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Curse Of The Sea Rats Review

Does this pirate-flavoured rat tale sail at full speed, or swiftly go down to Davy Jone’s locker?

Kickstarter is a magical place, and many a dream has been made a reality thanks to the ability of creators to have their works funded by the generosity of backers keen to see a vision come to life. Curse of the Sea Rats is one such dream, with punters throwing over a quarter of a million US dollarydoos at Petoons Studio, with the hopes that underneath its chef hat was a horde of rats that could piece together a compelling swashbuckling Metroidvania. In a further show of confidence, the game was also picked up by publisher PQube following the highly successful Kickstarter campaign. Curse of the Sea Rats certainly has heart, and the vision of the developer is visible if you’re up in the crow’s nest at the right time of day with a powerful spyglass, but a litany of design issues compounded by a king’s ransom of technical woes and mechanical missteps will likely condemn this piratical tale to the watery depths.

Ah yes, witty coronavirus repartee

Curse of the Sea Rats opens with an entire ship’s inhabitants transformed into anthropomorphic rat creatures while out at sea by the evil pirate witch Flora Burn, using a magical relic she has purloined. This transformation not only includes the Admiral captaining the ship and his good God-fearing soldiers, but also the less desirable prisoners he is transporting. When the ship crashes on an island (I guess rats aren’t good at piloting boats?), Flora kidnaps the Admiral’s son and whisks him away across the island. In his benevolence, the Admiral grants our undesirable recidivists temporary freedom in order to retrieve his son and put an end to Flora’s nefarious plans involving marrying her relic with some other macguffin which will make her even more powerful. Reversing the rat curse is also a pressing matter. The story is fairly innocuous, following the well-worn trope of rescuing the innocent princess (in this case a young rat boy) from the clutches of the big bad. Not too concerned with the finer details of the prisoners or how they found themselves on the wrong side of the law, it’s a no-frills tale of good versus evil. With rats. At any rate, it’s a good enough excuse to traipse across the island, and take down Flora and her crew of deplorables.

Curse of the Sea Rats is a classic 2D side-scrolling Metroidvania in the spirit of titles like Ori and the Blind Forest, Hollow Knight and Salt and Sanctuary. The game clearly wants to indulge in being on the more challenging side of things, but the opening impressions are not great in this regard. Whereas those titles I just mentioned feature tight controls, precise mechanics and engaging platforming, Curse of the Sea Rats can’t really claim any of those. No matter which of the four characters you choose to take control of, with their various mixes of power, range and mobility, there’s an immediate unresponsive clunkiness to combat and movement around the 2D environments.

This is begging for a lawsuit

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This isn’t a case of game journalist crying foul about a game that is too hard (I beat Cuphead’s tutorial after only a dozen tries for instance), rather it’s akin to being given a toolbox that only contains burred Allen keys from historical flat pack constructions and being asked to build a house.

Enemies have nebulous hit boxes, and the first 15 minutes is an awkward fight against the controller as you will your rat hero to do your bidding. The first boss doesn’t take long to crop up and make you question whether there was a tutorial you missed, as the movement and combat options you have at this point are extremely limited, made worse by the fact that merely touching the big-bodied boss is enough to apparently hurt you. I had to backtrack to this boss several times after failing to best him, passing through the same gauntlet of relatively easy enemies, armed only with a weak jump, a wobbly parry and a diminishing sense of pride in my gaming prowess. This isn’t a case of game journalist crying foul about a game that is too hard (I beat Cuphead’s tutorial after only a dozen tries for instance), rather it’s akin to being given a toolbox that only contains burred Allen keys from historical flat pack constructions and being asked to build a house.

But I promise that Curse of the Sea Rats’ initial difficulty is fleeting, as puzzling design choices and severe balance issues ensure the challenge diminishes exponentially following the awkward opening moments. With some inspiration from the ever-influential Soulsborne titles, when you die you drop the currency used to upgrade your stats and attacks. You can go back to the place of your demise to get it back, but it needn’t worry you too much as you only lose half. This means that after just a few failed runs, you’ll still have racked up plenty of currency to bolster attack, defence and magic abilities for whatever character you find least egregious to control, plus there’s also an invisible experience meter ticking away somewhere in the background that will frequently see you level up and all your stats magically increase. Enemies seem to shower you with currency which is seriously disproportionate to the difficulty of dispatching them, and before long you will have brute forced your way to a point where you have a large enough pool of health and stronger attacks to take on any enemy with reckless abandon. More baffling still, one of the abilities for by far the most functional hero (the cutlass-wielding Douglas) allows you to passively heal yourself for a whopping 30% of the damage you deal. This fundamentally breaks the rest of the game, as you no longer need to worry about silly single-use healing items, able to rely purely on your ability to blindly hack away to keep yourself healthy. Easy overlevelling and unbalanced abilities mean that no one foe, boss or otherwise, is any match for you at any point past the first 30 or so minutes. Furthermore, if you’re still struggling then know that enemies respawn when a room reloads, making for some of the easiest farming out there.

Rat curse be damned, it’s jig time

This sudden and dramatic lifting of the difficulty was actually a blessing in disguise for the game, as it took the sting (a sting whose existence felt undeserved given the lacklustre combat mechanics) out of venturing out and just allowed me to explore without a care in the world. Branching paths, secret areas, side missions involving the fetching of items and several bosses that granted new movement and combat abilities kept me interested over the eight or so hours, despite the fact I had effectively become a fearless rat demigod. Platforming and general locomotion also improve with enhanced abilities, but movement never regains that missing feeling of fluidity, and sections and bosses that demanded even a modicum of precise control were more than a little frustrating.

So uncovering the game’s map and secrets keeps things ticking along despite some glaring design flaws, but another big tick is the game’s art. The hand-drawn characters are lovingly detailed and thoughtfully designed and animated, and it’s clear the artists had a lot of fun creating the various rat creatures, and no small amount of time was spent bringing them to life. It struck a funny nostalgic chord with me, evoking memories of having a mullet and watching ‘90s classic Biker Mice from Mars, and that’s only ever a good thing. There is a curious preponderance of provocatively clad and large-breasted rats in the game which might raise an eyebrow or two, but if you’re a fan of murine mammaries (and who isn’t?) then this game has you covered. I also appreciated the largely lo-fi chill soundtrack that is distinct for each biome, and there is also a hell of a lot of fairly well executed spoken dialogue. This is with the notable exception of Asian warrior Akane, whose bizarrely stilted English and wildly patchy delivery is truly horrifying.

The heart wants what the heart wants

Branching paths, secret areas, side missions involving the fetching of items and several bosses that granted new movement and combat abilities kept me interested over the eight or so hours, despite the fact I had effectively become a fearless rat demigod

The time has come to address the elephant-sized rat in the room – on the technical side of things, Curse of the Sea Rats is an irredeemable mess. On Xbox Series X I had so many hard freezes requiring restarts and hard crashes which dumped me back on the dashboard that I had to structure the way I played the game around their alarming frequency. Dozens of times I lost progress to crashes, with the game only saving when you rest at the sporadically spread checkpoints. Checkpoint and fast travel points are inexplicably far away from one another (why the hell aren’t they one and the same?), except at a specific point right back at start of the map, so I’d fast travel back there constantly to ‘save’ and make sure I didn’t have to backtrack through a section or fight a boss for the umpteenth time. I had dialogue go missing, and a floating skull sidekick I had acquired through much trial and tribulation also mysteriously disappear. The final boss disappeared off screen several times, forcing confused restarts, and the final cutscene was borked to the point that I’m not entirely sure what happened.

This is of course the age of the day one patch, so the issues I had with general gameplay balance and stability being about as solid as a two-legged table in a laneway café may be fixed by the time the average punter gets their hands on it. It’s impossible to say whether the breadth of these problems can be addressed easily, so day one adopters beware.

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Final Thoughts

Curse of the Sea Rats’ flaws reveal themselves almost immediately, but despite an initial urge to see the whole thing walk the plank lest my sanity be sacrificed, my persistence was rewarded with extended periods of meditative calm as I poked about the diverse environments uncovering treasures, and in these periods I could clearly see the potential the game had. There is an honest heart to the experience, and the character art in particular is sheer joy, but several vital cogs that would complete the so-called ‘ratoidvania’ machine have been installed incorrectly. Abundant technical issues exacerbate issues at the centre of a game that struggles to realise its ambition, and while I don’t think Petoons Studio’s backers should mutiny, you might not blame the rats for fleeing this particular sinking ship.

Reviewed on Xbox Series X // Review code supplied by the publisher

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Curse Of The Sea Rats Review
Rat Man Do
Curse of the Sea Rats’ charmingly nostalgic art direction can only partially hide a Metroidvania whose mechanical shortcomings are numerous, and whose substandard technical stability is irredeemable in its launch state.
The Good
Character art is thoughtfully detailed and realised
Uncovering the map and its secrets offers periods of meditative exploration
Busty rat women?
The Bad
Busty rat women?
Multiple crashes and a slew of technical blemishes are far too frequent to ignore
Movement and combat lack fluidity, control feels unresponsive and clunky
Game-breaking abilities and unbalanced progression destroy any notion of difficulty
5
Glass Half Full
  • Petoons Studio
  • PQube
  • PS5 / PS4 / Xbox Series X&S / Xbox One / Nintendo Switch / PC
  • April 6, 2023

Curse Of The Sea Rats Review
Rat Man Do
Curse of the Sea Rats’ charmingly nostalgic art direction can only partially hide a Metroidvania whose mechanical shortcomings are numerous, and whose substandard technical stability is irredeemable in its launch state.
The Good
Character art is thoughtfully detailed and realised
Uncovering the map and its secrets offers periods of meditative exploration
Busty rat women?
The Bad
Busty rat women?
Multiple crashes and a slew of technical blemishes are far too frequent to ignore
Movement and combat lack fluidity, control feels unresponsive and clunky
Game-breaking abilities and unbalanced progression destroy any notion of difficulty
5
Glass Half Full
Written By Kieran Stockton

Kieran is a consummate troll and outspoken detractor of the Uncharted series. He once fought a bear in the Alaskan wilderness while on a spirit quest and has a PhD in organic synthetic chemistry XBL: Shadow0fTheDog PSN: H8_Kill_Destroy

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