Abandon Ship, a seafaring strategy game with more than a smattering of the occult, has dropped anchor in Steam early access and personally, I am very impressed with how it's looking so far. I made a video about it earlier this week. In fact, you can view it below.
If you've not heard of Abandon Ship before, the core message in a bottle is that it's a game about taking flight from a murderous bunch of cultists very much in the same vein as FTL. As the captain of the ship your goal is to explore each new environment, balancing your supplies, money and morale while navigating a series of deadly encounters and preparing to make the journey to new waters.
Ever looming on the horizon are the forces of the cult from which you have so boldly escaped - they hound you constantly as you try to win your freedom with everything at their disposal, from cannon and shot to terrifying fishmen and an honest to goodness kraken. Here be monsters indeed.
What I really like about Abandon Ship is how readily the combat mechanics from FTL translates to a historical setting. The system powering FTL's ship-to-ship battles seems so intrinsically married to its dreamlike, floating setting with its airlocks power nodes and faster-than-light jumps that it's difficult to imagine a setting more divergent than that of Abandon Ship - and yet, it works.
In Abandon Ship, you control each member of your crew as they dash about on deck trying to keep the ship from going under. There are cannons to load and fire; the ship needs a steady hand at the helm in order to steer it close enough to ram the enemy or take it out of range of its close-quarter weapons; there are holes in the hull to patch, fires to put out and floodwater to be pumped. Crew members might be pulled away from their designated tasks to repel boarders, fighting for their lives before rushing back to preserve the life of the ship they serve. It's a frenetic and beguiling combat system that is no worse off for having been punted millenia into the past - in some ways, in fact, it has some elegant refinements that give it the edge over FTL itself.
For one thing, the power distribution mechanic from FTL has been stripped out - after all, there's no electricity aboard a tall ship. Instead, this part of managing the ship is rolled in with its crew placement, which is to say that none of the ships' stations is automated. Whereas stationing a crewmember in a particular room in FTL will give a buff to that particular function, Abandon Ship requires a crewmember to be present for that part of the ship to function at all.
It's obvious enough when you think about it - a cannonball can't load itself, after all - but it provides a more hands-on approach to surviving each fight that's really exhilarating. Suddenly the meter showing how close a weapon is to firing becomes a much more important consideration, and prioritising which crew member is going to deal with what crisis can be a really tough decision. You won't last with a hole in the hull, for instance, so it definitely has to be patched - but who's going to do it? Will it be the person currently loading the grapeshot cannon and trying to kill the other crew members, or will you stop trying to get the first aid bay back to a functioning state and hope that nobody needs to heal up all of a sudden?
It's not so much that the pacing is drastically different in these encounters, you understand - you can pause the game at any moment as in FTL - but successfully navigating a combat encounter in Abandon Ship is definitely more of an involved fair. It is, quite literally, all hands on deck, and it grants a sense of immediacy to proceedings that I had never noticed was missing from its spacefaring counterpart.
The exploration side of Abandon Ship is also a markedly different experience. Instead of jumping between single-screen nodes on the map, each marker actually expands into an enclosed area (set out like a navigation chart) with a number of locked gates on the sides. These gates will only open once you've survived a certain number of encounters, forcing you to stop, look around and actively go looking for trouble. You can be cautious under certain circumstances, but there's no such thing as a safe playthrough in Abandon Ship - it's a pirate's life for thee whether thou likes it or not. This sense of gathering trouble is only compounded by the fact the cultists chase you relentlessly - instead of a steadily advancing line on a map, the cultists' pursuit is represented by a small meter at the bottom. When full, they will either dispatch a boarding party, an elite ship or the aforementioned kraken to try and send you to a watery grave. These encounters are unavoidable and provide a real sense of threat, making the cultists a constant presence throughout the game. Indeed, it's hard not to be fascinated by them and their dastardly ways as you glimpse little bits of their lore between stoving them in and sending them to meet Davey Jones.
Abandon Ship, in other words, is a game that plays with FTL's winning formula in some very clever ways. It eases off on certain elements, allowing you to look around and get a sense of exploration, while ramping up the intensity of other elements. It's a game that makes you stop and really think about certain parts of your journey, while relying on gut instinct to see you through others. For something that's just launched in Early Access it's remarkably well realised, and I look forward to seeing how shipshape it is once the voyage to completion is finally done.