FTL-like sea adventure Abandon Ship shows great potential

Even with Into the Breach releasing this week, we want more FTL-style games. Abandon Ship, which hit Early Access last week, brings us an evil cult, a summoned kraken, and a managerial high seas adventure that will, possibly, be great. It's heavily styled after FTL, with cannons and sails in place of lasers and shields, and concise, effective Lovecraftian prose, but right now the tuning is off—it doesn't produce quite as fearful, exciting, or creative an adventure as its inspiration.

The world of Abandon Ship is a web of maps, framed squares of sea which are connected by gates. Opening a gate requires completing certain number of encounters which are discovered by zipping your little ship around and uncovering icons hidden by the fog of war. Mostly, I've been fighting or fleeing cultist ships and pirates in pausable real-time combat, though the maps are also populated with narrative encounters—opportunities to trade or seek repairs, or sometimes ambush a friendly vessel to the detriment of crew morale. After a couple tutorial maps, a danger meter also appears, siccing aquatic monsters on your ship if it fills before you unlock a gate and move on.

Abandon Ship is less economical with space and time than FTL was. The sea maps are pretty, but they're canvases for icons, not rich play spaces unto themselves. I don't like that I feel rushed not to make a decision, but simply to paint the map with my ship. I might choose to flee an area without repairing and buying ship upgrades if it's taking me too long to find a port, and that's 'a decision,' but it's dependent largely on luck. 

Taking too long without sinking a cultist ship fills up that danger meter, which when full results in either a kraken attack (slash at its tentacles until the 'flee' meter is full) or a sea monster boarding party. To kill the latter invaders, you'll pair crew members with enemies and watch life bars deplete, occasionally sending one or more of your tiny men off to heal (there's no way to zoom in, which would be helpful). It's a tedious punishment for unluckiness.

Cannons and mortars 

Ship combat is far better than exploration. Crew members must be assigned to parts of the ship, aiming and reloading cannons or specialized guns, steering (which allows for special maneuvers like ramming or fleeing), making repairs, bailing out water and so on. 

The fastest way to sink a ship, I found, is to ram it, and the best way to minimize damage to my own hull—which is the only thing that doesn't automatically regenerate between fights—is to inflict wounds on the opposing crew such that they have to abandon their cannon posts to heal. And so I developed a strategy that, while not foolproof, works well against the many low-level encounters I've had to run through so far. 

First, I upgraded my sails, which makes it easier for me to close in on captains who try to maintain their distance (some will come right at you, while others prefer to constantly retreat to the maximum distance). If they hold me off anyway, I bombard their mast until they slow enough that I can enter ramming range. I send one of my gunners to an anti-personnel gun, injuring enemy sailors as much as possible to encourage them to visit their medical station. Once my maneuver bar fills (everything's a bar) I ram them. Repeat as needed.

I've managed the last ten or so fights in the main campaign with this flowchart to mostly unfettered success. Any complications that arise—a hull breach, an enemy invader, a crew member with dangerously low health—I can solve by taking one gunner off his cannons for a moment. It has become somewhat rote.

There are theoretical decisions I could be making. For instance, if I focused my upgrades on anti-personnel weapons, I could kill the opposing crew or knock them all overboard without sinking their ship, securing better loot. But the high prices for new crew members and new guns and ship upgrades have kept me conservative—better to hit hard with more cannons than be underpowered if I encounter a bigger ship. Boarding and going hand-to-hand is worrisome, too, as losing a crew member is a big set-back.

Volcanoes and lightning 

How precisely to make the ship battles more puzzling, to deepen the risks at every level and dismantle rote solutions, I don't claim to know exactly, though Abandon Ship's alternate 'combat' mode, which discards exploration for a series of increasingly-difficult ship battles, contains hints.

Where the main adventure beefs up opposing vessels too slowly, the combat mode quickly turns encounters frantic as hull breaches let in water and fires break out. Improved enemy weapons are paired with environmental calamities, such as lightning strikes and an active volcano raining fiery rocks on the deck. A heavy rain means my fire-starting weapons are a no-go—I have to improvise. And my simple ramming technique is in constant peril of being thwarted, as no maneuvers are possible if my mast has been cracked.

I like these more trying battles better, as I'm rarely sitting and watching meters fill without doing anything—through directing every minor repair goes a little too far. There's a balance to be found in how often my plans should be stalled by damage or weather, as right now it feels either too little or too much. That's one knob to turn. 

Balancing those extremes can't be the end of the changes, though, as neither is fully satisfying. I still want to puzzle out different strategies for different ships. I'd love to stock one side of my ship with close-range flamethrowers, and the other side with long-range cannons so that I can run two attack styles, and to have a larger library of maneuvers. Perhaps a reworked, less stingy upgrade system could begin to open up the potential for that creativity.

For now, Abandon Ship is pleasantly engaging busywork. As your crew will happily stand next to a spreading fire—or worse, in the fire—doing nothing, they must be directed at all times. And there are so many little details to manage (each crew member has specialties, like in FTL, for instance) that it does effectively pass time: I played four hours without noticing them go by. 

I'm excited to see how Abandon Ship develops in Early Access, because it doesn't need a total rewrite (except maybe in the exploration portion). Most of the details that are there have been combined to make great games before, and the same can happen here. Changing their values may have a dramatic effect. Like some other Early Access games, there's probably a better game on the horizon, and I don't want to play this version much longer for fear it'll spoil me on what's to come.