Review: Nantucket24 Jan 2018 0
Released 18 Jan 2018
Whaling was an awful, bloody industry but there's no point pretending it didn't happen. Instead, whaling sim Nantucket lifts the lid on this boiling vat of blubber and asks what we can learn from it, and what we can learn about those who depended on it for their livelihood. It's a bold and clever basis for a strategy adventure game and, like whaling itself, a largely profitable one.
Even the opening narrative is inventive, dovetailing with the end of the most famous whaling story of all, Moby-Dick, whose vast bulk looms over proceedings like an enormous white whale. The game begins several years later. You're in charge of a small sloop, holds full of rum and hope, searching the seas for prey and profit. Who knows: if you're lucky (or unlucky) you might get to meet the great pale beast again.
As the game unfolds, it becomes clear that Nantucket is a tried and tested bucket of RPG mechanics pressed into the service of a novel theme. You'll recruit a crew, stock your hold and sally forth in search of whales. Along the way you'll also undertake missions for extra profit. These are typical tales of maritime adventure like searching for lost vessels or following rumours of pirate treasure.
As the blubber and the bucks come rolling in, you'll find your ship too small. Cue technology research, additional sailors and bigger vessels to permit bigger profit. The crew, too, gain in experience and become tougher, and better at their jobs. Harpooners inflict injuries, scientists heal them and craftsmen and sailors keep the ship running. Each class has a branching skill tree for further specialisation.
You'll have seen this set of mechanics a hundred times before, because when applied well they're engaging and addictive. And, although repetitive on occasion, Nantucket delivers on that application. The upgrades and skills you want always seem one step ahead of where you are, without becoming overly challenging. That scarcity drives you to keep playing, and presents you with tough choices as to how to allocate the limited resources.
At this point, I have to admit bias: the theme on this hooked me like a barbed harpoon. I love old songs, and whaling is a common subject matter in them. Everything from the sepia map, through the historically accurate newspapers, to the nautical perils of urine-drinking, bought that lost world to life. When my crew first broke into a chorus of "South Australia", I joined them with such gusto that my wife looked in to check whether I was pain.
The game offers realism, but refuses to become confined by it. You have to find the various whaling grounds yourself, for instance, which is daft since they were common knowledge. But it offers a great spur to explore, and when you find them, they're realistically seasonal. So you have to traverse the map - often a long way - to catch your quarry. Mapping out and stocking up for the long hauls to maximise your hunting time is a key plank of the strategy.
Where it all comes together, though, is in your crew. Many of the missions and events at sea involve crew members directly. As captain, you decide whether to agree to their wishes or even, sometimes, their fate. You learn their names, watch them grow, assign skill points, give them jobs on ship like manning the crows' nest or taking the helm. And then, all too often, they die.
Seafaring in the age of sail was a dangerous business, all the more so in pursuit of the ocean's greatest monsters. Nantucket doesn't shy away from this, and tosses your beloved crew into the ocean's briny maw with indecent glee. It's a real wrench when they go. Not only does the game foster a personal connection with them, but a short handed ship leaves everyone else in danger.
Often they die from storms or starvation or sickness. But the waters hold other perils: sharks, pirates and, of course, the whales themselves. Dealing with these involves a dice-based combat mechanic and it's here the game comes grinding to a halt. Each crew member in each whaleboat rolls a dice, but you can only choose one result to apply from each boat. This is almost always a no-brainer: if you can, kill something. If not, apply first aid. It's occasionally exciting as health totals bleed out into the brine, but it's rarely interesting.
To make matters worse, the whole affair is sluggish with pointless animations and long loads. You can send whaleboats off without you to avoid it if you wish, but this is often a suicide mission. The game seems to take it as an excuse to needlessly kill further sailors, and your boats often come back with empty seats. A quick animation option would work wonders to improve things, but there isn't one. And in the end what's really needed is better choices rather than faster ones.
It's a testament, then, to the pull of everything else in the package that I kept slogging through the fights so I could see more of it. Explore more oceans, learn more about history, fulfill more missions all along the path back to the great white whale. Nantucket may not have the most novel mechanics, but it presents such a novel theme with such force that it's easy to forgive its shortcomings.