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27 September, 2016

Burly Men at Sea Review – A five-star adventure

A charming and relaxing folktale adventure that empowers the player through a wonderful sense of discovery.

The opening scene of Burly Men at Sea is brilliant, setting the tone of the entire game. As the title screen popped up, I waited rather impatiently for the game to start. After around half-a-minute, I began to think that the game had frozen. A rather inauspicious start, I mused to myself. Frustrated, I swiped at the iPad screen. Surprisingly, the screen reacted to my touch, revealing something hidden on the right. Holding my finger down, the screen began to expand until the path forward was revealed. And so, my seafaring adventure had begun...

At its heart, Burly Men at Sea is a bite-sized adventure game about discovery. But not ‘discovery’ in the traditional sense of the word used in point-and-click adventure games. Choices are not presented through dialogue or narration. Nor does the player explicitly direct their character by tapping on the screen. Rather, as a player explores a scene – through physically expanding the on-screen view – they discover how they might move forward.

I found this to be a wonderfully empowering way to tell a story. Rather than being pushed along a pre-determined linear path, it was up to me to discover my own path. With essentially no clues, I was encouraged to thoroughly explore each scene. However, there are no traditional puzzles or inventory management to speak of. Instead, interacting with the environment and exploration of each location to find all possible story choices is the puzzle, in and of itself. But rather than descending into a tedious exercise of diligently tapping the entire screen, each location has multiple solutions that eventually branch out into unique stories. This is an incredibly crucial part of Burly Men, as replayability is at the heart of the game.

During my first playthrough, I hadn’t yet grasped the depth of replayabilty. Thinking that my initial choices were the only possible ones, I was shocked when my adventure came to an end in just 20 minutes. In my annoyance, I hung around until after the credits had rolled to see if I had missed anything. It was at this point, I was encouraged to set out on another adventure to discover a new path. Begrudgingly, I figured I may as well give it a shot.

It wasn’t until the end of my second playthrough that I began to truly grasp the depth of Burly Men, hidden beneath a pretence of simplicity. Having now discovered nine separate endings to the game, there is still more to discover. To know that my choices shape the story being told gives me such a thrill that makes me want to jump right back in and tell another story: my story. There are no right or wrong choices in Burly Men, only the story that I want to tell. Speaking of, there is an incredibly awesome secret at the end of the game which I don’t want to spoil. But I heartily encourage you to follow the ‘mystery’ of Burly Men.

The premise behind Burly Men is as fascinating as it is historically intriguing. Burly Men at Sea is an original story, drawn from Scandinavian folklore with a dash of inspiration from short stories by Edgar Allen Poe and O. Henry. Setting out as a trio of large bearded gentlemen – awesomely named Brave Beard, Steady Beard and Hasty Beard - the game is told through the style of folktale with a wider approach and moral to the story.

Appropriately, the gorgeous art style of Burly Men reflects the game’s roots. Inspired by modern Scandanavian design and illustrations, the soft palate of colours is drawn from fishing villages in the Lofoten Islands in Norway. In particular, the colours are full of lovely reds and yellows drawn from the cod-liver oil paint that finds its roots in historical usage. I don’t think I’ve ever come across such a soothing and aesthetically pleasing game to play. The soft colours encourage a relaxed and laid back playstyle. It is a chance to soak up the fascinating tapestry of folktales being masterfully woven, at a pace that demands nothing.

Truly, Burly Men at Sea is a unique experience with a fascinating approach to storytelling. Empowering the player to tell their own story through a wonderful sense of discovery is one of the most liberating experiences I’ve ever had with a game. But no matter how many words I could use to describe Burly Men, nothing substitutes for experiencing the game yourself. Appropriately, Burly Men is probably best described using Brain&Brain’s company motto – “A Quiet Adventure”. In an increasingly frenetic and fast-paced world, this quiet adventure is just the game we need.

Burly Men at Sea is available now on iOS, Android and PC.

Stephen Mitchell

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