Simplicity is an art. It’s hard to paint a picture with as few shapes as possible, and it’s difficult to convey a feeling as concisely as possible. There’s always the temptation to add more, but in doing so, you lose the elegance of simplicity. The good folks at Brain&Brain have perfected the art of saying more with less, and crafted a magical, charming folktale which is heavily inspired by Scandinavian mythology.
Burly Men at Sea does not involve pirating, drinking, or other ‘manly’ activities which you might expect given the game’s title. It tells the story of the brothers Beard, Brave Beard, Steady Beard, and Hasty Beard, who find a blank map and set off in their beloved boat in search of adventure. The artwork is breathtakingly lovely, simple and whimsical, and the gameplay settles somewhere between a visual novel and a choose your own adventure book. The fantastical events the brothers experience are told with a bit of fairy tale narration, with a singsong-y tone similar to that of a children’s book.
This swipe-based game is perfectly suited to the touch screen of the Nintendo Switch, and, interestingly, with one singular exception, you never actually control the brothers themselves. Instead, you use your finger to drag the scenery to the side, allowing the background to extend that direction, and the brothers naturally move to inhabit the now-available space. While it’s difficult to describe, it’s easy to understand in action, as you can see in the video in the header.
Burly Men at Sea is almost more of an experience than it is a game. The mechanics are incredibly simple, you literally just drag the background and poke the objects and animals you find there, but that’s not a bad thing due to how how immersive the while thing is. Adding to the experience is the brilliant integration of the Joy-Con rumble feature. It’s a little subtle and sparsely used, but does wonders to pull you into the world of the Brothers Beard. The entire game is delightful, and so overflowing with childlike charm that you can’t help but get lost in it… and you should take the time to poke around at the background. Cuddle a crab, poke a puffin, manhandle a moose, tickle a tree, and jiggle a jellyfish. This highly stylized world reacts to your touch, and each area practically begs to be lingered upon, prodded, and fully explored. Burly Men at Sea is not a game about getting from point A to point B, but rather a stroll through a fantastic world where the impossible lurks just beyond the edge of the scenery.
As the brother’s story unfolds, the decisions you make at certain junctions will direct the course of their adventure. Will you try and race a gloomy grim reaper for your life, or hold back and see what lurks on the other side? Will you follow a rock monster as it searches out a flower, or take the opportunity to sneak back to the familiar comfort of your own boat? Each narrative path is filled with the strange and the fantastic, a miniature folktale in and of itself.
Each adventure branches at multiple points, so you’ll be seeing parts of the story several times, especially the earliest bits and the ending scene. Fortunately, the brothers and the other characters all remember that you’ve been through this before. This means that the characters don’t go through their longer conversations, since they’ve already had them, and you little fresh dialogue here and there. While I genuinely enjoyed returning to familiar places and events, I found when replaying to see the differences in some late game options, the paths concluded in endings which were not terribly different from the other option which I had just explored, making it feel like a bit of a waste.
This is truly about experiencing and exploring, as unlike most visual novels and choose your own adventure books, there are no ‘good’ and ‘bad’ endings, simply different places and ways to explore this fantastic world. It takes around 20 minutes, give or take depending on how much you poke around and drink in the general aesthetics of things, to complete any given narrative path, and the game creates a loop, allowing you to wake up the day after your adventure to take on a new one. You’ll receive a little book with a code for each ending you unlock which your adventures. These codes correlate to a limited-run series of hardcover storybooks, and by entering said code, you can purchase a cute little coffee table book featuring your favorite adventure.
Burly Men at Sea
Burly Men at Sea is a lesson in simple elegance and whimsical storytelling. Almost more of an experience than a game, it's intended to be enjoyed, soaked in, rather than beaten. This short yet fantastic tittle is a fantastic addition to the Switch lineup, and a must-play for everyone's inner child.