Besiege: The Splintered Sea review: a small vessel for expansive seafaring

3 weeks ago 42

Just one more tweak to get these timbers shivering just right

 The Splintered Sea Image credit: Spiderling Studios/Rock Paper Shotgun

I cannot compare my experience of writing a review for The Splintered Sea, the first paid expansion for dastardly clever physics puzzle builder Besiege, to that of a journaling sailor facing lethal storms on the horizon. Still, if we take for granted the idea that a review is only really valuable as an insight into the experience of the player: I haven’t been feeling especially great this week. That in mind: Splintered Sea is more Besiege, thoughtfully applied to its already expansive toolkit. More importantly, it's currently bringing me deep and deeply needed moments of untainted, childlike, vaguely-Orkish joy.

Besiege is, broadly, a game about building siege engines, but this expands to things like flying machines, nimble vehicles, and whatever else your imagination fancies. There’s no power limit or cash value for parts, so your only real limits are whether your contraption can fit in the confines of the starting cube, and whether it actually works. Strapping ten cannons to the sails might seem like a great idea, but they’ll soon buckle and give way if they’re not properly braced. You’ll also want to make sure weight is balanced out evenly among your contraption, at least if you want to be able to move anywhere.

To give some structure to its sandbox modes, the meat of Besiege consists of challenge maps. Early on, these might be something like ‘destroy 80% of everything on screen’ - everything on screen being a mixture of knights and structures. Later, maybe the knights shoot flaming arrows, or maybe the structures are fortified to the point where you’ll need heavy weaponry to deal with them. Splintered Sea adds 10 new challenge maps and 8 new aquatic building blocks. Of these, things like barrels with adjustable buoyancy and aquatic screws that spin are the most significant, since these dictate things like submerging and steering.

Alongside this, it also features a lot of water, which can also be employed in its sandbox level editor. Adding water might not sound like much, but it brings with it all the physics simulation necessary to make constructing vessels to navigate that water - both surface and depth - feel complex and worthwhile. I felt like an utter genius the first time I tuned two spinny things to let me steer horizontally, only to realise I’d also have to effectively build a working submersible for the later levels. I can’t really speak to this too much because I stopped paying attention in science class quite young, but I will say that this water has moxy!

My high level takeaway from playing a chunk of the base game and most of its expansion levels is this: I can’t believe I waited this long to play Besiege, although I place some of that blame on the marketing. In short: no-one told me this game was basically an Ork simulator. Behold, the cursed contraption I came to know simply as ‘spikeyboy1’, since that’s what I saved it as:

The greatest machine ever built by human hands in Besiege Image credit: Spiderling Studios/Rock Paper Shotgun

The key difference between the contraptions in Besiege and those built by Warhammer’s Orks is that the ones here do not run simply on sheer belief - you will have to make sure everything is in working order. I would later make myriad improvements to his spikyship, notably a series of braces to stop him falling apart during an especially vigorous rampage. Sometimes, the game will give you a quest that asks not for wanton destruction but considered movement, in which case I’d be compelled to replace some of the murd-adornments with more practical appliances, like grabbers or vacuum guns. Sometimes, you have to destroy something quite high up, in which case my preferred tack was to make a column of stretchy extendo-pistons with a cannon on top. You usually get at least one good shot before you completely topple over.

Preparing to face off against an armada of tiny boats in Besiege Image credit: Spiderling Studios/Rock Paper Shotgun

In terms of the visuals here, I was tempted to write something along the lines of “they didn’t need to make it look this good!”. This is probably not true, since I get how important it is to be eye-catching when someone’s scrolling Steam. Still, Besiege is a real looker on top of its wonderful juxtapositions of complexity and silliness, practicality and knight-grinding. Ambient music and pouring rain tell of a conflict bringing despair to the land. I see a mission called The Duke’s Plea, bringing to mind a desperate parley to end this senseless bloodshed. I load in, and it’s just me and my ridiculous death machine and a bunch of knights, one of them holding up parchment in my tracks. Was this your plan, Lord Duke? A piece of paper! Well it won’t stop me, because I only learned to read blueprints for war crime accessories

Splintered Sea itself is even prettier, the base game’s gray boxes replaced with full ocean scenes that stretch in every direction. The ocean has fish in it, and you can murder them individually. I didn’t do this, of course. They just got caught my spinny bits accidentally. Here is me using a harpoon to steal some treasure. The fish simply got in the way:

The greatest submersible to ever drag a treasure chest with a harpoon gun in Besiege Image credit: Spiderling Studios/Rock Paper Shotgun

I will say that any given set of levels in Besiege, and especially the 10 levels in Splintered Sea, can usually be knocked out quite quickly once you’ve got the basics down. So, if you’re considering picking them up, it’s worth asking where you fall on the in/extrinsic scale. Basically, will you enjoy building and experimentation for their own sake, or might you lose interest once you’ve beaten all the challenges? If it’s the second, you could be done in a couple brisk evenings, so something to keep in mind.

You’ve probably grasped by now that there’s no real storytelling in Besiege, which is fine, since that isn’t what the game is trying to do. Still, aside from the little snippets of scene setting achieved by the challenge layouts, I found Besiege did tell me a story: It was a story about how some things are just so ingrained that it’s very hard for the world to beat them out of us. One of these things is playing with toys, and another is taking those toys apart to see how they work, then building them back up again.

I’m not sure I have a grand theory about how games writing should be done, but I do think we should strive less to convince the doubtful that ‘games are more than just toys’ and more time celebrating the fact that toys can be awesome and incredibly complex and worthwhile things. Besiege is a fantastic toy - which is to say it's an awesome and incredibly complex and worthwhile thing - and Splintered Sea is more of that, but with boats and sharks. Also a giant squid at one point. It’s great and I love it. Seven out of six point five thoroughly shivered timbers.

This review is based on a review build of the game provided by the developer.

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