There are few things in life as relaxing as a farming simulator. From the likes of Harvest Moon, Stardew Valley and, well, Farming Simulator, it’s a genre that has crept into the mainstream as mellow experiences that can be tackled at your own pace. The joy of them, of course, is that feeling of accomplishment when you witness the literal (digital) fruits of your labour blossoming into life. Stranded Sails - Explorers of the Cursed Islands from Lemonbomb Entertainment wants to take the experience of the classic farming sim and drop it slap bang in the middle of a swashbuckling high-seas open-world adventure game. The results are somewhat mixed.
The beginning of the game finds you marooned on an archipelago after your ship crashed during a storm. You awake unprepared and without the tools or necessary supplies to survive in such conditions. The opening two or three hours of the game tasks you with most-everything you need in order to survive in the harsh conditions and exploring the surrounding islands for your fellow crewmates. Crafting, cooking, farming and exploring are your core basics and the game does a brilliant job of balancing out the learning experience across the opening few hours.
First and foremost is the farming. You’ll discover a camp that’s been hastily thrown together by a crewmate you discover early on, and it’s up to you to bring it to life (yes, it’s one of those RPG’s where it’s your job to do everything whilst your fellow characters act really grateful and then keep asking more of you). From the outset you’ll have a gated area where you can begin to grow various foods such as sweetcorn, potatoes, tomatoes and onions. Naturally this is a process you’ll rinse and repeat throughout the game, so it becomes second nature fairly quickly. From there you’ll be sent to explore and find materials to build a cooking station.
Once the cooking station is up and running you’ll be tasked with combining various ingredients you’ve grown in order to make food for yourself and your fellow crewmates. The combinations are a multitude of concoctions you’d likely only eat if you were in fact stranded on a desert island - we can probably live without ever knowing what sweetcorn, onions and absolutely nothing else tastes like. Still, the food acts as your health - with the stew in particular offering an extra boost in health/energy - and it’s important to mix and match ingredients as some offer more nutrition than others and this becomes a rather complex minigame.
Particular recipes have to be made in a specific order. You’re unable to just throw anything you want into a pot. Discovering new recipes comes with finding new ingredients as you explore, but you’re not told what food goes with what, or in what order, so you’re left guessing which combinations are correct. It’s an infuriatingly long and drawn-out process that offers little if any guidance. You’ll find yourself spending far too long trying to work out what food the games wants you to combine, bringing the ‘kick back and enjoy’ USP of the game to a grinding, boring halt. There’s little feeling of reward when you actually figure out a recipe; it’s more like ‘finally’.
It’s a bugbear, then, that food creation is so important in Stranded Sails, as the game has an energy system that works as your health, and it’s persistently ticking downward. You don’t ‘die’ at any point, but if you’re running on empty and you’re out of food, then you’ll be warped back to the camp, regardless of where you are in the world. It’s imperative you keep food stocked up, which means constant farming and creating new dishes and ensuring exploration doesn’t knock you out and send you home.
This mechanic can probably go either way with an audience. On the one hand it pits you against the clock to complete the various tasks doled out by your crew mates, adding extra challenge. Whilst it can be topped up eventually, it will only deplete faster the more you run, chop down trees, row your boat, dig holes for seeds - effectively anything that requires more than walking at a brisk pace will continually knock chunks off your energy, thus offering a level of tactical gameplay.
On the other hand? Your progress forever feels like it’s tied to an elastic band. No area to explore is ever all that far away but you feel it the most when you’re doing certain menial tasks, such as attempting to find a single piece of material in an area with multiple small islands. Early in the game the aforementioned search-and-rescue of your crewmates takes longer than it should, as you’re told only that they’re on a particular island.
So you’re rowing to that island and then exploring, either across, around or within (or sometimes all three). If your energy is near its end and you’re without food there’s not much you can do - you’re going to run out and be warped back to camp where you’ll have to row back to the island you left all over again. The saving grace being when you finally complete your task you can fast travel back to camp through the game's map.
Crafting is another important aspect of Stranded Sails and isn’t anywhere near as complicated as the food prep. Throughout the game you’ll be building shacks for your crewmates, bridges to reach previously shut off areas, boats and eventually a ship big enough to take everyone home. The saving grace of the crafting is the game makes you immediately aware of what a certain build requires, so there’s no need for frustrating guesswork. As you explore the islands on various missions it’s worth collecting as much as you can, whether it be food or wood, or opening crates to find materials. They’re all handy for a later task and you’ll save plenty of energy this way. Once you have the materials needed, the crafting is automatic.
It’s perhaps the only aspect of the game that feels relatively quick, as this laid-back farming sim takes an inordinately long time to open up and share its secrets. The ‘Cursed Islands’ part of the title is a slow build part of the game. As you explore around the islands you’ll find various scrolls or stone tablets which have different markings and clues that lead to a mystery you’re tasked with uncovering while you’re a resident. You’ll see remnants of previous visitors scattered around the open world.
When you come across a sword it feels somewhat out of place - as if you’re not supposed to be engaging in combat in this farming adventure. Enemies such as ghost-like beings are not all that fond of your presence. Naturally, attacking costs energy as does being struck by them. It makes far more sense in these moments that your health is chipped away at than it does for, say, walking a bit faster than normal. The combat is forgettable, but leads to uncovering a deeper mystery that gives the narrative much-needed legs.
Stranded Sails offers some terrific farming simulation which does the majority of the game's heavy lifting, but it’s held up by middling RPG-esque mechanics. Mixing things up and throwing a selection of genres into a pot to see what comes out is arguably commendable, and there’s an awful lot to like about Stranded Sails, but some frustrating and bizarre choices in regards to recipes and the energy meter system hamstring the game for those hoping for a less taxing castaway experience.