Red Stewart reviews Nantucket…
When I first saw the concept for Nantucket, I admit I was quite piqued. As someone who enjoyed the literary classic Moby-Dick, here was a game that, on the outset, took Herman Melville’s epic and combined it with a good old-fashioned graphic adventure.
Unfortunately, the experience I got from playing it ended up being disappointing. While the team at Picaresque Studio is clearly passionate about the source material, they have faltered in creating a title that will have long-lasting fun for general gamers looking for something entertaining.
The problems with Nantucket begin with its concept and inherently niche appeal. Not only is the target audience only limited to people who have read Moby-Dick, but also only fans of 90s point-and-click video games. This is not an exaggeration. If someone is interested in the game because of its seafaring story, they have to understand that the narrative is a fan-sequel to the 19th century text. On the other hand, if someone is interested in the title because of its gameplay, then they have to understand that every single feature revolves around accurate clicking: combat, commerce, communication, exploration, and so forth.
This brings us to the gameplay and pacing of Nantucket, which can best be described by one word: repetitive. As I played through the first hour, I could not help but be reminded of the worst parts of AAA titles like The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. In the beginning of Morrowind, you could not progress further in the main story until you gained some notoriety in the world. Nantucket retains through a noted system called “prestige,” which is distinct from your avatar’s level. You gain prestige through both killing whales and completing jobs posted in each port city, and this is where that repetition comes in: the jobs revolve around the same four tasks. Either you have to discover a new whaling location, deliver goods from one place to the other, find out what happened to a missing ship by following its latest route, or hunt a leviathan that is causing damage to sailors.
The lack of variety here is bad enough on its own, but it has another negative aspect to it in the form of procedural generation. There is no guarantee that the money you will receive from finishing an assignment will cover the travel costs because they are randomly generated at each port. So not only are you forced to participate in these grindfests in order to progress the story, you have to deal with the fact that you may be operating on a small budget that requires precise planning to ensure that you have enough resources to reach your destination. This is particularly cumbersome when delivering goods as they take up integral cargo space that could be devoted to holding precious resources.
There are four of these resources: food, water, grog, and wood. Food and water are necessary for obvious reasons, grog keeps your crew happy, and wood is used to keep your ship afloat and build makeshift ports in certain parts of the ocean. Running low on any of these can lead to damages, so it is important to keep things filled. One positive aspect is that the game tells you about how many days your provisions will last and how long it will take you to get to a specific locale. The problem, though, is that you will more than likely be late to your destination courtesy of the doldrums or avoiding perilous waters and storms, meaning you often have to keep more goods in storage than the game tells you. This adds a realism factor that could have made navigation interesting. However when combined with the aforementioned part about some procedural jobs requiring you to fill your ship’s hold with a random item, you can understand how it feels like the game is punishing you instead of encouraging you.
Technically speaking, though, you do not only have to look in the newspaper’s yellow pages to make money. Whaling, which was at the heart of Moby-Dick, is your other method of progressing in the game. It follows a basic system: you travel to an area on the map where a herd is currently active, set your ship to “hunting mode,” and then complete a minigame to kill the whales and sell their blubber and oil. Sadly, this opens up a new set of problems relating to combat. I made a comparison to Black Flag earlier. Fans of that game may recall how monotonous it got to replay the same actions over and over again, whether that pertained to destroying other ships or killing sea animals.
The same thing applies to Nantucket’s combat: you roll a set of dice for three of your crew members, are (hopefully) given an attack card, and then direct who they will attack Yu-Gi-Oh style. Not only is it boring, but the designers made the inane decision that only one of your characters can attack per a turn, meaning battles can feel painfully slow. Now, there is an option before you enter a battle to skip through it via sending out your shipmates to do battle for you. However, there is a good chance, at least in the first couple of hours of the game, that you will lose a crew member, so it is ultimately best that you stick to doing these fights yourself.
There is one last victim of this grinding, and that is the events. Events are essentially things that happen while you are sailing out on the sea, and, unlike the random nature of jobs, some of these are actually the aftereffects of some decision you made beforehand. At first I was surprised by the sheer array of occurrences that came about, and the choices I was forced to make in response. For example, having too much food can cause some crew members to take greater rations, or having too much water can result in it getting contaminated. Do you let your mates get away with this, thereby giving them a gluttony personality trait but keeping their morale? Do you risk keeping the water, increasing the chance of someone getting sick but keeping your water supply intact?
Like a lot of things with Nantucket, though, the charade of variety wore off in the first hour of playing. You will experience the same exact events with the same exact choices and the same exact consequences. Considering the basic nature of the game, it makes you wonder why the writers did not add more circumstances as they could have been the title’s saving grace.
Despite my criticisms, there are some good parts to Nantucket starting with its look. Graphically, Nantucket is pretty simple, and I do not mean that in an insulting way. As stated before, Picaresque Studio was clearly hearkening back to older point-and-click titles like The Secret of Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion, which featured 2D characters against flatter backdrops, with some motion thrown in to give it “life.” Sadly, for the most part, the same exact background is used for each port location, meaning the game was either rushed out or the graphic artists purposely rehashed the same art for the different places you visit.
Nonetheless, the scenery and the few cutscenes you will watch are beautiful to look at it courtesy of the unique art style. Moby-Dick was published in the 1850s, which happened to be the transition period between Romanticism and Modernism, and Nantucket pays homage to this with its illustrations: they have an industrial grit to them elevated by an individualist focus highlighted through alternating shades of light and dark. That is to say characters and settings may look grimy, but there is a enough flush on them to get a sense of the time period.
The sound design retains that simplicity. As your ship sails on, you will hear the crashing of waves, thunder from storm clouds, and a whirlpool-like noise in dangerous waters. However, sound does include music, and once again Nantucket stumbles in this department. I personally caught less than five tunes, and they are prompted in the same part each time, like when you are at a harbor or in combat. One surprise, though, was hearing songs sung similar to Black Flag’s sea shanties. I do not know exactly what triggers them, but whenever they played I found myself enjoying the quality.
In the end, I wanted to like Nantucket. I do not believe anyone delves into something wanting to complain about it. But the game had too many problems that impeded my enjoyment of it. And keep in mind that I fall within the game’s niche target group of not only being a fan of Moby-Dick, but also of point-and-click PC titles. I honestly do not think anyone outside of this circle will like this game for longer than an hour.
+Gorgeous, though limited illustrations
+Good voice acting for the cut scenes, but again limited.
+Quick transitions between the settings.
-VERY repetitive, grindy gameplay
-Takes too long for story to get started
Reviewed on PC