Rare’s Sea of Thieves is exactly the kind of game I would have dreamt up as a kid. Sailing the open ocean and digging for treasure tickles the right part of my brain. Sea of Thieves delivers that kind of exhilaration, while simultaneously being held back by a shallow progression system.
It doesn’t take long to find your sea legs, because Sea of Thieves activities are relatively simple. The world is populated with islands, forts, and outposts, the latter of which provide three different kinds of quests – referred to as voyages – to accept. The Gold Hoarders guild offers treasure maps to buried treasure. “X” quite literally marks the spot. The Order of Souls’ voyages present you with a list of skeletal targets and the name islands where they might be found. Finally, the Merchants Alliance requires hunting down, trapping, and delivering specific animals within a time limit. All three guilds reward reputation and gold for returning items to their representatives, but the real joy comes from the journey between destinations.
Sea of Thieves’ best moments have left me smiling more often than any other game has in recent memory. Navigating the open ocean is an absolute delight, mechanically and visually. The water simulation is the best I’ve ever seen and standing on deck is almost a VR-like experience. It can be downright relaxing watching the hull rise and fall with the waves. The atmosphere is aided by the lack of a HUD and a ship that requires active attention to command. Anchors need to be raised. Sails must be lowered and angled to catch the wind. And every journey begins by comparing maps in hand to the charting table in the captain’s quarters. If you have a larger crew, piloting the galleon demands additional delegation. None of the tasks done to get from A to B are challenging, and yet it’s incredibly satisfying to coordinate as a group or even maneuver the smaller ships on your own. Sea of Thieves even serves as a great social space during lengthier travels.
The game’s asynchronous multiplayer has led to wonderful, emergent storytelling opportunities, as well. Every ship in the distance is crewed by another player, and it’s never certain until it’s too late whether they’re friend or foe. This creates a lot of nervous tension when attempting to speed to port to sell hoarded treasure. I’ve partaken in exciting three-way ship battles. I’ve boarded vessels to plant gunpowder barrels below decks. And Sea of Thieves gives quite the rush as cannon balls start to fly. Every encounter has led to laughter, shouting, and not a little bit of jovial panic. The result has consistently led to stories I couldn’t wait to share with others.
Thankfully, I never had to worry about holding my allies back or facing too challenging a foe because of time played. Higher reputations don’t increase health or power. Rather, everything unlockable and purchasable is cosmetic. That meant I could jump into higher level voyages and do the same damage as a friend who put in more hours than me. I love not feeling like an albatross around the neck of my compatriots or having to spend time getting someone else caught up at the expense of my own progression.
Once the initial excitement wears off, however, Sea of Thieves’ limited variety can make the game’s vast waters seem small. The first few hours aren’t far removed from hour thirty and beyond. Voyages do get more involved as reputation levels increase – you may be tasked to visit several islands, solve easy riddles, or face armies of skeletons that require different tactics – but the core formula changes little. Sea of Thieves is a repetition of simple fetch quests threaded with very simple combat. And the rewards at the end of pier just aren’t all that fulfilling to earn.
There are a lot of customization options to acquire in Sea of Thieves. The list includes everything from hats, coats, peg legs, ship colors, to different looking buckets and shovels. Sadly, I never found them a compelling enough reason to seek out gold. They’re primarily just skins of already equipped items. The lack of anything impactful to earn coupled with a lengthy grind meant I quickly lost motivation to fully dedicate myself the game.
Sea of Thieves is a beautiful adventure. It’s equal parts satisfying, boisterous, and charming. Pirating is a great deal of fun, especially with friends, but you must be content with its empty progression system to justify its full price. At the very least, I highly recommend checking it out via the $10 Xbox Game Pass.
Full Disclosure: A copy of the game was provided for review.