Stranded Sails: Explorers of the Cursed Islands Review: Shipwrecks are Rarely This Fun
Typically, a farm life sim focuses on things like meeting the neighbors, settling down, maybe even getting married as you tend to your quaint life in a new town full of welcoming faces. Stranded Sails is not your typical farm life sim.
In fact, it more often takes several of the foundational elements of games like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley but remaps them in a world slightly harsher than you may expect.
It's still pretty breezy overall, but Stranded Sails: Explorers of the Cursed Islands stands out thanks to its exciting mix of simple pleasures and grand adventures.
When your crew is shipwrecked on a mostly deserted island after sailing for a totally different climate, and the captain, your father, is stuck in bed with injuries, it's up to you to reassemble your crew and survive on the titular Cursed Islands.
Story in Stranded Sails is not its strong suit, but ultimately, it does just enough to give context to your many missions. It never feels like a detriment, just more of an excuse to get you island-hopping.
The best bits of Stranded Sails come in how it toys with expectations. It's nearly as much a Zelda-like as it is a farm life game. Early on, your stamina is constantly pushed. Sprinting is taxing, and you'll likely pass out mid-mission several times as you work to plant your flag in a safe area of your new makeshift home. Fortunately, there's not a significant penalty for this other than losing a few in-game hours and having to return the next day.
As a result, eating and gardening are absolutely crucial, and anyone who isn't waking up to water and pick their crops is doing it wrong. In some games like this, there's a lot of freeform space where players decide how to spend their days. In Stranded Sails, every day will necessarily begin with these chores, but the gameplay around them, especially the recipe mini-game, is fun and rarely makes any of it feel like an obstacle.
In fact, while Stranded Sails may not arrive with the pedigree of some genre titans, it should actually be used as a teaching tool for some others in the genre. With so many mechanics reappearing here as they do in other similar games, I can't recall any game every getting each mini-game so right.
Fishing is simple and accessible. Cooking makes for a fun puzzle and offers major character upgrades. Crafting promotes exploration and in turn, puts you down new rabbit holes on every island.
It's a lot to take in, and collectively, it's impossible to mainline the story. You'll always need to spend some hours, if not full in-game days, keeping up with your camp in important ways. Therefore, when your schedule does finally fall into place all at once, it feels earned, like you've been building to a specific moment with efficient gardening, tool usage, and sleep management.
When you do set out on an adventure, there's a lot to do. The isometric camera combined with the game's somewhat maze-like geography ensures there's always something nearby that you'll want to obtain but can't quite get to — yet. After a lengthy introduction where you get your crew new shelters and provide each of them the workspaces they need to help you fish, craft, cook, row, and more, you'll eventually unravel the mysteries of the islands, ghost pirates and all.
The farm life genre is surprisingly no stranger to combat — go figure — and in Stranded Sails, it once again feels like a fun distraction but ultimately one that isn't too challenging for most players. The enemy design is fun, too, with glowing ghoulish pirates standing between you and the islands' storied history. Some mysterious collectibles also help flesh out the backdrop of this hybrid adventure-farming game.
While all of this is good to great, one area where I feel my farm life itches aren't scratched is in the interpersonal elements. Stranded Sails lacks both the dialogue depth and the array of characters to make meeting and greeting others one of the best parts — like so many genre games accomplish.
It seems by design really, so it's hard to fault the developer for emphasizing adventure over the leisure of some similar experiences, but it still ends like there's room for both. Your crew just doesn't have the same personality as your neighbors in other games in similar worlds, and that's one aspect genre fans have come to expect universally.
- Consistently offers some of the best mini-games in the genre
- Exploration is enticing and rewarding
- Subtle character upgrades deliver a real sense of progress
- Meeting and greeting new people is lacking
- For a while, stamina penalties border on too severe
Stranded Sails stands out among a growing field of farm life games by involving more survival elements than others. This gives it not only a unique look at the genre, but a fun one too, especially when the many mini-games are all so smartly built. There's a clear lack of friend-making in Stranded Sails which feels integral to the genre, but it makes up for that missing ingredient by going its own way and infusing almost as much adventure as there is simple pleasure.
[Note: A copy of Stranded Sails: Explorers of the Cursed Islands was provided by Lemonbomb Entertainment for the purpose of this review.]