Often, an RPG doesn’t necessarily need to have a compelling narrative or complicated gameplay in order to satisfy our needs. There are times when we simply want to become a certain character archetype and enjoy living out the existence of that individual. Many simulation games, such as last year’s Kingdom: Two Crowns, allow players to bypass a complex plot and focus instead on growing a civilization. Likewise, West of Loathing allows players to explore the Western frontier by picking a profession, a partner, and completing a myriad of context-heavy quests. As one of the first Role-playing games of 2019, Don’t Sink hopes to allow the pirate-deficient Role-playing enthusiast the opportunity to set sail and do some pirate things.
Also, govern multiple islands simultaneously.
Don’t Sink offers a sprawling open world in the sense that players may choose to sail to any of its sixteen islands at any time. Undertaking any journey also implies a degree of risk, however, since the hunger, thirst, and morale of their crew will steadily dwindle overtime. Additionally, random encounters with other vessels take place on the seas, threatening to damage the player’s ship, whether the hull or the sails, and kill off crew members. The former of these mechanics can be circumvented via inventory management, while the latter is done through the game’s fairly straightforward combat system.
Players may stock their ship with an array of consumable items, from water to ale, and carrots to biscuits, which each restore an incremental amount of one of the crew’s three needs. Likewise, they can also pick up ammunition to use in defending against attacks from other ships- these three ammunition types deal certain kinds of damage, although maximizing hull damage seems to be the best method of approach. During naval battles, players can choose to flee, repair their ship mid-battle, or move in closer to take on enemies in a one-on-one duel.
I’m going to be entirely honest, there’s a lot of risk and reward to be found in Don’t Sink’s combat and travel systems. Unfortunately, a great deal of its risk is negated on its standard difficulty due to how easily any of these systems can be manipulated. Taking short trips from island to island is an easy way to save on consumable resources, as most stops possess a tavern where the entire crew can be fed and fully restored for a fraction of the price of goods. Battles can be ignored by fleeing, and even if the ship takes damage as a result of a few failed attempts, the damage can be repaired by purchasing wood planks and cloth, rather than investing in the three forms of cannon ammunition. Speaking of this cannon ammunition, although there are three types, only two seem viable, as the kind that specifically targets sailcloth deals minuscule amounts of damage.
The basic cannonball does average damage to the hull, and bombs are pretty much devastating all around. The one-on-one melee combat, which the game itself describes as “difficult to master,” uses three directions on the d-pad and three face buttons in order to make defensive or offensive movements. The only oddity here is that the inputs- which appear as symbols flanking the right and left side of the player avatar, are not mapped in similar positions on both sides of the controller, which can cause some confusion that needlessly complicates the experience. Even so, this kind of combat isn’t terribly difficult- mashing one direction on the offensive inputs can more often than not result in a victory. The only risk involved is taking advantage of these systems.
Outside of this, there are 21 narrative-based sidequests, some of which must be unlocked via the completion of a number of objectives, while others simply involve exploring the basic, two-dimensional islands and finding individuals to interact with. This will usually start a brief dialogue and can be completed via some straightforward directions, very few of which involve any particular variation in gameplay. Once you have completed all of these, there is very little to do in the game outside of owning every existing island, which is where Don’t Sink’s true grind comes into play. Regardless of whether or not the player engages in combat, crew members are needed to conquer islands, and a large number of them will be lost in taking them. This then requires the player to hire more, which means they must gather more money through the game’s basic delivery quests, before moving on to the next island.
Eventually, these islands will require large enough invading crews that the player will have to upgrade their vessel, which makes delivery progress slower and increases the amount of resources needed to keep the ship and crew stable. This says nothing about the game’s governing mechanics, which are poorly-explained, but essentially amount to modifying gauges based on the general level of citizen satisfaction, which usually amounts to “turn down any sort of manual labor and trade opportunities and turn up island defenses,” meaning the island’s operating cost will rise and cost the player more money each time they dock. Leaving these islands unattended will result in losing them overtime, which means more conquering, more deliveries, and more time and resources.
Aesthetics and Narrative
Don’t Sink has an extremely vibrant color palette, and utilizes simplistic pixel art for its character models. There are a surprising amount of options for customizing your specific captain, however, I strongly recommend avoiding brighter colors for hair options, as your dialogue box will match it.
The game primarily uses white text, which results in a barely-legible display. While these bright colors result in a visual design for the game that truly pops, the simple character models do little to add any personality, instead allowing for a large number of citizens to be viewed on screen at a time. The low number of animations does little to assist this.
In terms of its narrative, Don’t Sink’s writing is one particular strong suit, with the majority of its side quests featuring particularly humorous scenarios and commentary. Members of the crew will comment on your choices and deeds after the fact, which is nice, albeit a bit superfluous. It is a shame, however, that these dialogue sequences are exclusively hidden behind the game’s twenty-one side quests, a rare few being randomly activated, while a majority can be completed within the first three or four hours of play. This means the remainder of the game is virtually wordless menu-navigation, an occasional random treasure island encounter, and various silly pirate ship names.
For a ten-dollar strategy game, I feel as though Don’t Sink delivers on what is to be expected with little more. The threat of random sickness, whale encounters, and sunken treasure arises every now and then, but the game hardly ever feels like a juggling act. There are some very direct objectives to achieve, and making sure they can be attained in a reasonable fashion requires hours of low-engagement delivery quests and resource management. While its writing is silly, I found myself wanting more when the game finished sharing. I was disappointed by the governing systems and found myself yearning for something more substantial, though the game’s lack of tutorials may have contributed to a misunderstanding of the mechanics.
While Don’t Sink does have a rogue-like difficulty that erases a save file upon failed naval excursion or combat, a part of me doesn’t feel that bumping up the difficulty is worth the risk, as a great deal of the gameplay has to do with waiting and saving resources rather than actively engaging in the kind of swashbuckling gameplay one might expect. If you are looking for a more laid-back, resource-management-oriented sort of title, I might recommend Don’t Sink, although a great deal of its challenge can be circumvented by playing the game relatively safe. Perhaps its the savvy, overconfident nature of piracy that I lack which caused me to shirk from its more adventurous choices. Still, the idea of wasting more time saving money and resources on the high seas didn’t make the prospect all that enticing.