Brain&Brain bill themselves as independent game developers and quiet adventurers and, in the case of their recently released Burly Men at Sea, the title fits.
Burly Men at Sea is a folktale-inspired, beautifully designed adventure. ‘Charming’ is a word that often gets thrown around when it comes to whimsical little games like this, but I truly found myself charmed by Burly Men at Sea’s minimalist visuals and simple but effective prose. The storytelling is somewhere between Little Golden Books and your favorite bedtime story; there’s a hint of oral storytelling in it, echoed in the game’s inventive use of sound.
The story itself is simple. You control the three Brothers Beard as they explore the world to fill out a mysterious map, encountering a variety of interesting creatures and people along the way. Each encounter provides you with another choice to make–do you listen to the nymphs’ story, or leave? Does the maelstrom swallow you whole or spit you out?–leading to a variety of endings. One route takes around ten minutes to play, and, with many choices to make, there are a number of stories to complete.
You quickly discover that this is a game based around repetition. Each route loops back in on itself, and the gameplay is concentrated on finding the different ways each encounter can play out. The simple swipe- and click-based gameplay is only part of the equation; the real engagement comes from keeping track of which paths you’ve explored and which you still need. The monsters and people you encounter may provide some small element of challenge–especially the kraken, who had me stumped until I looked up a walkthrough–but the real engagement is exploring every option and all their charms over some time.
As I found out, this is not a game you want to binge-play. It’s sweet and whimsical and elegantly designed, its color palette a beautiful mixture of bright shades, stark whites, and simple shapes. Unfortunately, a glitch made me have to start entirely over, enforcing how repetitive the game is when you’re trying to get through it quickly. While I haven’t yet figured out a way around the glitch–which has prevented me from seeing the game’s ending–others have had better luck, either by not stumbling upon the glitch at all or by simply returning to the village and trying again.
Despite the glitch, I don’t feel my time was wasted. Burly Men At Sea might be simple and based in repetition, but it’s a wonderful bit of economical storytelling that draws you into its folklore-inspired, beautifully rendered world. The art style is lovely and eye-catching, and the music and sound design are wonderful–every sound you encounter sounds as though it’s being made by a skilled oral storyteller, including the ching, ching, ching of a blacksmith’s hammer and the gentle flapping of a bird’s wings. While sound of this kind might break immersion in another title, it suits Burly Men at Sea in a way that true-to-life sounds never could.
The music, too, is lovely. You can buy the soundtrack on Bandcamp or in addition to the game through itch.io. It’s exactly the right mixture of whimsical and upbeat and mysterious, a perfect backing to the game’s atmosphere.
Burly Men at Sea is a game of many interlocking pieces. Its story and gameplay are best examined as a whole, and its art and music echo its friendly, appealing nature. As a complete package, it’s a visual and auditory treat, despite a frustrating glitch and its repetitive nature. While there were times the game drove me to walkthroughs or other sources to solve my aggravation, I’d still recommend it in a heartbeat. I expect that the glitch I encountered will be patched out soon, and there is so much about the game that’s wonderful, especially from such a small team, that I’m confident in saying Burly Men at Sea is a game worth playing.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.