Review: Sea Battle (DSiWare)

Please sink this battleship

It's surprising there aren't more DS titles based on the classic board game Battleship. The DS, with its plastic exterior and flip-up dual screens, looks remarkably like a Milton Bradley Battleship board you probably have stuffed in the back of a closet. You don't need to dig through all your old board games to play Battleship any more; you don't even need a 3DS. All you need is an old-school DSi, as Japanese developer WaiS and Polish publisher Teyon bring us perhaps one of the last games ever to be released on the ageing DSiWare platform: Sea Battle, for a scant 200 points.

The inherent problem with Sea Battle is that its source material, Battleship, isn't very good. Battleship is an almost entirely luck-based game in which you try to blindly guess which tiles your opponent's ships are on before they can guess the locations of yours. The closest thing there is to any sort of deep strategy is, "if you land a hit, you should probably aim for tiles near it so you can hit the rest of the ship." Battleship is only marginally more complex than Tic-tac-toe or Bingo; once you've learned its ins and outs, there's nothing more to master. Despite these flaws, Battleship remains a fun board game for young kids primarily because of its tactile interface; many children are likely more interested in the cool plastic warship pieces and the faux-radar game board than in the intricacies of the gameplay itself.

With a digital adaptation of Battleship, the tactile interface is totally gone; what you're left with is a boring grid-based affair that takes far too long to play and relies far too heavily on luck. The only advantage Battleship has on a handheld console over its real-life counterpart is convenience and single-player against the computer. Does anyone really want to play Battleship alone, though? Developer WaiS did the best it could with the source material, but there's just not enough wind in this old ship's sails.

Perhaps we've been too spoiled by gorgeous 3DS audiovisuals for the last three years, but Sea Battle's DSi graphics are as unremarkable as they come, with virtually no animation. The music is fittingly dramatic and warlike, but there are only about two songs that play on repeat. Controls are serviceable, with support for both the touch screen and standard buttons. There's no way to save your progress mid-battle, however, so if you want to stop and come back to a match later you'll have to start over again.

Your board is displayed on the lower screen while your opponent's board is on the upper screen, but strangely, Sea Battle never lets you see both boards at once except for at the very end of a battle. When it's your turn, the blue silhouette of a sailor covers the upper screen with a large text box describing what's happening, such as "Missiles launched!" and "Missed!" When it's your opponent's turn, the sailor silhouette covers the lower screen and says the same things... but this time he's red instead of blue. This seems like a massive waste of space. Theoretically, a video game version of Battleship could show impressive naval warfare scenes for each turn, but these short text-based descriptions are as close as we ever get. When a battle ends, you receive either a congratulatory static image of an aircraft carrier, or a defeated static image of a battleship blowing up. And that's it. The game's over.

Sea Battle is split into three modes: Single Player, Mission, and Network Game. Network Game allows for two-player DS wireless play, although both players must own a copy of Sea Battle; there's no online multiplayer to speak of, but that's to be expected from a budget DSiWare title. Single Player is split into Classic Mode and Modern Mode: Classic Mode is a direct adaptation of the bare-bones Battleship experience, and Modern Mode adds a few bells and whistles. In Classic Mode, you can choose between an 8x8 map or a 10x10 map, and whether you want to play on Normal or Expert difficulty. Normal difficulty has virtually no AI programming at all; even if the computer player hits one of your ships, they'll still fire missiles randomly across the board instead of aiming close to their hit so they can sink your ship. Expert difficulty is about as competent as a human player, although even with human players Battleship is still mostly luck.

Modern Mode adds a few twists to the Battleship formula: bigger maps, more obstacles, but only a superficial increase in complexity. Maps can range anywhere from 8x8 to 16x14 and your ships can now be placed diagonally, rather than only vertically and horizontally like in standard Battleship. This sounds interesting, but it doesn't add any strategic depth; all it does is make battles take much longer to complete, as the exact same luck-based logic still applies to the gameplay. There are also randomly-placed beaches and islands dotting the ocean landscape where you can't place your ships. This sounds like it could make the game more difficult, but opponents can't see your land tiles — to your opponent, the land tiles may as well be any other random tile you didn't place your ships on. All this does is make it slightly more complicated to place your ships prior to battle.

There are two new units in Modern Mode: underwater mines and fighter planes. Mines add a bit of offense to your defence — if your opponent hits one of your mines, they lose a turn. You can place your mines before battle like you do with your ships, but your opponent doesn't need to destroy your mines to win. Fighter planes are automatically launched by your aircraft carrier mid-battle if you hit a "Lucky Item" tile, and essentially act as new single-tile units your opponent must destroy to win. These Lucky Items are random tiles that give you bonuses when you hit them — you can also get a souped-up weapon that hits multiple tiles with one hit, or a quick radar scan that helps you locate enemy ships. Because the Lucky Items are randomly placed and must be used immediately, they don't add any depth to the core gameplay.

Mission mode is Sea Battle's short single-player campaign with four different challenges, and they're even more dull than the standard Single Player. You can't choose the positions of your randomly-placed ships in Mission mode, which removes a level of depth from an already-shallow experience, and the computer is permanently set to lobotomised Normal difficulty in these missions, with the exception of the final mission where the difficulty is turned up to 11.

"Mission 1: Sink the enemy's submarine!" sounds stealthy, but it's simply a standard Single Player battle where your opponent has only one ship instead of a fleet. "Mission 2: Navigate in a minefield!" sounds dangerous, but it's a battle in which the enemy has an abundance of mines that make you miss your turn. "Mission 3: Destroy the enemy fleet with just one ship!" sounds daring, but it's Mission 1 with the roles reversed. "Mission 4: Destroy the invincible fleet" sounds infuriatingly difficult, and it is — it's simply a standard Single Player battle in which you play on a huge 14x14 board with ten ships on both sides, and the enemy AI seems to know exactly where all your units are. Once you've completed all four missions, there's nothing left to do in Mission mode; it delivers very little.

Conclusion

At 200 points, Sea Battle is a good deal for those desperate for something new to play on their aging DSi, but once you get past the nostalgia factor of its source material Battleship is a shallow, luck-based board game remembered best by children for its fun plastic game pieces and tactile feel, that Sea Battle's low-budget presentation doesn't come anywhere close to replacing. WaiS' modern updates like diagonally-placed ships and underwater mines are admirable attempts to spice up the barren naval warfare experience, but there's only so much Sea Battle can do to improve Battleship's boring core game mechanics.