Studio Eris and Hitcents.com’s Don’t Sink sheds all pretentiousness by outright telling you what to do: don’t sink. It’s an uncomplicated instruction and one that you’ll have to echo inside your head for a while.
And that simple concept brings us to the most crucial question: does the game float well?
Don’t Sink is a pirate simulation game that was initially released on Steam back in April 2018. Unlike its bigger fellows Sea of Thieves and the upcoming Skull and Bones, Don’t Sink sports a colorful, pixel art aesthetic.
The game starts with a pirate creation menu, and from there you begin your journey of being the most fearsome pirate ever. You do this by running errands, upgrading your ship, and eventually conquering every island there is. You learn the basics of island management from your first island, and once you learn that, you’re good to go.
Running quests and errands enables you to discover other islands based on different regions. Depending on where the islands are, some of them are bathed in a bright spring glow, while others are blanketed with a cold winter frost. The game’s beautiful pixel art presentation lends itself well to these various colorful locales.
And unlike Sea of Thieves where you can complete an endless stream of voyages, Don’t Sink has a finite number of unique quests. The game even has a handy counter for you: 27. Once you complete everything, that’s it. None of them are repeatable, and none of them contribute much to your journey. The only ones you can do repeatedly are transport jobs between each island’s merchant.
Of course, no pirate game is complete without sea travel. Voyages in Don’t Sink happen in a 2D plane: you view your ship from the side as you watch your crew mill about and your distance bar fill up. Short voyages are usually uneventful; the distance bar fills up so fast that you barely have time to blink.
Long voyages, on the other hand, give you the opportunity to experience the game’s randomness. Because you spend more time watching your ship sail sideways, you get to encounter more random events. Some of the more common ones include birds running through your sails, whales grazing your ship’s hull, a portion of your food rotting, and some of your crew getting sick. These events usually require you to expend a small part of your supplies, such as cloth for sail repairs or medicine for crew treatments.
Though if you’re lucky enough, you’ll run across another hostile ship that you can fight. These ships usually have silly names like “El Pirates,” “You’ll Sink,” and “Catch These Hands.” Most of the time, their ship is around the same size as yours so you can choose to fight them. If you do encounter vessels that are much larger than yours, you can run away from them.
Ship battles, unfortunately, are a bit of a mixed bag. On the surface, they’re very simple: decide whether you want to attack, repair, board, or run. Hold the direction of that command until the gauge fills up, then release to perform it. If you’re attacking or repairing, pick the extra options you need and commit to the action. If you’re boarding, cross your fingers that your crew doesn’t get wiped out while approaching the enemy ship. And if you’re running, hope that you can actually run away successfully.
Once you get used to them, ship battles are a quick affair: either pulverize the other ship or run away. It gives a vibe reminiscent of games with active time battle schemes; everything happens in real time despite cooldowns.
The downside is that the battles don’t feel very strategic because everything comes down to who can clobber the other ship the quickest. You’ll get to a point where you’ll use more bombs than cannonballs because of their higher damage output, and you’ll realize that repairing mid-battle is a waste of time. You’ll also recognize that the closer you get in obtaining the largest ship, the Man o’ War, the closer you are in obliterating everything on sight.
So if unique quests are limited and if ship battles are too simple to a fault, what else is there left to do? You can conquer all of the islands and take over the entire world. Is there a point in doing so? Not really, other than you finally having something to show for all of the money you spent and crewmembers you lost while trying to invade an island. Every so often, you’ll lose an island from an unnamed invader. Not like it matters much because you can just retake the island.
Perhaps the experience would be better if you played in hard mode. Unlike in normal mode, sinking during hard mode ends your entire playthrough. You must start from scratch again if you want to retry. This might get you to become a more cautious pirate when battling, but that’s about it. If you want to avoid the tedium of having to repeat everything whenever you sink, you might want to stick to normal mode so you can respawn at your last checkpoint.
Once you’ve conquered all of the islands, vanquished everything that ever dared cross your path, finished all of the story quest lines, and ferried many cargoes between islands, what else is there to do? Nothing. You can pat yourself on the back for accomplishing everything there is to achieve, but that’s about it. You can’t even screenshot your handiwork for posterity.
In a way, Don’t Sink is at it’s most enjoyable at the middle. Sailing between islands delivering cargo, saving up enough gold to upgrade to the next ship, and hunting for the quest-specific enemy crew: these activities elicit the most amount of enjoyment. You get to enjoy each island’s beauty not because you’re bored, but because it’s a fleeting moment before you have to leave again. You’re running around with a mission instead of aimlessly.
But because the end game is so easily accessible, the game feels rather short. It could be so much more than just repetitious cargo runs and random enemy beating. Sure, every good thing must come to an end, but in Don’t Sink‘s case, the end comes too quickly.
I wish I could spend time in the waters of Don’t Sink. I’m sad that I can’t.