Ship of Fools
I don’t care how immersive or beautiful your AAA adventure games are, you will never top the feeling of lumping down on the couch with one of your best buds and playing something silly in multiplayer. Some of my favourite memories are working together to battle through Secret of Mana or, more recently, dashing around like idiots on fire in Overcooked, and to me couch co-op will always be king. So it was with great anticipation that I picked up the recent offering from Team17 and Fika Productions, Ship of Fools, that promised madcap cannon fire-mayhem for two players, and eagerly took to the oceans in search of a right good time.
At A Glance
|Positives||+ Adorable hand-drawn visuals|
+ Nicely balanced for solo/co-op play
+ Challenging, with tonnes of replayability
|Negatives||– Pick-ups aren’t especially well balanced|
– Significant slow down during busy battles
– Noticeably buggy in online play
|Price (When Reviewed)||£12.99|
|Our Playtime||14 hours 30 mins|
|Available On||PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC|
Ship of Fools is an ocean-faring roguelike, where players must set sail from the Great Lighthouse and aboard their ship, The Stormstrider, into the eye of the Everlasting Storm to try and stave off the Aquapocalypse. To do that, the player must plot their course through the Archipelago, picking their way between randomly generated points of interest, blasting the life out of anything that threatens the ship and collecting treasures to help you along the way. With hidden characters, upgradable cannons and a host of unlockable goodies, there’s tonnes to talk about, so let’s get right to it!
I’d be remiss if I didn’t begin with the visuals, which frankly, are wonderful. All hand drawn and animated, Ship of Fools is a joy to behold, from the derpy cast of aquatic playable characters, to the vibrant shot effects and the myriad of weird and wonderful enemies, the world is presented in stunning cartoon fashion. Despite spending much of the game on deck, even the environments have real charm, with the oceanic surrounds and craggy islets impressing the different locales upon you as you sail on and into the Everlasting Storm..
The colour palette is a muted, almost pencil-crayon affair, filled with teals and greens that channel the essence of the murky deep perfectly. Most impressive are probably the bosses, which are leviathan-sized monsters in comparison to the general flotsam and jetsam you blast in the standard levels, and are fantastically detailed and well drawn. My absolute favourite is the giant crab-boss, Claws – Tyrant of the Deep; with one humongous eye and covered in lichen and old sailing ropes, he’s perfectly depicted as an ancient menace rising from the depths to sink the players’ efforts.
As a roguelike, Ship of Fools plays out through a series of runs and allows you to slowly build your arsenal through successive playthroughs. As you progress and upgrade your starting gear, it means you can smash through the earlier levels more quickly and stand a better chance of beating those later in the game. All of your runs begin at the Great Lighthouse, which acts as the hub world – it becomes home to any castaways that you rescue asea and houses a number of shops that allow you to upgrade you cannons, starting coins or harpoon stock, and later on unlock new ammo types and relics so that they might begin to randomly appear in your runs.
When you cast off, you’re offered a hex-map and are encouraged to choose which path you’d like to take. The map is marked with various icons, and each one represents an area of interest – whether it’s a shop, a treasure chest filled with random loot, promise of a new ammo type, whirlpools to whip you across the map – there are loads to encounter. Each tile you move to begins a new encounter, and sees enemies swarm from around the screen in their attempts to send the Stormstrider down to Davy Jones’ Locker. Your task is to use your trusty cannons to fend them off before they do – survive and you’re granted the reward shown on the map and then go on to choose another tile; fail, and it’s back to the Great Lighthouse with you to start all over again.
The Everlasting Storm creeps in from the opposite direction to your ship and swallows up a random selection of tiles every few turns, effectively cutting off access to some of your potential treasures. The random element of the storm makes plotting your course a fun task – do you skirt from side to side as slowly as you can, trying to get as many upgrades as possible, or steam ahead to get something specific that might end up in the storm if you take too long? It’s an enjoyable way to give players plenty of choice without allowing them to always get their way.
Eventually there will come a time when you have no choice but to sail into the storm, the lair of one of those monstrous bosses I mentioned earlier. While each of the standard one screen-encounters can be tough, the bosses represent a pretty decent step up in difficulty, and I didn’t manage to kill a single one of them on my first try. They’re tough – sometimes really tough – but they’re characterful, and once you get an idea of their main threats, you can work towards beating them bit by bit, and even after multiple runs, it still feels like an achievement to defeat them.
The gameplay finds a successful formula and sticks to it throughout, and sometimes that can be a little too samey. During my playthrough, I quickly noticed some of the upgrades are objectively more effective than others, and it became clear that stumbling on certain items (such as health increasing relics, and the awesome tuning ammo which duplicates damage across all enemies hit with it) would always facilitate a pretty successful run.
Ship of Fools manages to avoid becoming too repetitive by keeping the action in bite sized chunks. Its short bursts of frantic cannon-fire give you just enough of a breather in between to keep you coming back for more, and much the same can be said of the entire experience. There’s a tonne of replay value and it’s a game I think I’ll be playing with a pal for plenty of time yet.
While clearly designed to be played in two player co-op, with players each manning a cannon to thwart endless salty savages, Fika Productions have done a great job in adapting Ship of Fools ideal play style to single player mode too. Rather than have you shoot on your own at a lessened number of enemies (which would definitely dampen the chaotic fun), instead you’re provided an automated cannon that will blast away on your behalf, just requiring you to reload it from time to time. While not as effective a full blown human partner, the AI cannon does a pretty good job and definitely makes Ship of Fools plenty enjoyable when playing solo (but definitely not as fun as grilling your buddy for making a mistake!)
You can play co-op in either couch or online modes, though the lack of integrated voice chat (or even via that daft Nintendo Switch app) makes things much more difficult and hampers the fun considerably. Sure, it’s nothing that a quick discord call can’t overcome, but I always find it mind-boggling that multiplayer games where communication is pivotal don’t include voice chat options as standard.
Chat isn’t the only dampener when playing online, in fact quite a few things get squiffy when you’re in the lap of the online gods, and I found Ship of Fools to be significantly less stable when played remotely. There are a number of regularly occurring bugs in online co-op mode that simply don’t occur in couch mode, and many of them put a real kibosh on the fun. From cannons failing to reload, enemy shot indicators remaining on screen, and even upgrades becoming entirely invisible and unusable to one of the players – things can get pretty ropey. Not that the couch co-op is impervious to bugs – there’s some pretty significant slow down when the screen gets busy, with some of the damage sharing relics being particularly guilty of bringing your Switch to its knees on regular occasions. Thankfully, these problems are the kind that can be solved via a patch and aren’t anything fundamental to Ship of Fools design or implementation, so keep your eyes peeled for updates.
As a completely random aside, my co-captain and resident reviewer, Gaz, recently underwent wrist surgery (get well soon, pal!) which makes playing games rather tricky at present. But with just a few control tweaks using the Switch’s remapping feature, he was able to play Ship of Fools one-handed and with no problems at all! Score an unexpected but huge plus point on the side of accessibility for this one.
Ship of Fools is a beautifully drawn sea-faring roguelike with a play style that will keep you coming back for more, long after beating the final boss. With a derpy cast of characters, an awesome soundtrack and hectic cannon-fire action, it’s a game that’s tonnes of fun on your own but is even better with a friend. It would have a higher score if it weren’t for some performance issues, but some noticeable slow down on the Switch version and annoying bugginess in the online co-op mode acts like an albatross around the neck, keeping it from sailing into the sunset entirely victorious.
In the interest of full disclosure, VGamingNews was provided with a copy of the game in order to conduct this review.