Burly Men at Sea – Review
16 Feb, 2017
A trio of burly, bearded brothers is out to explore and get into all kinds of fanciful adventures in Burly Men at Sea. Here’s what we think about it.
Burly Men at Sea immediately seized my attention by offering me something I never knew I needed: an honest-to-goodness and charmingly illustrated digital storybook. Make no mistake, it’s very much an adventure game with plenty of pointing and clicking to be had. However, Burly Men at Sea never feels like it’s set out to be a point-and-click adventure. Instead, it uses the medium to recreate the wonder of opening up a storybook as a child.
First, the set-up. Burly Men at Sea follows the many seafaring adventures of the brothers Beard: three suitably burly gentlemen who find themselves a nautical chart. Setting off in their trust little boat, they fall into one Sinbad-like adventure after another.
Detailing what happens in their adventures would do a disservice to the game, considering how delicate its narration is. The game uses text sparingly, displaying it in large fonts that are suitable for younger audiences, while being aesthetically pleasing. Each ‘segment’ of the adventure is short, sometimes passing by before I could realise it. It’s a game to be discovered and savoured, much like any adventure involving maritime exploration.
When playing Burly Men at Sea, I sometimes felt like I could lean in close to the monitor and pick up the scent of a freshly-printed book. Its ample use of white, clean and flat vector graphics makes it look like it’s printed on paper rather than rendered on pixels.
The game’s sounds, many of which are adorably performed by human voices, heighten the sense of whimsy. It certainly feels like there’s a storyteller sitting next to you, making the sounds up as you go, supported by a soundtrack for when you need that extra punch of exploratory courage.
Your adventure in Burly Men at Sea is shaped by the choices you make. Often, you don’t realise you’re making the choice in question with your curiosity-driven clicking. This results in a smoothly narrated tale that puts you in an adventure tailored to your interaction.
At the end of each seafaring journey, you find yourself back to where you started, and the game loops itself perfectly. Your adventure is recorded in a book, which is stacked on a bookshelf. What then? Why, put up the sails and go on another adventure, to fill another book with, of course.
Each time I was out on the sea, I tried not doing what I did before, and tinkering with all the other options available. Often, this would lead to interesting new possibilities, fuelling the joy of discovery. That’s what sea adventures are made for, after all.
Modular storytelling like this is what makes Burly Men at Sea an exclusively digital storybook: you can open this book over and over again and keep finding new sequences and new adventures to fall into. But at the same time, the lack of a singular narrative direction leads to unsatisfying stories that feel like little more than one whimsical incident after another.
While the game does suggest there is an overarching goal you can strive towards, the game doesn’t give you any indication of how far or close you are to achieving it. I hypothesize that the game wants me to exhaust every possible narrative option to finally see it, but there are the other problems that get in the way of that.
The game is padded out by animated sequences that take place over and over as you repeat the same segment again. Discovering new possibilities in the game’s narrative is always fun, and the game understandably never spills its guts as to what possibilities are available.
The result is a lot of annoyed clicking around, trying to find other new outcomes for each segment. More often than not, there are no more outcomes to be found, and you find yourself repeating the exact same journey you were on before. Repetition is something Burly Men at Sea expects you to accept without question.
It could certainly be enough to hold a child’s imagination—and I suspect that’s who this game is made for—but for anyone expecting more than that, the game wouldn’t offer much.
What is on offer, however, is an elegant, sharp-looking and colourfully illustrated book of tales that are told according to the reader, just like a good storyteller would.
This review is based on the release version of the game, and a review copy of the game was provided by the developer, Brain&Brain. Burly Men at Sea is available on PC, Mac, Android and iOS. The PC version was played for the review.