Alaskan ice fishing, touted by the Discover Channel show Deadliest Catch as one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, is serious business. Fifteen seasons after the show’s premiere and over a decade since its original (and until now, only) video game adaptation, Deadliest Catch might seem a dark horse candidate for a new licensed game, offering little in the way of obvious elements for gamification. Polish game development studio Moonlit, however, has given it a go with their new title in Steam Early Access, appropriately named Deadliest Catch: The Game. Their answer? Including everything, or at least something close to it.
I’m not typically one to play game tutorials, but the tutorial of Deadliest Catch: The Game is absolutely not one that you should skip. It’s long, involved, and teaches you every step of the fishing process, which is surprisingly thorough. This isn’t just choosing a bait and tossing out a hook like fishing games that offer more bass than crabs, but a succession of tasks from moving the trap cage (called the pot) with a crane to sorting your haul by size and gender to keep only the lucrative catches. Once you enter the actual career mode of the game, hiring a crew will help to delegate some of these tasks, further developing the sensation of being the captain of the vessel. If you’re a fan of the show, or perhaps the job in general, this run-through should prove reasonably straightforward. If you’re not familiar, the first couple of times are going to be a bit stilted.
Much of this procession of tasks is essentially just mechanical execution, and this is where the fundamental gameplay may fail to resonate with some players. The core of the experience centers around baiting your pot and putting it properly out to sea so that you can later return and take in your haul of crabs. Despite a long list of controls, most elements here require no actual skill. You walk over to the bait, select the bait, walk over to the grinder, grind the bait, pick up the bait, walk over to the pot, place it in the pot, and so on. The only real element of player agency in that part of the process is choosing which type of bait to use, and in a game with other focuses, the majority of these tasks would likely be completed entirely within menus. Although steering the ship isn't as principal to the gameplay experience as you might think-- most navigation is completed by teleporting on a map-- you are allowed to get behind the helm, which can principally be used to pull alongside a pot when picking it back up. Retrieving the pots is also one of the more engaging elements, asking the player to cast out a hook in the game’s closest point of similarity to a traditional fishing title.
I do find it admirable that the developers have taken an approach to the game that accurately simulates these aspects of ice fishing, rather than simply making a more generic management game. However, this isn't something that most people will see as deeply fun, exciting, or varied gameplay. Gameplay built purely around the execution of tasks usually shines best when thrown into a panicked frenzy of time demands and rapidly arising threats-- think Guns of Icarus, or the fantastic chef games Overcooked and Cook, Serve, Delicious! Some of the planned updates for the game should help Deadliest Catch: The Game to lean into this experience more, with additions like fatigue systems for the crew, equipment wear and tear and threats at sea to add more to the shuffle. Sadly, the frantic multiplayer experience that adds so much to Guns of Icarus and Overcooked will likely never come to this title, as fun as manning a ship with your friends would be.
On the other end of Deadliest Catch: The Game, there’s the more management-oriented gameplay mechanics – the elements that feel vaguely like the trappings of a tycoon game. Your hub/base of operations exists as a harbor that offers opportunities like resupplying necessities and hiring crew members. This part of the game feels more than a little early access, consisting principally of an overhead view of some simple building geometry spread thinly over a small map. Everything here acts as nothing more than menu navigation—whether you’re hiring crew members or picking out bait, there’s no physical spaces to explore or shop proprietors to interact with. However, the developer's upcoming plans offer the possibility of fleshing out this element of the game in the list of more tentative update prospects, a set of features that will hopefully later come to life.
Outside of the rather unattractive harbor, the look and feel of the game is reasonably impressive for a small title. The boat, your principal home for the game, is well-modeled and sufficiently detailed, and the shifting weather conditions in the sky look quite nice already. What needs work, and will hopefully receive some, is the lighting. In some weather conditions, most of the boat tends to be cast in overly and inappropriately dark shadows, and the lighting rarely proves particularly flattering for anything on the ship. The sound design feels more finished, appropriately immersive and engaging. The stereo creates a genuine sense of space, the clank of metal is convincing, and storms wash over the soundscape appropriately.
Deadliest Catch: The Game is ultimately about the core gameplay loop—go set your pots, collect your haul, return to the harbor to sell your catch and buy goods and upgrades, and head back out to sea once again. Thanks to weather systems and a day and night cycle, the sea is not a static place, and the promised addition of more threats like accidents and mechanical damage in future updates should go a long way in making the experience more dynamic. It's also a game about learning to master the minutiae of the job, growing your profit as the sequence of tasks turns from an awkward half-remembered procession to second nature. If that's not a concept you enjoy, then this isn't the game for you. If it is, then the thoroughness of the experience should prove impressive.
Still early in the development process, much of Deadliest Catch: The Game is about the journey from here. Apparently unwilling to join the large ranks of abandoned Kickstarter titles, the developers are pushing out frequent updates over Steam that currently focus on the bugs inherent to a new Early Access title. Beyond this point, the Steam Community page houses an Early Access Road Map that offers a comprehensive list of planned features and a tentative roll-out schedule for their implementation. Right now, Deadliest Catch: The Game is doubtless a unique experience among fishing and simulation games, although one that meets more of a niche interest and taste than it does a wide demand from the gaming community. Assuming that everything goes according to plan, by March 2020 this experience will be significantly more thorough. If Alaskan ice fishing catches your interest, then this is one—as a matter of fact, the one—to watch.
Ben previewed Deadliest Catch: The Game with a copy provided by the publisher. You can purchase it on Steam.