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Bootleg Steamer (PC)

Bootleg Steamer (PC) - Review

by Issa Maki , posted on 09 May 2024 / 1,441 Views

When it comes to video games and boats, there exists a siren's call I can't help but follow. If it's not the King of Red Lions from Wind Waker creaking lazily against the shoreline, it's capturing ships and crew to fill out the Jackdaw's ranks in Assassin's Creed: Black Flag. Complementing this is my increasing interest in rogue-likes; their 'die until you fly' philosophy belies an affirming form of integrity and self-improvement that appeals to me. Mixing the two is a potent concoction; and though Bootleg Steamer is both addictive and enjoyable, it's missing a unifying 'hook' to bring it all together.

Set in the United States during the Prohibition-era, Bootleg Steamer is a point-and-click adventure with one primary goal: buy low and sell high. After selecting a captain and starting boat, the process begins by transporting alcohol from 'Factory Cities' to 'Prohibition Cities', interacting with other vessels along the way (in a manner similar to bumper cars). Having illegal goods in your possession increases your odds of being arrested by the Coast Guard, while selling them builds 'Notoriety' – adding more law enforcement to the region. Players must manage this risk/reward by utilizing a number of various systems. There's a bit of a learning curve, but stick with it and you'll be running rum like a Kennedy in no time.

One interesting aspect of Bootleg Steamer is its approach to merchandise. These wares come in both 'legal' and 'prohibited' varieties, and collectively represent your 'Capture Chance'. Illegal products are 'stored' among your grains and ores, making it more difficult for the authorities to find contraband in the event of a search. This requires players to balance their stock in order to continue operations uninterrupted. Ultimately a small link in the overall chain, resource rationing is important when developing an overall strategy: speed and agility are effective in a pinch, but hiding in plain sight might be more useful in the long run.

Adding wrinkles in the fabric are 'Boat Parties'. Depending on the 'Glamour' value of your vessel, players can attract high-class yachts (or dingy tugboats) to sell booze at a premium on the open waters. Though highly lucrative and undeniably 'keen', Boat Parties take preparation to set up and are prone to attracting authorities. It's a great idea, but the game's chaotic nature makes these opportunities exceedingly rare. A shame – especially considering that certain story quests require their completion.

The Shipyard is where rogue-like aspects of Bootleg Steamer begin to emerge. Upgrades and schematics are collected in this menu, adding their boons to successive runs. Ranging from cargo holds to fishing nets and gambling tables, each and every kind of playstyle is accommodated for. Ships with more storage space can play 'tanky' with excessive legal goods, whereas a smaller boat might use its acceleration and turning capabilities to forego subtlety, outrunning the law at each juncture. Though die-hards might be expecting more of a 'random' factor when it comes to this regard, there's still a healthy dose of variety once everything is taken into consideration.

'Crew Headquarters' is your typical den of debauchery, where ne'er-do-wells offer services for coin. Like captains, crew members have their own positive and negative attributes to weave into the larger picture. Some (like Luca Gentille) immediately alter the trajectory of a run by their very presence, while the long-term impact of others can be harder to gauge. Several of these companions prohibit access to certain ports; hire too many at once, and you could wind up with unresolved threads that can't be resown. Of all the various mechanics in Bootleg Steamer, crew management is (surprisingly) the most difficult to consistently implement.

Then we get to the Mafia, which is by far the best part about the game. Here, almost every parameter can be altered or manipulated in some fashion – for a price. Loans can be issued, extra lives are on tap, salvage becomes increasingly valuable, even the effectiveness of the police falls under this jurisdiction. Most intriguing is that the Mafia can actually be stacked against the player if they wish, creating boons and hindrances in the process. This is where Bootleg Steamer is at its strongest: reconciling what the Mafia can do for you versus what they could potentially do to you never ceases to increase the excitement. If a run starts to go sideways, the answer is one stop away – just don't be surprised if you wake up next to a horse's head the following morning.

As much as I enjoy Bootleg Steamer, the rough edges are evident and undeniable. Some of this is the result of a small studio treading uncharted waters, but a fair portion is that hallmark lack of a follow-through I've come to loath about indie games over the years.

My biggest gripe gameplay-wise comes from law enforcement. The entire procedure of being detained, jailed, fined, and released all takes place within a three-second window; and you're usually so disoriented from being transported across the map (or just trying to read your rap sheet) that it occasionally leads to getting caught again! Since the Coast Guard has a tendency to loiter around Coast Guard Base, one misfortune potentially snowballs into several – a hard sell when stray wind currents throw police cruisers your way from off-screen, inadvertently starting the process to begin with.

The other major annoyance is an almost total lack of keyboard commands. I get this is a point-and-click game, but the fact that you can't press 'M' to open the map or 'Q' for quests is unacceptable. Not all commands should be so simple (jettisoning booze should actually be harder), but how can 'W', 'A', and 'D' ('S' had the day off, apparently) move the boat, but 'ESC' isn't a Main Menu of sorts – because one doesn't exist? I never thought we'd need a term to describe 'half-heartedly effortless', but here we are.

The true problem, however, comes from an ultimate lack of cohesion that unifies the various systems. This is difficult to convey in words, but the gameplay loop isn't completely sealed, and as a result is somewhat prone to exploitation.

For example: to unlock Captain Moore, one has to complete a run having hired 20 or more crew members. However, once you meet these prerequisites, there's nothing stopping you from phoning in the rest of the playthrough; your crew can't mutiny or die, the ship doesn't deteriorate – there's no drawback outside of a lower final score. The same thing applies to main story missions or tasks like salvaging 100 shipwrecks: if you don't have any booze, you can't get arrested; and without going to jail, you don't lose lives, effectively making a Game Over impossible. Something as simple as a 'Happiness Meter' or pirates that could loot and spur idling boats would have changed everything. It's the opposite problem most rogue-likes have: instead of being designed for repeat failures, once you learn the ropes, Bootleg Steamer players are destined for success – wounding its spirit and undermining the sport behind the whole endeavor.

Of all the titles I've reviewed, Bootleg Steamer is the most addictive. When I sit down to play, I know that I'm going to be there for the next 1-3 hours. Its wheels turn and the gears are oiled, yet the engine inside lacks a 'spark' that pushes it to the next level, be that competition from other runners or a more volatile crew dynamic - some additional tension source to get the entropy flowing would have been nice. Its low-stakes, easygoing nature might not be to everyone's taste, but for those who land on the Stardew Valley side of the gaming coin, Bootleg Steamer is a curious, pleasant nightcap to the end of any evening.

VGChartz Verdict


This review is based on a digital copy of Bootleg Steamer for the PC, provided by the publisher.

Read more about our Review Methodology here

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