I love me something new. I'm much more likely to seek out a game where I take on the role of a 1970's parking attendant than one where I'm some brawny warrior in a fantasy land. Because I've played the warrior game a million times. Never the parking attendant one.
So I was delighted when the GD overlords chucked Nantucket at me. Other than larking around in a few sub-quests in Assassin's Creed games, this would be a first for me.
Messing about in the literary and ethically murky waters of nineteenth-century whale hunting, Nantucket is touted as a sequel to Moby Dick. You're playing Ishmael, narrator and sole survivor from the ill-fated voyage of the Pequod as chronicled in Herman Melville's magnum opus Moby Dick. And, to my knowledge, it's the only modern videogame that can make that claim.
So something new then! Sort of. Because you'll be sailing around a pretty limited world map by clicking on various ports and points of interest, and then watching your ship bimble over. You'll be managing your crew, trying to get the right guys for the job and placing them in the right slots aboard your vessel to get the best bonuses. And fighting whales and pirates in a basic JPRG-style combat. You set sail, grind enemies, steal their stuff, and return to port to sell it.
None of which is remotely original or fresh.
This is the thing. A fresh concept, delivered through the medium of time-worn systems and familiar ideas. Which, to its credit, certainly does make it very easy to pick up and play. There is a short tutorial, but in all honesty, it's not really needed as the gameplay itself has a learning curve baked in. At first, you'll start out with a splashy little pinnace that's letting in water at the plimsoll line, and by sailing out to the mating and feeding waters of the various types of whales, you'll learn how to handle a single dinghy full of harpoon-wielding maniacs. It's not until much later that you earn the money (and, just as importantly, develop the techs) needed for buying a bigger ship and have access to more whaleboats and a much wider tactical game when combat begins.
The number of ships available for purchase is limited. During a complete playthrough of the game, I upgraded my ship only twice, and ended up with easily the best ship available. While the early game is a hardscrabble fight for every dollar, with food and water purchases pushing each voyage close to the break-even line, eventually you'll get past this challenge and find your pockets fat with whale-cash. From this point on, buying the food, water, and wood required to keep your ship and crew operating becomes something of a chore,
Throughout the world, there are seven towns you can visit. Of these, three are capable of researching new technology for your ship. Each port, from the smallest and poorest, to the bustling whaling centre of Nantucket, have the same town screen. Same open-mouthed newsboy, same swinging tavern sign, same old salty sea dog playing with his - presumably also salty - land dog. A little detail to show the difference between Peterborough and Hawaii might not have gone amiss.
Speaking of detail. The game needs a lot of loading when transitioning between the (basically static) town screens and the (also basically static) map screen. I don't really know why, as there's not really a lot of complexity to load. Nevertheless, while you're waiting for the game to load whatever comes next, you're shown one of about three loading screens which, for the most part, show you an example of the decision screens that pop up during play (similar to those found in many Paradox games or King Arthur: The Role Playing Game) However, the example screens are all grammatically garbled decisions that don't even seem to appear in the actual game (one seems to be some kind of choice of which of your crew to throw over the side - each option contains the wonderfully confused phrase "throw him at sea!", which I now like to use to express my anger at anything). This wouldn't normally be a big deal - typos and inconsistencies aren't the end of the world - but they certainly serve to compound the unnecessarily long loading times and lack of ships, and ports, and individual local colour... well, it all adds up to the feeling that Nantucket was put out before it was really finished.
That said, there is some fun to be had here. The main story, broken up into bite-sized choose-your-own-adventure type decision paths, has the beginning of something truly very good. As a precis for a sequel to Moby Dick, it mostly succeeds very well, casting the White Whale as the son of a pagan god while retaining as much of the Heart of Darkness-esque descent from civilisation into madness as is really possible in a game where you can head back into port whenever you like. There are always little side missions you can take on at pretty much any time and, while there are very few different ones - another place where a few more months to add depth might have made a massive difference - the names of some of the procedurally-generated 'boss whales' you can tangle with are amazing. I had a blood-curdling life-and-death struggle with Hawaii Gilbert.
The interplay between the different character classes during combat allow for experimentation and discovery of clever situational strategies. This modular JRPG dice-constructing game is where most of the 'game' of Nantucket is found, and I found my tactical skill increasing throughout my playthrough in a very satisfying way. The music is sea-shantyific, and reminded me of Assassins Creed: Rogue, as well as making me wonder why the GD overlords always give me the sea shanty games to review. I don't even have a beard [Jon - It's the parrot and the peg-leg].
At first, you'll know almost nothing of the breeding grounds of whales, and it's only through sailing around and keeping an eye out from the crow's nest, or by following up on rumours that you'll hear in dockside newspapers that you'll discover new whaling areas. Each whale has a breeding area and a feeding area, and they'll migrate back and forth between the two. As well as discovering the grounds at each end, you will need to chart the migratory routes to be able to intercept the whales en route. Eventually, you'll know where all of the different species are at any given time of the year. Some types of whale are more powerful in either the breeding or feeding areas, so it's easier to intercept them in between the two. This sub-game plays out on the map screen and helps with the feeling that you're learning the ropes of whaling.
I found Nantucket to be high on style but thin on substance, but its modest price point saves it from my more barbed harpoons. It has some pleasantly nostalgic reminiscences of Sid Meier's Pirates and a management system that borrows some of the more surface-level mechanics of Paradox games - both of which are good things. Plus, it really is the only thing that does exactly what it does. The originality of the concept is worth something even when it's not necessarily backed up with mechanical innovation.