If I had to list the various reasons why I’ve preferred indie games to blockbusters these past few years, “Focus” would be right at the top. Major publishers have spent at least an entire console generation endlessly homogenizing their products in a vain attempt to reach as wide a market as possible. Instead, they’ve created a multi-billion dollar master of none. Indie developers, by contrast, usually don’t have the resources to do more than one thing at a time, so the smart ones will try to do that one thing really well. Of course, not all of them are smart, so sometimes a smaller studio will attempt the scope of a AAA title with a fraction of the budget… and the results are inevitably abysmal.
Case in point: Coast Guard. If this game were a person, it would have the attention span of a hummingbird. It can’t go five minutes without switching genres; it jumps between an L.A. Noire-style detective game, a point-and-click adventure, and a ship simulator, housing it all in a framing device with the atmosphere of a horror game. There are easily three separate concepts for good games here, but mashing them all together into one inorganic, amateur construction ruins all of them. In a perfect representation of the entire product, the player is teased with the possibility of equipping a firearm throughout the game via an icon next to their inventory, but when one is finally received, it’s fired precisely once. In a scripted event.
The adventure segments are where this rigidity is most apparent. 50% of the objectives are frustrating pixel hunts, while the other half consist only of talking to a specific person or handing over a specific item. I’m curious why my ship even has a science lab onboard, since the whole thing could be replaced with a big “advance plot” button. These segments are further plagued by clunky controls (in particular, the game takes a couple of seconds to realize that the player has grabbed a ladder) and indeterminate hitboxes. Even the interface is faulty; it can never keep its mechanics consistent (the flashlight can be toggled with ‘F’, but only after being initially turned on with ‘1’) and it takes three button presses just to pause the bloody game.
Controlling the ships is no better. The game offers two or three alternative control schemes for them, none of which are preferable to a traditional WASD setup. Even then, the boats handle fairly realistically – in other words, they’re completely unintuitive and not at all fun to drive. Consistency problems crop up with them too, as keys F1-F11 change camera angles, switch modes, and teleport you around the ship, with no logic informing their order. Finally, the mother and daughter boats are functionally identical apart from which story events they leave arbitrarily walled off, and the firefighting mechanics never expand beyond pointing at a flame and waiting for it to extinguish. All of this is especially embarrassing, because the nautical gameplay is copied entirely from the developer’s last game, Ship Simulator: Maritime Search and Rescue.
Most of these grievances aren't merely technical, as well. Even if they were patched up, the core gameplay would still be tremendously ill-conceived. Most egregiously, there’s no exploration, and by extension, no reason for the watercraft to even be controllable. This concept is crying out for sandbox gameplay, but instead, each mission drops players a few kilometres away from the only other thing on the water and asks them to crawl over to it. Everyone who complained about The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker’s atmospheric but empty sailing gameplay needs to play this, if only to see how bad it could have been. The only significant action performed on a ship is rescuing castaways, which never requires any speed despite the implied urgency, and only highlights how obtuse the controls are.
The final piece of this mangled genre puzzle is the horror-ish framing device that forms the spine of the game’s flimsily plotted and circuitously narrated story. It begins with coast guard officer Finn Asdair waking up aboard a derelict ship with only fractured memories. From there, the plot is told through anachronic flashbacks, presumably aiming for unnecessary complication to distract from its shallow and nonsensical nature. Coast Guard’s story can’t decide if its titular agency has law enforcement authority or not – Finn is clearly able to arrest people, but he’s otherwise treated like an annoying trespasser. Furthermore, the characters are laughably broad; the villains are villainous for no discernible reason, and at some point, a romance subplot developed during a gap between scenes, and I only realized this because the characters offhandedly mentioned that they love each other.
Of course, Coast Guard wouldn’t be an overambitious indie game without some horrendous production values. Character bodies appear warped and stiff, and their facial animation alternates between hilarious and horrifying. Their voice acting is also fascinatingly bad. Very few of the lines’ deliveries flow naturally into one another, as if they were recorded out of order and without context. Finn, despite having the most lines, has the worst performance of all; where the other actors sound merely incompetent, his sounds incompetent and permanently constipated. It’s not just the characters that took a beating from the ugly stick, either. Lighting glitches and sloppy particle effects abound, and the ships’ wakes are merely foam textures painted onto the water. At least the soundtrack is alright, even if it sounds mawkishly overdramatic when juxtaposed with the game’s unintentional comedy.
Coast Guard’s ambition is the only thing that saves it from being a contender for worst game of 2015, even if that ambition mostly manifests as stitching together pieces of other games, including the exhumed corpse of the developer’s previous effort. If it had just been “L.A. Noire on a boat,” It would at least be worth something, since L.A. Noire at least looked and sounded good. This looks, sounds, and plays like a student project attached to a Unity water physics tech demo.