It's battle royale at sea in fantasy naval combat game Maelstrom

Maybe it's that I kinda miss Sea of Thieves—despite enjoying it I haven't made time to play since the first week of its release—but anything with ships, sails, cannons, and sea monsters will draw my eye these days. Maelstrom, now in Early Access, has all of those, plus it's a battle royale game. Fifteen ships enter, one ship leaves.

I can't say Maelstrom takes place on the open sea: at times it feels like there's precious little room to maneuver in this ocean filled with jagged rocks and towering islands that both provide cover and damage your ship if you collide with them. And naturally, more and more of the map is being closed off as you fight. As players are eliminated, dead seas encroach and push the remaining ships together in the center of the map. It's not just a forcefield this time: the dead seas signal the approach of sea monsters who will rise from the blackening waters and smash your ship into splinters. This isn't a battle royale game where you can hide outside the safe zone and apply bandages to win.

There are three races in Maelstrom: human, dwarf, and orc, and each race has three different ships to choose from. Each ship has different perks and drawbacks: one might have better armor but slower speed and less maneuverability. A dwarven steamship I'm fond of doesn't just have cannons along the side but also at bow and stern, allowing you to fire in every direction—though in much smaller volleys than other ships. It all depends on how you want to approach combat: decide if you want to be better at long-range attacks rather than close-up combat, choose between being fleet and nimble or something more like a floating tank. You pick one ship as your first vessel, and can buy the rest later as you accumulate gold from playing matches.

Cannons aren't the only way to damage enemy ships. You can ram them as well, and certain ships are built more for ramming than anything else. You can also board other ships, sort of: pull up alongside another ship and activate the boarding attack, and you'll throw grappling hooks over, latch onto the enemy hull, and your tiny, unseen crew will do some damage before the attack expires. There are also special abilities you can earn: the only one I've gotten so far is a fireball that explodes from my bow, sweeping across the water and doing damage to anyone in its path.

It's a fun and fast-paced game as you swivel around to unleash broadside attacks, try to stay out of the line of fire as your cannons are reloaded, grab currents to speed yourself up and dart between the islands, and race to collect the floating goodies dropped when another ship is taken out. 

As you play and earn gold—there are NPC ships floating around the arena that you can sink and plunder—you also progress. As you level up you can add shipmates that give you faster sails, quicker repair abilities, and other bonuses. This means you might wind up facing ships that have better cannons than yours, improved hulls, and special attacks you haven't unlocked yet yourself, something I hope is taken into account via matchmaking. It's one thing to reach the end of a battle royale match and find yourself outgunned, but it's something else to be at a severe disadvantage right at the start.

Maelstrom is a nice-looking game built in Unreal 4, with pleasing effects and sounds, and lots of enjoyable details in the world and ship design (orc ships, amusingly, are pulled by two armored sharks). I only wish there was a bit more elegance to it: your hull integrity is displayed as a big, chunky white grid around your ship, and a massive indicator shaped like a trident extends into the water to let you know when you can fire. It's helpful that these elements are so easy to see, so you're never confused about your ship's health and capabilities, but it detracts from the art and design for these indicators to be so overbearing.

The toughest part of Maelstrom, from what I've played, has been getting a full match. Several times I've spent long minutes cruising around the lobby with three or four other players, ramming and bombing each other while we waited for more to show up, only to eventually quit because they never did. A successful battle royale game needs a solid playerbase so matches can begin quickly, and with a progression system it's doubly important to ensure players can find appropriate opponents. Maelstrom doesn't appear to have drawn much of a crowd, at least at this stage of Early Access. Here's hoping that changes soon, otherwise it might just sink.