The visual novel genre thrives as a niche both on Steam and major mobile platforms. With so many available for purchase, choosing a single game becomes overwhelming and it can become difficult for individual releases to break the mold. Fortunately, the developer Brain&Brain was able to do just that with the creative point and click visual novel Burly Men at Sea. The game thrives not only as a visual novel but a storybook as well. It takes the conventions of a kids books and applies it to the visual novel genre through light-hearted storytelling and a beautiful aesthetic.
Burly Men at Sea starts off with three men, known as the Brothers Beard, finding a map in a bottle that arrives on shore. They set their courses to sea, in order to discover the purpose of said map. The bearded brothers then come across several creatures and scenarios inspired by Scandinavian folklore.
As you explore these bite-size adventures, you are given choices on where to go next, even if it isn’t apparent. When consumed by a whale do you wait patiently with a few Nymphs or make an impromptu escape with some floating barrels? When facing the grim reaper at sea do you race him or yield to him? The choices dictate where the Brothers Beard go next. A complete journey from start to finish takes about twenty minutes if you’re taking your time. Upon completion, the adventure starts over again for you to explore different routes. The journey is consistently fantastic with well written and charming creatures and characters throughout.
The game creates a great sense of wonder, but it does begin to fade rather quickly. Each journey begins and ends the same way every time. While the game is about the journey and not the destination, it would be great to see my choices bear more consequence. Instead, decisions are simply a doorway to the next scenario. Trying to find a new scenario often takes a bit of backtracking. Luckily each playthrough is short, so finding a specific scenario doesn’t take long. A bit of tedium aside, the game still holds plenty of surprises.
What ties each section together beautifully is Burly Men at Sea’s unparalleled presentation. The game’s minimalist aesthetic is charming, cute, and unique. Simple shapes form together to make characters with little to no facial features. Minimalism aside, the game still manages to make their characters expressive. The frames which align many scenes add to the game’s creative storytelling. One part puts the brothers in a frame which resembles an eye, as it closes the brothers fall asleep. Another zooms into the sun, which swirls and quickly transitions into a typhoon in a natural way.
The great visual design works well with the delightful music and sound effects. The music is light and playful. High-pitched piano keys, chimes, and acoustic guitar riffs play throughout the brothers' adventure. The sound effects are just as potent with some of them being spoken onomatopoeia. The sound of a blacksmith hitting his hammer is replaced with an actor saying “chunk” in a high pitch. It’s a subtle, yet effective, way of portraying a sense of childish wonder and imagination.
Burly Men at Sea was created with a specific task in mind and the result is a well-polished and unique game. Completing stories in single sittings is a nice change of pace in a medium with plots that can last hundreds of hours. The journeys to these tales are fun, even if they start and end the same way. The reason to play this visual storybook is the gorgeous presentation that combines great sound design and a unique aesthetic. The game falls into a niche audience, but those who are invested in visual novels will adore Burly Men at Sea. It has the charm and the wit of classic point and click adventure games with the sense of wonder from classic stories for children.
Burly Men at Sea was reviewed on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the publisher. It is also available on itch.io, Humble, iOS and Android.
Burly Men at Sea is a beautifully realized dive into Scandinavian Folklore. The stories Brain&Brain tell are unique and interesting, but they get stale after a handful of playthroughs.(Review Policy)