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Review

Saltsea Chronicles Review

On stranger tides

I love me a good campfire story. The interplay of light and shadow, imagination whirling and words pouring, mates close by and minds filled with individual impressions of the impossible. Saltsea Chronicles, the latest from developer Die Gute Fabrik, kicks off with such stories. A small group of friends huddled together on a beach, one of them effortlessly conjuring a queer-bent Romeo and Juliet before growing sombre and telling tale of a world lost to a great flood. A world called Saltsea. It’s in this heightened land of bold colours and bolder ideas that you set out on an atypical pirate adventure as told by sharp writing and minimal interactivity. Saltsea Chronicle’s point-and-click nature comes at its own pace, the game instead thrilled to have you simply inhabit its world and find something to care about on the open sea.

In Saltsea Chronicles you don’t control any single character, instead steering the overarching vibes and decisions of a large crew of sea-faring folk. As the story progresses over its ten or so hour run those folks will rotate in and out, but a core cast remains in search of their lost captain who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Which is an odd statement given the broader context of Saltsea, a land flooded by years of catastrophic natural disasters and repopulated over time by a cavalcade of strange and delightful new things. As told by legends whispered around campfires, the world was once much closer to our own, complete with late-stage capitalism woes and rising sea levels. But like most things in Saltsea Chronicles, poetry steps in and tells of a planet that came to fight back, dramatically altering its surface to wash away the scarring of mankind and leave what remained on a scattered selection of islands.

Saltsea is home to some stunning islands

This collision of the real and the surreal is felt throughout the game, its foundations clearly found in the systemic struggles of our world but heightened, and even softened, by Saltsea’s expressive cultures and spirituality. Lively market flotillas trade in life-changing elixirs and otherworldly fauna but are crippled by strong-armed currency; small archipelagos house deeply mystical practices and promises of walking through dreams but have an ingrained mistrust of visitors to the point of hostility; technology simmers along still, analogue radios crackle but with ghostly signals from the beyond. Saltsea Chronicles effortlessly melds mundane and magical, couching its narrative in immediately recognisable human struggles while imbuing it with adventure and wonder.

That same sense of time having passed, and memories forged before you ever arrived extends to your crew too, a ragtag bunch that begins as somewhat archetypical but quickly unfurls into layered and compelling characters. There are too many to properly list here but standouts include the matriarch of the gang, Molpe and her six-month-old baby Ade, the two the closest to the missing captain and always inseparable. Stew is a brash and utterly delightful seventy-something whose adventures around Saltsea have blessed her with more skills, languages, and lovers than you could count on all fingers and toes. Iris is a quiet teen with a sceptical streak, Murl an academic without much tact, and this is to say nothing of the massively expanded cast who join the crew and introduce dramatic tension and joy to the balance.

Your course through Saltsea is charted by key choices made during crew-wide meetings. As everyone gathers to present their case, you’ll need to navigate competing desires, eventually choosing your next destination and uncovering another portion of the map. These choices will lock you out of others of course, with some locales being an immovable part of the story and others optional. Typically, the game will assign one core crew member to lead a land mission, with the second character chosen by the player; in these instances, you’ll need to consider things like local languages, cultures, and character motivations as whoever sets out will need to complete the main quest task as well as a small list of optional ones. It’s a fun bit of matchmaking, pairing up odd couples to venture forth and observing how the world around them will shape their dynamic, often resulting in Issues, ongoing relationship woes that are tracked via the game’s expansive journal menu.

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The inner workings of your crew, and the world around them, is handily kept track of

Once you’ve got feet back on dry land, Saltsea Chronicles becomes a kind of interactive storybook tableau. Gorgeously animated, large-scale locations are dotted with interaction points, some that trigger basic observations and some for conversations or new characters, while the edges of the screen house the ability to shift the view to the next portion of the island. Playing with a controller this experience is less than ideal though; there’s no cursor as such, instead the game flicks between interaction points via the stick and shifts perspectives using the bumper buttons. But it doesn’t feel right, landing on your desired point becoming a pain in the arse as the game tries to predict your direction and gets caught on everything in between you and it. As you move between scenes the game also experiences some horrendous screen tearing, nothing that breaks things but enough to be distracting at times.

These little hitches in flow are only so noticeable because the rest of Saltsea Chronicles is absurdly beautiful. The game’s art direction is striking, a vibrant and cleanly defined riff on the Risograph printing style, the islands of Saltsea feel simultaneously like dioramas and living, breathing storybook pages. It’s gently balanced by way of specific animations and soundscapes, as locals go about their business and wildlife lazily swirls overhead and underfoot. The variety of locations and use of colour are also noteworthy, often having narrative beats punctuated by aesthetic shifts to impart seriousness and levity alike. Saltsea Chronicles just hums with life, its little tune an infectious one that worms its way into your heart and nestles there comfortably. Oh and speaking of tunes, the main theme is impossibly charming and emblematic of the game’s killer score.

Final Thoughts

Even when the act of actually playing Saltsea Chronicles grated a little, it was hard to not be taken by its relentless vibe. Your journey across the titular Saltsea is one full of surprises big and small, with each new island playing host to a potential burst of creativity or deeply human storytelling. The game’s writing shines as a crown jewel, doubly impressive given how polished the rest of its adornments are. Your little crew grows to mean so much to you over the course of the game, its cosy sheen giving way to compelling drama and genuine personal stakes that made my choices feel important, not by way of red or blue binaries but simply by considering feelings and needs. It’s an exercise in empathy housed in a stunning storybook world that may have been flooded but thrives all the same.

Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher

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Saltsea Chronicles Review
I'm on a boat
Saltsea Chronicles crafts a striking storybook world and populates it with deeply human characters on a fantastical journey into the unknown.
The Good
Stunning art direction and vibes
Compelling human drama and writing
Very cool world and ideas
Banger main theme song
The Bad
Console performance is a little rough
Controls are wonky
8.5
GET AROUND IT
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  • Die Gute Fabrik
  • Die Gute Fabrik
  • PS5, Switch, PC, macOS
  • October 12, 2023

Saltsea Chronicles Review
I’m on a boat
Saltsea Chronicles crafts a striking storybook world and populates it with deeply human characters on a fantastical journey into the unknown.
The Good
Stunning art direction and vibes
Compelling human drama and writing
Very cool world and ideas
Banger main theme song
The Bad
Console performance is a little rough
Controls are wonky
8.5
GET AROUND IT
Written By James Wood

One part pretentious academic and one part goofy dickhead, James is often found defending strange games and frowning at the popular ones, but he's happy to play just about everything in between. An unbridled love for FromSoftware's pantheon, a keen eye for vibes first experiences, and an insistence on the Oxford comma have marked his time in the industry.

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