Curse of the Sea Rats is the latest from the Barcelona-based game and animation studio Peetons Studio. If they sound familiar, you’ve probably got a four-year-old, or your own obsession with Peppa Pig. Known primarily for the video game adaptations of established IPs like the most recent Peppa Pig: World Adventures, Peetons Studio have embarked on an adventure of their own.
That’s right piggies, move along, it’s time for the mice or should I say rats to play. Whilst the Peppa Pig series is known for being an interactive narrative, Curse of the Sea Rats has taken the Metroidvania route. It’s an exciting endeavour and one that definitely comes with its own challenges, but is it smooth sailing? Or treacherous waters? Let’s get into it.
The year is 1777, the British Empire are sailing back from the Caribbean. That is before the nefarious Flora Burn uses a part of an ancient Chinese amulet, turning the whole crew and cabin into rats. From admiral to prisoners, everyone has devolved into vermin – crashing the ship.
Flora Burn uses this opportunity to escape with her legion of doom on the Irish coast, kidnapping the Captain’s child – Tommy – as leverage for the rest of the amulet. This is where the four playable characters come in. Each with their own questionable stereotype, you have: David Douglas, Buffalo Calf, Bussa and Akane Yamakawa.
They are also prisoners being taken to England to be trialled for treason. I don’t think that’s how treason works, considering they were taken from their own country… Anyway, I digress. The threat of the death penalty is squandered if they can successfully defeat Flora Burn, save Tommy and retrieve the other half of the amulet – restoring everyone back to human form.
The story plays out pretty much exactly how you’d expect. The strange stance of the four characters being evil, whilst the British Empire are the good guys isn’t addressed. There are no twists, no foreshadowing, it’s very lacklustre and a little crass when it comes to a whole cast of the voice acting being caricatures – even the English aren’t safe.
Argh, She Blows!
So the story isn’t much to use a quill for, but what about the gameplay?… Shall I tell you more about the singing turtle Mariah Carey? Okay, as a Metroidvania, it’s not that bad. It has everything in the genre you want. New abilities to use for backtracking, a labyrinthine interconnected map and even secret rooms with a plethora of collectables to find.
However, that’s where it begins and ends as solid design choices. I’d even go as far as to say it’s a decent first Metroidvania if you’ve not played one before, or if you want to introduce someone young to the genre. I played solo, but you can play up to 4 player co-op, though I don’t know how it’d be balanced. Each character has their own combat style, movement style, stats and special ability that would have to be simultaneously accommodated.
Whilst that might sound like a fun concept, the reality is far from it. The combat itself is quite rigid. My main complaint is that colliding with an enemy does damage and knockback. When that’s in the mix with different characters having their own melee ranges, it never feels solid. I found myself hanging onto the edge of the platform needing to defeat an enemy on said platform, only to jump up take damage, fall back and repeat. It’s an exhausting example that happens far, far too often.
Each character has the basic attack (Square), with a variation of up + attack, down + attack and a jump attack. They also all have their own magic ability that deals damage, but it’s very limited and needs basic attacks to charge it back up. There’s also a parry mechanic that only one enemy utilises the need for. Boss fights to my knowledge aren’t parryable and your best tactic is to jump around.
Four Blind Mice
Later on you’ll learn double jump, mega jump and a dodge, which again have their own differences per character, but why would I play Akane who dodges backwards when Buffalo rolls forward? I appreciate the efforts to animate them all separately, but it just makes for just one viable character.
The only semi-saving grace was Buffalo Calf. She’s the only character out of the four that can do ranged damage with throwing knives/tomahawks. This makes her the only solid choice for combat and even then with how rigid the combat is, it was still frustrating.
Each character has their own skill trees that you’ll be able to spend your Energy on. Energy is dropped from defeating enemies. You’ll need to accrue a decent chunk to level up, but lose half upon death, and you’ll be forced to pick them back up from where you died. Across the tree, you’ll be able to upgrade your attack, defence and magic abilities. It’s a decent edition, but even if you’re levelling up and end up being double the level of your enemy, foes seem to scale regardless and enemies hit very hard and take a lot of damage.
It’s almost systems for system’s sake at that point. And when there are teleporter rooms that you have to pay for, then checkpoint rooms separate and often not nearby – it made dying infuriating. I spent way too much time retracing steps for a few minutes, only to die either via enemies or the lacklustre platforming – I’m looking at you Windy Path.
Easy As Pie-rate
Enemies out in the world and general platforming were annoying. However, boss fights – whilst the designs themselves are incredible – are ridiculously easy. Maybe it’s because Buffalo Calf’s ranged ability is a little broken, which made most boss attacks useless when I could hit from afar. But it further exaggerates the dichotomy of the balancing issues the whole game presents.
The game is frontloaded with oppression. Quick deaths, no dodge or even a double jump, giving the game a rough start. You also start about five side quests which I didn’t complete until about 8 hours later. They were all fetch quests, asking you to find an item and bring it back for a reward – nothing too engaging. The start of the game doesn’t feel gratifying and most of the map doesn’t have markers to indicate objectives, forcing you to remember it all. I guess it pays off by the end, but even having beaten the final boss, I can’t tell you if there’s a New Game+ or the ability to go back into your save to tie up loose ends. This is because of a broken credits screen.
My credits would freeze and the only solution is to close the app, making me fight the final boss again, just to see if it works this time. I’m sure a patch will come quickly to resolve that, and I’m not going to hold it against the game. I just can’t tell you what the ending is like for now.
Shiver Me Timbers
Curse of the Sea Rats describes itself as beautifully handcrafted and animated. Whilst this is partially true, a lot of it isn’t. The characters and enemies are hand drawn and they’re all sumptuously designed. There are a couple of animated scenes at the beginning and the end which are decently crafted.
However, that is the full extent of the handcrafted animation. All of the environments on the other hand are on the lower end of resolution and lacking in as much detail. Despite the extensive variety of locations, with around 10 to explore that are all very distinctive, the characters stick out like a sore thumb due to the differences in styles.
The music elevates the overall presentation tenfold. All of it sounds nautically fitting, pirate themed and diverse. From sombre harps and pianos on the coast to upbeat wind instruments during boss battles, it’s all whimsical and wonderfully implemented. it’s just a shame that it over exceeds so much compared to the other elements.
The P is Silent In Pirate
I can certainly see what Petoons Studio was aiming for with Curse of the Sea Rats; A sprawling Metroidvania that has the potential for a younger audience, but I don’t think anything outside the basics of the genre was quite nailed. The game felt like it needed more iteration, more play testing and definitely some more balancing tweaks.
Taking damage on collision just needs to walk the plank, full stop. Each character needs to have their own charm and reason to play. And our “anti-heroes” of the story should be the good guys because it isn’t the Empire. Maybe some refinement down the road for the solo experience would make this game sail, but for right now it’s stuck on the poop deck.
Curse of the Sea Rats takes some good ideas for gameplay systems but fumbles them in the execution. As a Metroidvania, it could be a good entry point and if it is, it can only go up from here. However, the animation that is in the game and the music does make a pirate life one for me, just not an overall great one.
Curse of the Sea Rats releases 6th April 2023 on PlayStation 5 (review platform), PS4, Xbox Series S|X, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC via Steam
Developer: Petoons Studio
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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