In a post-Cult of the Lamb world, the fervour for more hand-drawn anthropomorphic roguelikes are in full effect – for myself at least. Sailing on in is Ship of Fools, the swashbuckling co-op roguelike that may scratch that similar itch if, like me, you’re looking for more of that treasure. I don’t want to sell this game as something completely comparable, as its focus is the dungeon crawling. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t pin the two games together for being aesthetically similar.
Developed by Fika Productions out of Quebec, Canada – Ship of Fools is their debut title. Team17 are a household name at this point for publishing chaotic co-op games and this game is no different. Though with chaos comes consequence in Ship of Fools, as you sail closer to the Eye of the Storm – figuratively and literally.
You awake on the shores of The Great Lighthouse (the hub world) and are immediately called to action by Clarity – a wise squid-like creature whose your initial guide to the game. The storm is encroaching and you must fend it off in this tutorialisation of the game’s rules. As the name suggests, Clarity clears up all that is going on in this world. A darkness looms the seas, taking everybody who dares attempt to sail and you are the only one foolish enough to take it on and stop the endless storm that’s controlling the seas.
In true roguelike fashion, the credits aren’t the end for Ship of Fools. Instead there is a way to truly beat it which I may have a rough idea on but have yet to succeed for reasons I’ll get into later. Your character – whomever you choose – is like the game tells you, a fool. A blank slate of a personality that’s very existence is to take on the dark forces.
You start off with Todd and Hink but as you progress and complete (secret?) challenges you unlock more, each of which resembles an oceanic inhabitant. A personal favourite is Krillstoph, who’s essentially a prawn with an attitude. Outside of their visual differences and cute puns, they have a unique trinket which they take with them on every run. Trinkets are essentially perks that can vary from bonus damage or positive effects on enemy attacks.
As you delve further through the game, you find characters lost at sea that are all uniquely characterised and fill in parts of the lore. There feels like a real lull in the mid game however as there are no huge moments outside of the intro, fake end and possibly the true end? Which as an overt co-op game is fine, to an extent. There’s always that annoying partner button mashing ‘X’ to speed through all the dialogue anyway – you know who you are out there. However, some stakes when there’s that inevitable solo player would have been nice to give story significance to what you’re doing. Once you’ve “beaten” the game you do roll credits, but a post-credit cut scenes suggests there’s more to what you’re doing to truly beat the game. I’ve tried a few things at this point, but so far I’ve been doomed to repeat myself over and over. Maybe I’ve spent too much time out at sea or maybe I’m seeing the only end there is.
Pirates of the Crustacean
As I’ve already mentioned, Ship of Fools is a co-op roguelike. A roguelike for anyone unfamiliar is where you take on a dungeon with nothing equipped, and on the way find items/weapons to improve your character that you’ll lose upon death. Ship of Fools follows that formula. What you take with you on each run are a limited number of nodes on your ship. This enables you to place statues on them that are either ammo, upgrades or materials. The ships health bar, money to start with as well as harpoons. Each of these can be upgraded in the hub world, usually to increase the number of the aforementioned. You also have the ability to upgrade your cannons which stay with you each run.
There’re three areas, each with a boss at the end as well as a fourth and final boss. Your ship starts with a cannon that runs automatically as well as a secondary cannon you can man. This is the main way to attack the at-sea enemies, but you also have your oar to thwack those coming aboard. You have to manually load the cannons, on top of moving them to the appropriate enemy facing side to hit them. This, alongside on-board attacks that damage the ships integrity, keep you busy as you play.
There are 100+ trinkets, ammo types and ship upgrades to bolster your attempt – these do not stay with you for each run. Having beaten it a couple times on co-op and a couple on solo, it’s clear that co-op is the clear definitive way to play. I’ve really not noticed the balance with playing solo or with a partner aside from health bars potentially being smaller on your own. On top of this, I’m convinced the better trinkets you have for your ship during that run, the harder the AI becomes. Making a barely upgraded ship with better player ability less of a reason to just walk the plank. This makes the near endless combinations of ammo types, trinkets and ship upgrades less enticing to experiment with as you want one strong ammo type and some good trinkets that’ll boost your damage. With there being so many to choose from, a compendium of everything would have been so handy to check back on if I needed to jog my memory on what I liked using.
This may have to do with my ability playing Ship of Fools but the first few hours if you’re playing on your own – like me – are particularly rough. You set sail and are met with a hexagonal map where you pick your path. Some hexagons have an icon within them; this could be planks to replenish ship health you have to manually place, money, harpoons to catch loot out at sea or trinkets to name a few.
The first couple of levels are pretty docile to beat but after every three turns the Boss’ storm takes over some of the hexagons you traverse to, encroaching on your ability to grab as much loot as possible before facing them. With that said, the longer you spend at sea, the tougher the levels become – almost unreasonably. If you’re still alive after just traversing the sea, you’ll confront the boss. I didn’t feel confident beating the boss till a good five hours into playing it. Mainly because the tools at your stead really aren’t great at the job and it wasn’t till I upgraded the ship’s health and number of nodes did I find the rhythm to the game.
To others this may be the tipping point to not brave the storm, and I get it. I never felt it was my ability but rather my ship’s inadequacy and grinding the first stage and dying to the first boss can feel disheartening if you’re doing it for hours, with currency being a difficulty on its own to accumulate. After hours of grinding and hopefully with a partner to play with, it does become cool sailing for the most part.
RNG is always a prevalent feature in roguelikes and for Ship of Fools it can be par for the course or unfair depending on the hand you’re dealt. The Storm is unpredictable in the hexagonal map so those levels you’re aiming for to get that loot could be washed away. If you are successful, you may not fare much better as there’s a lot of duds to the loot you precure. I often found myself opening a chest only to leave the treasure behind or visiting a shop, only to not have enough scratch to buy the one thing I want. It happens so much, I opted to just be better with very little.
What did greatly quell any of my trepidations of facing the storm was playing with someone else. What originally felt as a slog of solitude became a champion co-op experience. I played with my partner who’s not well versed in playing games, but just having an extra pair of hands working the poop deck made us a ship to reckon with. We finished bosses on the first try and the coordination of one of us firing whilst the other reloads and tackles the on-board attacks made the sirens sing.
Any problem I had with the game mechanics washed over and instead of tedious grinding I had a lot of fun. So, whilst it is beatable on your own after practice and good RNG, the best way is with someone else. There’s no online matchmaking as of yet (if there ever will be), but you can play couch co-op or online with a friend and I implore you to do so.
The Crowning Pearl
The presentation for Ship of Fools is incredible. The 2D hand drawn style is a pretty flawless artistic direction for the game. All the characters you play as are vividly different and nautically witty whilst still looking as foolish as the game denotes. The cast on the hub world are different enough, with great iconography to show off their function within the game. The bosses outside of the playable characters are an absolute stand out however. They’re all devilishly monstrous leviathans, highly detailed and intimidating.
The level designed is possibly the weakest aspect of Ship of Fools. Each one is more or less the same visually with a different colour palette to the sea beneath your boat. Nothing much changes environmentally. The enemy designs have some highlights, looking tough while pulling off their own attack patterns. But through the stages they’re sometimes just reskinned to fit the stage you’re in. It’s not completely noticeable as you are fighting for your life, but when you see the same enemy in a different colour it takes some wind out of its sail. I would have loved some customisable looks for the ship to really make it your own and adding longevity to Ship of Fools outside of just being able to beat it; but it’s an overall astonishing feat to look this great for a debut title.
This isn’t a reductive comparison when I say it sounds like Cult of the Lamb – but it really does. The echoing forlorn harmonies paired with the acoustic guitars offer an atmosphere that’s as bleak as the situation you’re presented with. The soft yet distinctive use of the colour palette making it look dark and moody match the music perfectly. When the action swells, so does the music as an orchestra lead with an electric guitar packs such a punch, often harder than the enemies attacking your ship. It matches the player feeling so succinctly it really puts you into the moment of chaos within the storm.
Suffer No Fools
Ship of Fools is a comparable debut for Fika Productions. The overall presentation makes any mechanical woe I have with the game a mere mollusc. There’s a clear rough few hours of grinding if you’re playing on your own. The enemies can appear to harsh and not balanced properly for solo; but with a partner there’s a lot of fun in there.
This nautical roguelike is chaotic, frantic and sometimes frustrating if you’re on your own. There’re too many variables in the trinkets/weaponry via RNG to squander your enjoyment and an AI that can feel unfair at times. But with a co-captain, there’s some treasure to be had, and a presentation that could cure scurvy.
Ship of Fools is out now on PlayStation 5 (review platform), Xbox Series S|X, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC (Steam)
Developer: Fika Productions
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
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