Fishing: Barents Sea + King Crab DLC – Somewhere in this shipwreck of a title there is a good game, but good luck fishing it out.
Genre: Simulation, Fishing
Developer: Misc Games
Publisher: astragon Entertainment
Release date: 13 Nov, 2018
Video games have the power to transport us to far away places, or let us take on roles that otherwise are removed from our waking lives. There are many times in my landlocked existence that I wish I could just give it all up and be a Norwegian fisherman.
Imagine, then, my delight when Fishing: Barents Sea + King Crab DLC arrived on my virtual doorstep…followed soon after by the soul crushing disappointment as I watched my Norse dreams sink to the bottom of the Arctic sea, much like the ending of Titanic, only now I feel my heart will not go on.
I play sims such as farming or trucking games not because I want to be a farmer or trucker (actually when I was a kid I did want to be a trucker, but then realized I’m not manly enough, so became a nerd instead), but I play these games because of the hardware: I have a fascination with big, intimidating industrial machinery and vehicles, and since I’m never going to get the opportunity in real life to drive a big rig, or steer a combine, I can at least simulate that experience from the comfort of my couch. So, fishing aside, the chance to captain one of the many gorgeous ships in FBS+KC was the main draw for me. I very much wanted to feel the sea-spray-pixels in my face as I sailed my trusty oar-steed passed polygonal fjords set against the backdrop of a gradient sunset…but what I got instead what a barnacle-encrusted bug fest.
Fishing: Barents Sea – The Base Game
If you’re brand new to FBS, here’s a brief overview of the base game, and later we’ll focus on the specifics of the newly released King Crab DLC.
The promise of FBS is to put you behind the helm of small to large fishing vessels in a quest to catch, gut, sort and deliver a variety of types of fish using longlines, nets and trawlers. Each of these activities offers an immersive experience that allows for hands-on interaction with the art of commercial fishing. As you accumulate experience and profits, you can spend the money on an assortment of equipment upgrades, or more tantalizingly, new boats altogether. As your skill level increases, new ships are unlocked that offer more complex abilities with greater hauls. All the while you’re exploring a fixed map featuring cozy coves, sleepy seaside villages, just a hint of the open sea, and are at the mercy of the weather, seasons, and passage of time.
Some strategy is involved because each type of fish has different seasons, quotas, locations, and bait requirements. You also have to be mindful of their population, as over-fishing one spot will deplete the yield for that season. Each vessel has its own strengths and weaknesses, depending on what kind of fishing your doing…some are slower and less maneuverable, but offer greater storage and fuel reserves. The larger ships require employing additional crew to help man the various work stations. When docked at port you have access to maintenance and banking services, as well as a job board that posts missions where you can earn extra cash.
Most of the vessels in FBS are a lot of fun to captain, and do satisfy some of the desire to interact with heavy machinery in a simulated environment. That said, I do wish there was more detail involved, as the operation of these complex vessels is overly simplistic, and most of the tasks surrounding fishing are reduced to mere mini-games. Still, in first person mode you can get out of your cushy captain’s chair at any moment and wander around the deck or interior of whatever boat you’re in, and though this may seem insignificant, it does greatly add to the immersion factor and the sense of actually “being there”.
King Crab DLC
The recently released King Crab DLC brings some much needed variety to the base game by adding crustacean based mechanics along with two new vessels to expand your crabby empire. Crab fishing works for the most part in a similar way to regular fishing, you set pots to trap the crabs using bait, and collect them later. Instead of gutting, though, you sort the live crabs and store them in barrels on the deck. There are distinct spots on the map where the best yields can be found, as well as a fixed season, so it’s to your benefit to focus all your efforts on them while available. The mechanics of crab fishing are quite enjoyable and the aspects of managing all the sub-tasks, especially once you get the larger crab ship the Svalbard, are more fun than traditional fishing, in many ways. This is perhaps because there’s much to be done; the extra steps and elements required for the process somehow makes it feel more rewarding.
One of the two new boats that comes with the King Crab DLC is a 36-foot Selfa Arctic AS dubbed “Selfy”. While I cannot speak for the actual boat in real life, in the game it is my least favorite vessel. As a matter of fact, I hate this boat. Sadly, it’s the only low-cost option that is equipped for crab fishing, so you’ll have to use it in order to play the DLC, until you can save up for the far superior Svalbard. Every moment that I spent in that oversized soap-dish was cringe inducing. It didn’t help that I was playing the DLC at launch, and severe bugs early-on affected its handling. Most of these were later addressed, but somehow piloting the Selfy never felt as smooth, responsive or predictable as the other vessels.
It’s main benefit is perhaps its biggest weakness: speed. With the introduction of the Selfy, players are given the fastest boat in the entire game, but at the cost of maneuverability; its extremely sensitive and since its a very light vessel, there’s little in the way of mass to help correct for your movements. More often than not, piloting the Selfy felt like trying to steer a tub of margarine down a Slip ‘N Slide.
Other annoyances mar the overall effect as well, such as the garish graphics of the Selfy’s interior, and the uncomfortably crowded deck. Since there’s so much moving about that is required when crabbing (hauling, opening, stacking, sorting, baiting, etc.) you will need to move your character around constantly across the open deck, but due to its compact size and poor collision detection you spend much of that time getting snagged on corners or bumping into things.
This is all very tragic, because the Selfy is an otherwise extremely versatile boat. It’s speed and fuel range make it the perfect vessel for exploring the map and uncovering new fishing spots; it can be fitted for line fishing as well as crabbing; the copious storage and spot for an additional crew member make it a very capable boat for heavy duty use.
Water, water everywhere…
Whether or not the game is challenging depends on your ambitions. It is not a hard game, nor is it meant to be. The mechanics are simple, the outcomes predictable, and the controls are dumbed down so that really anybody can play it. It’s more about placing you, the player, as close to the natural elements as can be achieved in a video game; to make you feel like you’re really fishing for crabs on a foggy day near Akkarfjord. And in that regard, fishing can be relaxing; or if you’re goal is to bolster profits then you can make it challenging. I commend FBS for allowing the player to dictate their own pace. So, calling the game easy is a bit unfair, as it’s a competition between no one but yourself.
That said, the burden of fun is entirely on the player, and this can stretch thin at times. One criticism leveled at the base game is that there really isn’t a whole lot to do, and you can quickly churn through all the content in a short time. The addition of the KC DLC greatly addresses this issue, so much so that I would not recommend getting the base game by itself, it almost needs this DLC to feel complete. However, what some call lack of activity, I might speculate is really about the strictly linear nature of the gameplay. For example, there is no multitasking of any sort, whatever you’re doing at that moment is all you can do. This is normally fine, but there are times…let’s face it, a lot times…when you’re just waiting. Patience in virtual fishing is just as demanding as patience in real life fishing. And during these moments of “down time” there’s really nothing to do.
This can be a pleasant distraction on occasion, as you can exit the bridge and wander around below deck, or admire the ocean from the bow, or fiddle with the maps; but that’s about it. You can’t have more than one vessel going at once, nor more than one mission, nor can you do line fishing and crabbing at the same time (even if you own both sets of equipment). There’s no way to research prices, missions or additional services when you’re not at a dock; this makes sense in smaller boats, but the larger ships have entire computer workstations in the bridge, why can’t they access at least basic information so you can plan the next objective while you wait? The map itself is also limited and more finite than I was expecting, the choice of upgrades feels equally restricted, the missions are boilerplate, and after a while there is an undeniable sense of repetition while playing this game.
The Sinkable Molly Brown
Still, when FBS works, it can be quite magical. At its best, it is an immersive and fluid game that transcends pixels and becomes something more profound: an experience. There are moments, however fleeting, that truly make you feel you are one with the elements of the Barents Sea. You’ll be sailing alone on a crisp autumn night, gazing out at the lights of a nearby fishing village as they reflect in the dark waves, when you notice some shapes moving off the port side, the water breaks and the spray from two whales briefly surfacing in the distance catches your eye, their mist mixing with the starry sky overhead as the Aurora Borealis shimmers like a cascade of emeralds that move in time to the sound of the rhythmic water lapping at the sides of your boat, the hull creaking occasionally, not out of alarm, but merely to let you know everything is calm on this tranquil and inviting oceanic evening.
However…tranquility and immersion are illusions in a game that only work as long as the code does. And herein lies the torpedo that sinks FBS. This is the most unstable, unreliable, unpolished, unoptimized and frustratingly fickle game I’ve played in recent memory. I’m willing to put up with a lot of flaws if I’m truly enjoying a game, but FBS crosses that line so many times that it borders on unplayable for me. Bugs are to be expected of course, but ones that cause you to lose progress, inventory, crew, or catches are cruel and can ruin the overall game. Other glitches affect the maneuverability of the vessels, making them unnecessarily difficult to control, or in one of my favorite cases, a boat insisted on sailing several feet below the surface of the water. Features were inconsistent, the stats for some of the vessels were mislabeled, and many of the crabbing mechanics of the DLC were faulty at launch. To their credit, the devs have been releasing nearly weekly patches, but while these fix some issues, others inevitably open up, including ones which may break any previous save files you have.
But the most egregious flaws are the near constant crashes. I didn’t get through a single play session without at least half a dozen crashes or freezes. Sometimes the game would crash upon launch. Sometimes it would crash at the menu screen. Sometimes it would crash after 5 minutes, or half an hour, or maybe longer…but it always did eventually crash. It would crash in the map screen while planning complex routes, or after disengaging from a fast travel, or after hauling a particularly impressive catch, or after gutting, or before docking at port, or when switching boats, or when laying traps, or when switching to third person, or when in a storm…and on and on. I wish I could say that all of this is hyperbole, and that I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect. But in my unfortunate case, this precisely describes my playthrough with this game. The patches did help somewhat, but not to the level where I could rely on it consistently, and at that point the game lost whatever trust had been earned anyway.
When I started playing this game I was immediately drawn in by the level of immersion. And as I fished, and explored, and tried out different vessels, this immersion only grew. But each time a crash hit, like a rogue wave, a bit of immersion was washed away. What was originally a deeply engaging and relaxing experience gradually became more nerve-racking. Rather than enjoying my time, I kept looking over my shoulder (so to speak), wondering when the next crash would hit, and how much progress I might lose. I started manually saving, since the autosave was useless against the tsunami of crashes. I saved after leaving port, before fast travel, after stacking pots, while adding bait, until the paranoia became so overwhelming I was literally saving after every single action, because I was longer enjoying my time on the Barents Sea, but was living in fear of the next crash. That is absolutely no way to play a game, and it seems irresponsible to release this title in that state, if at all. Everything about this feels more like Early Access rather than a published game with two DLC’s under its belt.
The Siren’s Call
The graphics are neither good nor bad, and neither help nor hinder the gameplay, but the general aesthetics do wear you down over time. The core graphic component is, of course, the sea. While it’s not the worst ocean simulation I’ve ever seen, it isn’t the best either. The movement of the waves looks good, but the surface ripples, wake, foam and spray are all faked as 2D textures, which just look flat at many angles. The water has no visual sense of depth or translucency, and there is no variation across its surface to break up that computer-generated appearance. The landscapes suffer the most from lack of detail and feel like remnants from the PS2 era, not a game that is supposedly showing off the flare of the Unreal engine. The boat and ship models are fine; they look accurate and are well made, though I do wish there was more detail to really sell the illusion of reality. Everything does appear a bit too sterile, and hence, lifeless for my tastes. All of the ships are like picture perfect CAD models, and the textures are overly shiny as if everything is wrapped in plastic; there’s no sense of life, personality, character, or uniqueness in any of the visuals; everything’s just too perfect. The lighting appears to be worst visual aspect of this game. The interiors are always overly bright, the ships themselves don’t seem to blend in realistically with their environment, sunlight interacts with the ocean surface in inconsistent ways, and the lights from your boat don’t affect the surrounding sea or docks in a believable manner. Again, there’s nothing technically wrong with any of this, but it does make the resulting game screens feel more like cut-and-paste collages than unified immersive environments.
One standout in the A/V department is the soundtrack. The music is absolutely amazing, and sets such an incredible mood and tone that I can’t imagine playing the game without it. There is a good selection of tunes, and it will randomly cycle between tracks or you can specifically control them via a little music player at the top of the screen. Whatever criticisms I may have of the game itself, if Misc Games ever releases an OST, it will be a must have.
So who’s this game for? The bar is already pretty low for sim games. It’s sometimes necessary to put up with outdated graphics, inconsistent UI’s, unoptimized performance and lack of polish because often it’s more about the concept than the execution. In this regard, Fishing Barents Sea + King Crab DLC does succeed in having a fun, solid concept that offers players an experience that literally cannot be found anywhere else, if the bugs don’t make you sea-sick first. To their credit the devs are releasing near regular updates, so there’s the possibility that many of the issues mentioned here have been addressed by the time you read this review. I do hope that is the case, for I genuinely want to enjoy this game, and believe I would have if it were not drowning in crashes and bugs. I would like to revisit it at some point in the future, not only in the role of reviewer, but because I would love to finally fulfill my completely inexplicable dream of becoming a Norwegian fisherman, at least for a day.