Review: FAR: Lone Sails – The Little Engine That Almost Could

In Okomotive’s FAR: Lone Sails you operate an engine. Whether steam locomotive or steam boat, it isn’t clear. Really, the ramshackle old contraption you have to guide through the game’s wasteland is a mixture of both. It’s a strange vehicle, and carries an even stranger player character across a very strange land. By the end of the game, you’ll be left wanting more and wishing that the game had done more. There’s also a slight keybind issue that grows from a nitpick into a major problem. In all, then, FAR: Lone Sails isn’t quite the “little engine that could,” but it pulls itself just enough to be the one that “almost could.”

The game’s visuals are 3D but also have a hand-drawn aesthetic. The overall effect is that of a painting: a muted, water-color kind of painting. The vehicle and your character feel like drawings in a children’s story book, and the landscape could be a surrealists’ backdrop. Smooth animations accompany these graphics for a beautiful looking and moving game. However, most of what you see is hard to describe. The game world, its machines and your character are nondescript.

The player character is a small little creature with a raincoat and hat. I thought it like Paddington Bear. The game starts with this little watcha-callit kneeling in front of a picture of a human’s face, set at the bottom of a tree, likely part of a grave. Paddington-like slowly gets up as waves roll into the shore just nearby.

FAR: Lone Sails review - character pulls the vehicle
The player character is a cute little creature that’s as nondescript as the rest of the game.

This initial setup is as nondescript as the other sights you’ll see as you pilot your vehicle: old shipyards, factories, abandoned towns and other ruins. The vehicle you control is also hard to classify. It is a mixture of a steam locomotive and a steamboat, some hybrid mechanical contraption. The game is a sight to see, but you don’t know exactly what you’re looking at.

You also don’t know what’s going on. Few story details are explicitly given to you.  As I began playing, questions bombarded me. Who am I? Where am I? What am I doing? What is this big, clunky locomotive-steamboat vehicle? Environmental objects, like the tarnished remains of billboards or old photographs, suggest answers. The sketch of two stick people, an adult figure holding a child’s hand, on the front of the vehicle give a strong indication on what relationship the little creature and the man in the photograph may have had. But no answer is given directly to the satisfaction of the player’s curiosity.

FAR: Lone Sails review - industrial area
You’ll see plenty of old buildings, like this factory, and tarnished billboards throughout FAR.

You have one straight path to travel down. To go left, you either have to pull the machine that way with a rope, attached to the back, or have it roll backwards. The crux of the game, then, is going in one direction, and pursuing a mystery. There are no stage breaks, making you want to keep going, though the game does autosave, allowing you to quit at certain points. You wonder when it will end and what it is you are looking for. This suspense is crucial to the game. It keeps you invested. Even if you get tired of playing, you will come back to find out what is waiting for you.

There are several tools and operations within the locomotive to keep it going on your journey. The most important is the engine. It has a two-state button that you press to turn it on or off. To fuel it, you have to use resources: boxes, barrels or other objects you’ll find along the ground. You insert these via a lift on the left of the machine, and the energy is then transferred to the engine. As the engine runs, steam builds up, which you let out with another button. Letting steam out just as its meter is about to reach maximum gives you a little boost. Getting this right while already steaming ahead leads to an exhilarating burst.

Beyond compulsion, there are more gimmicks in the ship. There is a button for breaking, which comes in handy when you are careening towards an obstacle or have seen resources on the ground you need to pick up (and want to avoid walking a long distance back to get). There is a button for a vacuum that sucks up items from the ground if you are positioned over them. There is a central elevator in the ship that is operated by a button. There is also a water hose and a welder, both tools that can be used to repair parts of your vehicle or put out fires. Once you have a sail attachment installed, there is a button to raise that as well. None of these operations are too complicated, and you rarely have to use them in tandem, making the operation of your ship fairly simple. In turn, this also means it’s too shallow. I kept waiting for a great game moment where I have to start operating all the parts of the ship together in a highly difficult situation, but it never came.

Finding fuel resources requires a good eye. Resources are spaced such that you usually have just enough on hand, but there were a couple times I had run out of resources and had to backtrack for them, or rely on the sails, or a rope, to keep my vehicle going. A lull in the game’s momentum was created while walking long distances to reach a resource, pick it up, and then carry it all the way back to the ship. It doesn’t help that, when walking a certain distance from your vehicle, the camera will zoom out. I have to squint to see the character, or hold down the zoom key, neither of which improves the experience.

The most consistent flaw I experienced in FAR: Lone Sails was the lack of a zoom toggle option. With toggle, you could press the zoom key once and enjoy the camera zoomed in on your character until you pressed the same key again. As is, you have to keep holding the zoom button down whenever you want to see your character up close. Most of the time, the camera was zoomed too far out for me. It makes sense because the camera’s position like this allows you to see more of your vehicle as it rolls across the landscape. However, this zoomed-out view also requires that you squint to see your character and the actions they perform, leading to discomfort. When the camera zooms further out, in scenarios as the one described above when you leave your ship, the issue is only emphasized. Keeping zoom held while also pressing jump was awkward, and you can’t configure the keys to your liking. The lack of a toggle option for the zoom key is not a nitpick as it significantly influenced my experience of the game for the worse. Okomotive needs to patch keybinding, with a zoom toggle, in.

FAR Lone Sails review - large view of a landscape
The more FAR zooms its camera out, the more of the beautiful scenery you can see, but you have to squint to see your character, and zoom has no toggle.

In addition to picking up resources, you also leave your ship to walk through a few buildings, to open a gateway or to install a new ship part. In these sequences, I also had to hold down the zoom key for the duration.

FAR also could have explored its gameplay mechanics more. With about five hours’ worth of playtime, the game understays its welcome. The obstacles and puzzles you encounter could form the foundation for several more interesting setups and combinations. As is, there’s unrealized potential in FAR. Even just two more hours of game time with more environmental puzzles, or another mechanism to use for your ship, would have strengthened the game enormously. I was left wanting more.

By game’s end, there is a fair amount of closure to the story, but not enough to remove the vagueness the narrative had had. There is one climactic moment that adds an emotional surge to the game. The final scenes that follow it struck right to my heart – I teared up. Though there were no answers to so many questions I had while playing, I was nonetheless satisfied with the story’s end.

Whether you would be satisfied with FAR and its surreal landscape, vague story and steamship contraption depends on how comfortable you are with the zoom issue. Take that discomforting issue away and add a little more to the gameplay, and FAR: Lone Sails becomes a very memorable and impressive game. If you are prepared for a four to five hour game and think it looks and sounds interesting, you won’t find a weekend gaming session wasted with FAR. It just may not pack enough heft.

Trevor reviewed FAR: Lone Sails on Steam with a code provided by the developer.

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