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Sea Horizon

Sea Horizon

Written by Rob Larkin on 7/26/2023 for PS5  
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Sea Horizon describes itself as a "roguelike turn-based RPG." Funnily enough, I think it kind of fails in two of those three elements, yet what remains is still a very enjoyable game for all of the elements it doesn't try to tag itself with. I didn't really get the roguelike or the RPG bits. At best, they are roguelike RPG lite. But despite all that, it's a game that really grows on you and had a lot to offer. 

My initial impressions of the game were not all that great. I found the tutorial - as well as my first trip through the story mode - rather jarring. I suppose my expectations with tutorials is that they should teach you how to play... However, so much of this game is completing battles and carefully choosing amongst the rewards on offer for the one item that will best boost your chances moving forward. The tutorial itself is little more than an exposition on which buttons to press and when. For a turn based game... I think we can sort that part out. What we need to know, especially with Sea Horizon, is that when presented with options you can choose only one, and a little bit about how the details of these post-victory rewards interact with each other. That, unfortunately, is left for the player to suss out for themselves in-game through trial and error. What are these new symbols on the dice, and will they come into play later? (Probably not on this character, no). Which of these boons will benefit me most, I wonder? (Until you progress the unlocks and get to know the classes, you won't really have the foundation to hedge an intelligent guess).

So the tutorial is kind of a failure and so is my first campaign in the story mode as I waltzed to the boss with little trouble (despite some poor gear choices as I was left to sort that bit out on my own). However, the boss might have been an unstoppable force and an immovable object all in one. They trounced me on my first attempt. That was the second jarring halt to my experience. The campaign path all the way to the boss was working through minions and nothing had prepped me for a boss that enjoyed 10x the health and 10x the damage output of everything that had come before it.

At this point, I worried that the game was lost before it had barely even begun; but that's when I realized that there was forgiveness baked into the mechanics themselves. While this hurdle might not be possible under my current loadout, the tools to overcome it lay tucked away in the gear and skills I had stored in my unused inventory. The game itself plays out on two planes: one type of fight when fighting minions is a race to have a few damage options, remove pieces off the board quickly, and seeking to regain health once the enemy force is worn down to make sure you can enter the next encounter on a level field. Lost HP carries over fight to fight so just scraping by with a few ticks left on the health bar will likely spell your doom in the next. But the boss battles are an entirely different affair. It's a marathon of alternating between the most massive damage output your skills can muster one round, to fully investing in regeneration and armor for recovery in the next. The tools for both are in your arsenal, but you are limited to choosing just five skills from them all for each battle. And while you may not know which is optimum for the next encounter, if you fail you are only transported back to the scene of your last success. You can try, try again. 

That forgiveness ends up being the saving grace of Sea Horizon. No matter what they may have failed to mention, or how little you knew entering into a given battle, you only take one half step back for failure. This is where we start to diverge from the description, because for all its claims of a roguelike, that forgiveness doesn't seem very roguelike to me. I think the whole roguelike moniker is more of a misnomer. If you're thinking wildly divergent dungeons with each run, with unique and harsh penalties for failure, none of that feels like it's really here. The campaign maps in the story mode had no discernible roguelike play. Each character goes it alone through a set of predetermined levels, encounters, and a boss. The loot earned along the way is up to a bit of RNG but the skills and everything else are from the same playbook. As for the other modes and dungeons, once the "roguelike" nature even goofed and generated a map that couldn't be traversed properly, locking a few treasure troves behind un-passable terrain. Whoopsie.

The experience isn't any the worse for lacking a real core roguelike play. Nor is it for lacking real RPG elements. You get some randomized gear at the end of every battle, but you're not really leveling up skills and characters in-game. The leveling is just to unlock new abilities. You don't get stronger as you progress. There are no attribute points to plug into strength or intelligence. Progression is measured by swapping out for new gear and selecting new skills. A more traditional leveling up does happen, but after a run is complete, as the XP unlocks new abilities for the next run. I think any definition of an RPG in my mind would have applied that to my current campaign, not put in on layaway for the next.

So how can our "roguelike turn-based RPG" be such a success when it lacks core roguelike or RPG features? Because what it excels at is being a sort of hybrid of those elements, mixed with a deck building game. It is indeed turn-based, and the core execution of those turns come down to the roll of a dice - or more accurately, the roll of lots of dice. You set yourself up to succeed with your loadout. You build your deck with your choices of weapons, armor, and skills earned. Weapons and armor determine your die to be cast, and offer a few boons along the way. The skills are your actual actions you may perform in-turn, but within that setup what you get to actually execute on is down to chance. Rolls give you points into a color coded symbols systems. Each skill costs a given number of those symbol points. You might have a basic red attack for one point and strong blow for two. But if you don't roll enough red symbols, you have to decide on your turn how you are going to mete them out. Stick or twist. Attack or heal. Spend big now and possibly face penalties on the next turn, or go conservative playing into armor or buffs. Those checkpoints are always there to let you take a step back when you need it, reconfigure the loadout, and have another go. There's a well struck balance there between being at the mercy of lady luck but being forgiven with another opportunity when you find she is not in your favor. 

So while roguelike and RPG miss the mark for me, as a deck building game (even though it technically doesn't have a deck) of crafting loadouts and balancing skills, Sea Horizon excels. For that gameplay loop alone, you get your 15 bucks worth, but on top of that there are a cast of characters to explore, each with their own abilities focusing on certain symbols over others. And once you've sailed through each's solo story campaign to unlock the next, you can enjoy them in a new way running dungeons in a party of three, playing each's strength off other's weaknesses. The difficulty also ramps when you're running threes as well, so the challenge stays fresh, even if you can always try again when you get knocked back. 

While elements exist for roguelike and RPG play, the core of Sea Horizon is more of a loadout-building game similar to a deck builder. In this facet, it excels. It has a surprising amount of depth in working through and unlocking the many characters in its lineup and there is enough randomness in the roll of the dice to make every turn of every encounter warrant a strategy to match the resources at your disposal against the challenge set before you. It's intelligent and quite a bit of fun. 

Rating: 8.5 Very Good

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.  
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...

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