats does have some positives going for it. The art style, with its hand-drawn character art shines. It’s something I truly felt built up the atmosphere of the game. Though, because of the number of animation frames, I ran into far too many occasions where inputs would be ignored or misread. Which can be quite a challenge when you’re stuck trying to walk into an enemy even though you’ve let go of that input on your controller.
The quality of artistry also applies to the backgrounds. Each of the locales – from the stormy beachfront where you start out, to the various underground spots and the wider countryside all offer their own tone and style, which truly compliments the sprite work. Except in one way. I appreciate how the environments are built in 3D to add some visual depth, and it more or less works well. Except in a few ways. The first is that there are some areas (namely the forest regions) which add additional elements to serve as a front layer, but I found it obscured parts of the playable area, especially when some tricky jumps were required. Even more irritatingly though was how this scene depth obscured the point you needed to reach to successfully grab onto platforms, which when you’re taking leaps of faith can lead to some missed jumps, or deaths should that platform be above the wrong part of the map.
I really wanted to enjoy Curse of the Sea Rats, as it offer some unique twists on an established formula, but at the end of the day, the frustrations I found in its lack of balance, and the issues I ran into made it one which left me very frustrated by the time I reached its final scenes, meaning I was just not interested in watching how its story played out.
Curse of the Sea Rats was reviewed on PC with a code kindly provided by PQube