The so called ‘walking simulator’ is at this point a well established genre in its own right. Gone are the days where it was used by those uninterested in the genre to sneer and look down their nose at a title that placed exploration and narrative at the centre of an experience over twitch-based gameplay and loot hunting. Today they are viewed as compelling games in their own right, and although largely niche, they are popular enough to have sprouted a small army of games since the seminal Gone Home broke into our consciousness. Call of the Sea feels like the latest offering of just such a title. Lacking the sudden movements and fast thinking required to make your way through a more traditional “video game”, Call of the Sea gives the impression that it knows exactly what kind of game it is and the audience it’s shooting for, and it is completely comfortable in being itself, which in a world in which every AAA game these days seems intent on being everything to everyone, is a breath of fresh air. Call of the Sea isn’t a game for everyone, but neither should it be. It has flaws aplenty, but for those interested in a relaxing night unwrapping the dark secrets of the characters and the mysteries of an island intent on keeping them to itself, grab a wine, beer, Coke, water or whatever takes your fancy, settle in and get ready for what is in the main a rewarding experience.
Although I’ve branded Call of the Sea a walking sim, that’s only really true to an extent. Yes, it has all the trappings of one, but it’s also a solid puzzle game in its own right. The story begins with our character arriving at a mystery island on a boat as she goes in search of her husband, who appears to have gone missing as he attempted to uncover the mystery of a strange illness that has left her hands blotchy and marked. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that all is not as it seems, and it is not only the island that has secrets but also all of the characters in the game, and all of them (the island included) seem intent on stopping people from discovering the truth. This sets in motion a series of events that sees our main character slowly and methodically explore the island and all it has to offer, solving puzzles that ultimately lead to solving the disappearance of the protagonist’s husband, as well as the reason behind her illness.
As has already been mentioned, this is not a game that players should expect to have an action-packed, adrenaline-fueled experience. This is a slow and methodical game that forces the player to go at the pace it dictates; a pace that is at times slower than feels strictly necessary. Although the developers have opted for an effective art style that fits with the world and story they want to tell, it has a simplistic feel and look to it that doesn’t warrant the slow contemplative pace the game seems to think the player should want. There are puzzles that require a significant amount of going back and forth between areas, and all too often, it becomes a chore to navigate. It’s perhaps fortunate that once completed, the puzzles are generally satisfying and rewarding, but it’s unfortunate that the journey to get to that point can feel drawn out and monotonous. Ultimately, for those who manage to get over this initial hurdle, they will find a rewarding and engaging experience, but it is a worry that many of those who take the time to try this game out will be put off by the overly slow pacing in the early sections, which is a shame because given the time and effort, Call of the Sea has a lot to offer.
Another unfortunate drawback is that the main character doesn’t immediately ingratiate herself to the player. She feels naive, and although unlikeable is perhaps harsh, there’s something about her that prevents the player from instantly warming to her. Her motives for being where she is feel reckless at best, and although for the game to happen, we need the character to get to the island, the guise used to get her there feels forced and unconvincing. Beyond that, it immediately becomes apparent that the island is filled with risks and dangers that she is completely unprepared for. Furthermore, there is an early plot point that suggests there were murders on the island, a reality that the protagonist appears completely unperturbed by, especially considering the occupants found themselves there for her benefit. Much like the pacing, however, there are rewards for the player willing to endure early misgivings and stick with the game. It’s difficult to put a finger on exactly when, but eventually the characters in the game do become far more engaging and likeable, and many will feel the urge to continue on to see the game through.
Visually, Call of the Sea is incredibly striking. Just looking through the screenshots in this review should be enough to see that players are in for a visual treat. As previously mentioned, however, the game is all too aware of how good it looks and puts too much effort into making the player absorb every inch it has to offer. The game deliberately lacks visual intricacy on one hand, but on the other, it seems to want you to stare at it endlessly as you slowly trudge through the environments. Again, for the most part, this is fine, but at its heart, this is a puzzle game and a reasonably challenging one at that, meaning answers to a challenge may not immediately present themselves, forcing the player to go to and from points on the map to work through ideas for a solution. Ultimately, this isn’t a deal-breaker, and there is a fast walk button, but even that will be too slow for many looking to try out a new idea.
Story, visuals, and controls, whilst all important, don’t truly bring the game to life as much as the puzzles do. They feel beautifully crafted, and for the most part, they are hard enough to force the player to think but also completely achievable in a way that is rewarding and will make the player feel like they have pulled off a challenge. Puzzle games are always a tightrope walk. You don’t want to be so easy that the game is a breeze, but you also don’t want to be so difficult that players can’t progress to see what your game has to offer, and in my experience, Call of the Sea threads the needle on this perfectly to the point that for most, it will become the driving factor in those that are willing to progress.
Overall, Call of the Sea is an enjoyable game that unfortunately trips itself up too often in the key areas to make it a game that can be unequivocally recommended. The pacing is slow, the visuals don’t warrant the pace and the story, although okay, doesn’t do enough to pull the player through the game in a compelling manner. With that in mind, this is a solid puzzle game that does just enough in story and pacing to not completely alienate the player. For those willing to put in the time and effort to play the game on its own terms at its own pace, there is a very rewarding experience on offer.
Developer: Out Of The Blue Games
Publisher: Raw Fury
Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, PC
Release Date: 8th December 2020
Gaming Respawn’s copy of Call of the Sea was provided by the publisher.