Lost at Sea; Drowning in Emotions
They say that life is a journey, not a destination. That even the best laid plans often go awry. That it’s like a box of chocolates, and we’ll never know what we’re gonna get. That doesn’t make it any more palatable when tragedy strikes, but it can help us put things in perspective.
Perhaps that’s what Lost at Sea was trying to convey as it made players rinse through both the pleasant and painful memories of a woman — daughter, wife, mother, friend, and caretaker — as she traipsed around a lonely island clinging to fleeting mirages and overcoming her oppressive fears. A walking simulator with some light puzzles, Lost at Sea is a two hour experience that dwells on emotions and asks players to relate to a long, fully-lived life full of both good times and grief. Serene and surreal, Lost at Sea asks players to re-assess choices made and regretted; unfortunately, despite its atmospheric attempts, its sentimental efforts fall a little too short.
Allow me to explain —
Our consciousness as Anna begins and ends with an island out in the middle of a seemingly unending ocean. On this island, Anna will find four stages of life represented by certain structures or areas, each with four mirages to clarify. For example, childhood looks like a blanket fort with toys scattered throughout, while youth is found nestled between a pile of derelict school busses. The mirages are half-formed items that, when unlocked through found in the surrounding environment, depict a memory that fills Anna with complex emotions. By completing puzzles to collect the items, then returning the items to their rightful places within the structures, Anna can resolve the conflicts she’s experienced throughout her lifetime and hopefully move on from them in some meaningful way.
While walking around this island and working through the physical manifestations of her happy memories and painful traumas alike, Anna will occasionally encounter an antagonistic voice telling her horrible things, followed by a purple burst of energy that suddenly charges at her. As Anna, players will have to outrun this energy burst, lest the negativity consume her; after a few seconds, the energy will dissipate, but only if players are able to successfully escape it. By successfully avoiding this energy — her fears — Anna can continue this journey of self-reflection.
What Lost at Sea does well is that it adequately conveys Anna’s complex emotions — happy to have spent brief moments in the sun with loved ones while devastated to lose them as time marched on. The art style was also something I enjoyed — not so much the environments, which felt a little washed out and arbitrarily difficult to walk through, but the scenes depicted upon assembling a mirage. And even though some of these life stages were unreasonably difficult to find (looking at the adulthood stage), I thoroughly enjoyed how each was represented, nailing the feel over the structure.
Unfortunately, Lost at Sea is constantly at odds with itself; for one, exploration is the name of the game in any walking simulator, but the fear mechanic coupled with difficult terrain and insta-death near water made it extremely difficult to walk much more than a few steps before dying and being sent right back to the last visited stage of life base. Additionally, the puzzles themselves ran the gamut between too simple and utterly confusing — one asks players to touch all visible balloons, while another forces players to guide an invisible person around random walls (not mentioning there’s a person to guide, of course). Although the game is only a 2 hour experience, unnecessary time will be spent fumbling around clunky terrain and puzzles, which only serves to break the story’s momentum.
Speaking of story, Lost at Sea’s Steam page boasts a relatable story, but I have to wonder how many people who can actually relate to Anna will be playing this game, as she has some very specific hardships that only an elderly adult will be able to say “same” to. But what I really take issue with is the pacing of the story itself. The most efficient way to play Lost at Sea is to find each stage of life, touch the mirage, then use the compass to lead players right to the missing item, then backtrack to the stage of life to put them back together. In this, Anna will deliver three lines of dialogue per item: the initial touch of the mirage, returning the item to the mirage, and then immediately after an image flashes across the screen that shows how that particular memory felt. With three lines of dialogue per item and a minimum of 12 overall for each stage of life, Anna doesn’t have a whole lot to talk about, and although I get a good grasp on her pain and suffering, I don’t really come to know her as a person.
(By the way, that says nothing of the puzzles that intentionally break pacing and the energy bursts that constantly interrupt any form of progression. That part sucked.)
Lost at Sea is the story of a woman desperately trying to keep her head above water in an overwhelming ocean of emotions. But it’s also the story of a game that is perhaps not entirely sure of what it’s trying to accomplish. It’s hard to face your fears when they send you right back to the beginning, thwarting your progress on a cumbersome island. It’s clearly not the next Myst, but it’s not like it’s trying to be. I’m not saying don’t get the game, but I’m not exactly saying you should get it either. One thing’s for certain: Lost at Sea is made from the heart.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: PS5, XBox One, XBox Series X, PC (reviewed); Publisher: Headup Games; Developer: Studio Fizbin; Players: 1; Released: July 15, 2021; MSRP: $14.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Lost At Sea provided by the publisher.