Next to Nintendo, Rare is responsible for my love of video games. Banjo Kazooie, Battletoads, and Killer Instinct are some of my favorites in their respective genres. Every game I have played from the British developer has this charm that you can’t help but smile at with gameplay that is both creative and fun. These were the expectations I had for Rare’s latest, Sea of Thieves. While that charm is found in every nook and cranny of this seafaring adventure, it is buried in mundane tasks and a world that feels empty.
As you begin your journey to become a pirate legend, you’ll first have to select a pirate to represent you throughout your swashbuckling antics. Eight different variations of the avatar will appear on-screen that you can choose from. If you’re not quite sure if you want to commit to one of the pirates, you can mark them as a favorite so they do not disappear when you decide to refresh the group.
Even this beginning step was a brief moment of disappointment for me. Initially, I thought I was going to carve out my own adventure with a pirate I created. Although it seems like an arbitrary complaint, the direction the game takes with its progression makes this counterintuitive.
In Sea of Thieves, the overarching goal is to become a pirate legend. So, how does one do that? Honestly, that picture is still not quite clear. The game does an incredibly poor job of telling you how to begin your journey. It gives you a very brief tutorial on how to use items, open the item wheel, find quests, and using the voyage table on the ship. Otherwise, you are thrust into this world to figure out everything yourself.
This absence of direction is also found when you first step foot on your ship. Whether you decide to embark on a small Sloop by yourself or a large Galleon with a few friends, each one functions the same way. I do think operating a ship is fairly intuitive and can be easily learned, but some sort of guidance would have helped make that process quicker. If a tutorial were implemented, I would not have questioned every action I was doing, giving me confidence during my first hour of playing. From my own experience, it took me a solid 30 minutes to an hour to examine each part of the ship, how each role works, and what to do when it is damaged.
There is nothing wrong with having a sense of discovery. In fact, if done effectively, I think that sort of gameplay design would be great, especially in a game like Sea of Thieves. However, it goes way too far in that direction, to the point where you are completely at a loss in the first hour of playing.
Once you do get your sea legs, there is some semblance of a progression system. There are three different factions in the world, each with its own unique objective. The Gold Hoarders will give you the task of finding treasure chests that are marked on a map; the Order of Souls are bounty missions that ask you to defeat named undead pirates; the Merchant Alliance will give you a list of livestock to retrieve that you must deliver to a specific outpost by a certain date. Completing these tasks will garner reputation with each faction and gold for each piece of treasure you turn in. This will allow you to purchase weapons, clothing, and accessories —all of which are seemingly cosmetic — from merchants found on the various outposts. There is also a “Mysterious Stranger” at each outpost’s tavern that tasks you to build your rep with each faction to a specific level.
That is the long and short of it. To become the best pirate you can be, you have to complete a bunch of fetch quests to level your reputation with the three factions. In the first few hours, these voyages are fun and intriguing. However, they quickly become tedious, repetitive, and unsatisfying. The gameplay loop of Sea of Thieves requires you to take multiple trips from your ship back to your destination, no matter which faction’s tasks you are completing. The gold you earn after completing these voyages and turning in the treasure you found to the correct vendor is nowhere close to the amount needed to purchase the simplest of items. Even when you do finally have enough to buy an item, you don’t actually benefit from it. Since the items are cosmetic, the only perk is looking cool.
Upon realizing how everything works, you’ll begin to notice just how gorgeous Sea of Thieves is. It is one of the most beautiful games I have ever seen. The best word to describe the first sunset and sunrise I saw is breathtaking. The way the sun reflects off the incredibly animated ocean is a technical feat. It is the best looking water I have seen in a video game. This, in conjunction with its cartoon-style player models and environments, makes the tedium of the quests somewhat bearable.
The majority my time with Sea of Thieves was alone which certainly amplified the problems I have. When you do have a crew, those problems are still prevalent but are slightly extinguished because of how social the game is. In order to expertly maneuver the ship or execute a strategy to take out the wave of skeletons, you’ll have to communicate with your crew constantly. When you do have downtime, playing a sea shanty or two will have you smiling, and in the case of my friend, making up terrible lyrics to accompany the song.
Playing with friends is the ideal way to play Sea of Thieves. Even if you decide to matchmake with a few others, the comfort of communicating with someone you know isn’t there; it becomes very task oriented. I had the most fun when I was just hanging out with friends, sailing the seas, and discovering the charming quirks of the game.
Sea of Thieves is a mixed bag of emotions for me. It’s a great social experience to play with a group of friends and sail on the prettiest water you will ever see in a video game. It’s also bogged down by tedious and repetitive voyages that reward you with meager pay. When you can eventually purchase an item, it will only affect how you look. If that is the case, it seems puzzling that I can’t create a character I want to flaunt to any passerby. There is enjoyment to be found in Sea of Thieves, but not enough to keep you interested in the long term.