Ship of Fools review: nautical silliness on a perpetual loop

I’m not ordinarily a fan of rogue-like/rogue-lite games. I can’t really explain why. Perhaps it’s my competitive nature bumping up against a genre in which failure is not just a likelihood, but often mechanically necessary. I also tend to shy away from frantic, communication-heavy, co-operative games such as Overcooked, largely because I have all the patience of a starving man at a buffet. It is remarkable, then, that I found myself having fun with Ship of Fools – but inevitable that there were also some frustrations.

Ship of Fools is the debut game from Fika Productions. You control the titular Fools who (repeatedly) wash up on the shores of an island lighthouse, before setting sail to battle with The Darkness (a mysterious horror, not the early-naughties band) which has settled over the seas. Of course, the Fools aren’t exactly expert sailors, and your ship isn’t exactly the Bismark, so your brave, remarkably hardy crew will probably fail a few times before they finally prevail.

They’ll fail because, while at sea, they have to fight wave after wave of varied enemies. Ship of Fools can be played solo or with a co-op mate, either locally or online. It’s up to the two of you (or you and your automated cannon) to keep your guns loaded and firing, while managing any necessary repairs. A maximum crew of two means you’re perpetually short-handed. You can decide between you who’s doing what at any given moment, or, of course, just yell at each other and hope for the best. Given the frenetic pace of the action though, good communication is recommended, lest your ship is sunk and your Fools are left to float back to shore.

Fortunately, all is not lost when the waves return you to the lighthouse. During and after each run you accumulate Tendrils, artefacts which you can exchange for permanent upgrades to your ship. Extra hit points, upgraded cannons, more cargo space, etc. Additional cargo space is particularly useful as, while you accumulate useful items and better ammo for you cannons, you can only keep what you can store on a cargo pedestal. Everything else is jettisoned when you navigate to the next area.

The items you find and which ones you decide to keep can really make or break a run. The map of each stage indicates what kind of bonuses can be found in each area, but there’s a lot of variety in what which items you actually receive. There’s time pressure, too, as after every three moves The Darkness encroaches on the area you’re in, denying you access to the resources within. Once you’ve got nowhere left to go, you travel into The Darkness to battle with the area boss, which is considerably tougher than the stages which led you there.

    If all this sounds a bit grim, then allow me to clarify – Ship of Fools is very silly. The Fools themselves skip and frolic across the screen, loading seashells, ice cubes and cans of beans into their cannons. Their gormless expressions only shift from mild amusement when celebrating victory, or being clattered by their shipmate’s oar-based melee attack. The cartoony aesthetic and irreverent dialogue is well-executed and lightens proceedings considerably.

    There are, however, some aspects of the game which I’m less enamoured with. Given that this is a rogue-like, a certain amount of repetition is inevitable. While the best examples of the genre make each run feel unique, that’s not really the case here. Each attempt feels more or less the same as earlier ones, varying only in length and what you happened to be loading into your guns. Coupled with an inability to save the game mid-run, this led to repeated play-throughs becoming a little monotonous.

    This is somewhat exacerbated by a lack of variety in the environments. There are three areas to progress through (plus a final boss), and they’re played in the same order each time. After a few attempts, the first area becomes something of a formality; you’ll need the items from it later, but it’s no longer a challenge in its own right.

    This also limits the longevity of the game. For example, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve played through FTL: Faster Than Light, but I can’t honestly say there’s much appeal to do the same for Ship of Fools. The pretty significant difficulty spikes presented by the end of area bosses will slow players down, but once they’re overcome, I don’t see much reason to go back around.

    In short then, Ship of Fools is enjoyable. Having a well-made, light-hearted but tricky couch co-op game with a low barrier to entry is always welcome. But it’s a limited experience. It’s fun while it lasts, but it won’t last terribly long. That said, I believe the price tag does reflect that, so if you’re looking for something silly to play with a friend, then maybe bear Ship of Fools in mind.

    Ship of Fools was developed by Fika Productions and published by Team17, and it’s available on PC, PS5, Xbox Series X/S and Switch. We played the PC version.

    Disclosure statement: review code for Ship of Fools was provided by Team17. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.

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