Flotsam Early Access Review - A Trove Of Hidden Potential; Hidden Being the Keyword

Solid gameplay with a wealth of possibilities thanks to great progression, but ultimately falls short due to lack of content.
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A very short trip to the paradise island of your dreams - oh and it's the apocalypse as well. Kongregate

In the midst of a very busy September for games with back-to-back-to-back releases every single week, Pajama Llama Games’ Flotsam braved this densely packed ocean in a metaphorical boat. While it managed to succeed in terms of all the aspects needed to make a great independent title, I can’t think of a worse scenario that to see something like it buried amongst bigger titles.

Bad timing aside, there’s a very special kind of charm to Flotsam as it tries to incorporate a post-apocalyptic setting into a very hopeful and lighthearted backdrop, one that’s questionably worth the cost it paid only to see an Early Access release. But while there’s a lot that can be said with regards to its surprisingly deep gameplay and the general ‘feel good’ vibes it oozes, it also ultimately boils down to is it really worth getting at this moment in time.

Gameplay

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Flotsam mixes survival, base building and resource management in a light-hearted post-apocalyptic setting. Photo: Kongregate

Flotsam is a mix of survival and city builder in a vast ocean of possibilities. However, a ton of those possibilities are locked away behind the state that is Early Access, and as such in it’s current state it can be a mixed bag.

The core loop is fine for what it is, as you try and maintain your floating town to the best of your abilities using garbage taken from the ocean. Picture something like that horrid Kevin Costner movie Waterworld , but actually decent and as a game and you have Flotsam . For the most part, you try and expand this city as you recycle floaters to use for construction materials. There’s also a human element involved, as you’ve got survivors working tirelessly to keep your town afloat.

The survival part comes from resource management, as your survivors readily need food, water, and shelter to survive. For maybe the first one or two hours, this is a constant struggle, and you see a spark of what Flotsam can be as a full-fledged game. Producing actually edible food and drinkable water is not very hard, but it’s also not completely braindead easy. It manages to find a good depth where you can micromanage other aspects of your fledgling town without the game becoming overly tedious and stressful.

For the most part, this is what Flotsam really excels at: delivering a chill and relaxing experience despite the genre of survival at the end of the world. The developers managed to deliver with regards to intuitiveness and ease of play, with well-defined controls, menus, tooltips, systems, and more. The first time you boot up the game, you’re given a very short tutorial to work with. If you do something like this in other management games, you’re bound to have a bad time, especially if the systems are rather in-depth with an actual requirement for severe micromanagement. In Flotsam, everything is always as clear as the seas and the skies that surround your humble abode, giving you all of the tools that you’ll need with the knowledge on how to use it.

Further expanding your town requires a constant stream of materials, with some materials requiring another level of processing in order to become usable. The aspects are all very cleverly made, knowing when to give you realism and sometimes suspend that belief in order to make the game more fun and engaging.

You can plop down drying racks, additional storage, workshops for other materials, water distillers, and so much more. At the start you can only collect floating materials by having your survivors swim to get it. With a couple of spaces for piers, you can also craft salvage and fishing boats, both of which are useful for faster expansion of your community. The scarcity of some resources will always encourage you to plan ahead with regards to location, as your garbage town may become unbearably crowded if you play it too loose. The walkways not only act as expansions, but as paths for your survivors to do their work and navigate the ever expanding town.

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There's a very clear goal to try and maintain a self-sufficient floating town, but once that's taken care of there's very little left to do. Photo: Kongregate

Proper expansion also requires new materials, and if there are missions to be found in Flotsam it’s in the form of these new discoveries. The very first one will see you going to a nearby island in order to develop a mast, which in turn will allow for faster water travel of your boats and give your floating town the ability to move itself from one location to another. It’s a rewarding progression system, and there’s always a good balance between lounging about and keeping your food and water needs in check. That said, I feel like the core goal besides acquiring all the research upgrades and visiting every node in the map is making your town self-sufficient, and this is where one of the problems with Flotsam arises.

As it is an Early Access title, there’s not nearly enough content to keep it engaging for longer period of times. Once that wall of mundanity hits, it hits very hard, and you’re left wondering if the price was worth it for the relatively short time you spent to ‘finish’ the game. Technically, you can try and keep expanding, but it becomes overly repetitive. Things eventually boil down to a constant fight to keep your citizens well-fed through proper resource management, but once that’s out of the way, it's pretty much over. I feel like a lot could have been improved if there were more outside dangers present in the world that could hinder your progression or cause you to rethink your resource strategies. Flotsam falls into the same problems most other Early Access titles have, which is lack of content. Unfortunately, it’s more noticeable here as there’s very little replay value underneath.

All of that said, Flotsam has a very good and stable foundation for something that has incredible potential, but feels rushed to make it to market. The gameplay is fleshed out, and the core loop engaging enough, but in the sense that you’re just left wanting more - and not in the good way.

Art and music design

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The game's art design really elevated it, making the world of Flotsam seem so serene and peaceful against the backdrop of the near fall of civilization. Photo: Kongregate

In terms of pure design and style, Flotsam is a literal jewel in the ocean. Everything is well-detailed and serves its purpose to lighten your mood. The blues are relaxing to look at, and more than once I felt like I was at the beach, just soaking in the sun and leaving all my worries behind. When someone tells you that this is a survival title, where you have to constantly keep your resources in check as the ever-looming danger of starvation sets in, you may not end up believing them. Flotsam’s art direction is a pretty good distraction from the apocalyptic world you face, one that still retains its hope as is evidenced by the lively and heartwarming scenery.

Every once in a while, I’d find this giant whale passing by the town, or a flock of birds making their way to lands unknown. Flotsam did a very convincing job of giving its gameplay a lot charm through what you see in the finer details. Your citizens are very animated, lumbering around with a healthy spring in their step and eagerly diving into the water to work on salvaging materials. You can also see them actually going from structure to structure, carrying around the materials they use to build your queued projects. There is no lack of attention to detail in Flotsam , and each aesthetic piece forms a very pretty picture that you’ll find absolutely delightful.

It’s been a while since I’ve heard good music and sound design for a video game, and I can happily say that is not the case with Flotsam . The music is catchy and relaxing, and there’s a very The Sims -like quality to it, filling in the sometimes-monotonous blanks of what you do. It’s very reminiscent of a simple, yet very fulfilling life far away from the hustle and bustle of the city, and it’s loud enough to complement the visuals and gameplay without overpowering either. Sound design is also really good, with the various sounds of busybodies working overlapping with the serene movement of the waves. A playthrough of Flotsam could make for a really good ASMR experience thanks to how satisfying all the sounds come together, and there’s just something very homely and relaxing to the vibes it gives off.

Technical performance

Flotsam ran really well for me, which is a nice surprise for an Early Access title. I ran it at the highest settings and saw no frame drops or dips, constantly sticking to 60 frames. I didn’t run into any major bugs, although the AI pathing and work prioritization for the town’s citizens is sometimes janky. I also hated using the seagulls since they often leave materials out on some of the pathways, blocking other people from their work and causing a slowdown in production.

Overall

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A lone boat in a vast ocean - pretty good metaphor for Flotsam's release. Photo: Kongregate

Like your humble town made with recyclables, Flotsam may not be much, but it’s something. Simplistic in its ways, and good-natured in its presentation, this game is the epitome of an ocean of possibilities and hidden potential; hidden here being the keyword. For the current price, I see very little justification for buying Flotsam in this Early Access launch state. The shortness and lack of content is just too much at the moment, but that should not dissuade anyone who’s interested, as the game itself is very good. In a sense, Flotsam is equivalent to a relaxing, yet short vacation, and it’s ultimately up to you if the length is a good trade-off for the brief bliss in a beautiful post-apocalypse.

Recommended for: the solid gameplay foundations, the amazing aesthetics and the relaxing music and sound design.

Not recommended for: the lack of content, which is not reflective of the current price tag.

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