Battlewake review: How is this so good?

As attempts to surround my ship to bring it down go, this one was fairly well executed. I had the advantage over the two leeward vessels as each struggled to get a clear shot at me. But that left the three larger ships plenty of space to approach and unload their many, many cannons into my stern. A few well-placed volleys set the first ship ablaze, but the second was now approaching as fast as it could. Ramming this ship isn't quite that easy, I thought as I dredged my anchor and narrowly dodged my opponent. And thankfully, as it passed, there was time to unload my cannons two full times to finish the job I'd started earlier.

I slowly right my ship to face the three larger vessels, and two things become immediately apparent. First, there's no way I survive a gunfight with these ships given the state my beautiful craft is currently in. Second, the tattoos on my left arm are glowing. That detail makes me smile, knowing as I flick my wrist that my devoted Kraken would emerge from the deep and make quick work of my enemies.

As the massive creature returns to its home in the water, the ocean around me littered with splinters of wood and bits of fabric, I exhale for the first time in what feels like minutes. It's time to relax for a moment because what comes next is likely to be even more challenging.

Battlewake review: What I like

There's a vast catalog of VR games that only do an okay job of delivering realistic motion on flat surfaces without causing motion sickness in most folks. All I wanted from a tall-ship combat game was not to hurt someone when they tried it. I've got fairly solid "VR legs" under me, so it takes a lot to make me uncomfortable in VR. But every single person I put in Battlewake had nothing but positive things to say about the experience. Some of these folks can only barely tolerate VR roller coaster videos when sitting still in a chair. Here they were laughing and blowing up ships as their craft slammed through waves and tipped to match the next swell just ahead.

This experience is the result of months and months of testing and feedback at Survios, something the entire team wanted to get right from the beginning. Battlewake has been in development for quite a while; in fact, the first time I tried a stable build of the game was back in March of this year. Battlewake uses a combination of horizon line trickery, focus narrowing when the movement gets particularly intense, and environments that feel massive while you're inside of them. And it works, maybe not for 100% of people every time but for significantly more people than you'd think by looking at the trailers for this game.

Battlewake is everything I've ever wanted in VR naval combat.

Battlewake follows the lives of four unique characters with an impressive set of abilities. Some can summon monsters from the deep, while others can create ocean-bound vortexes to swallow ships whole. Each character has their own specially outfitted ship with a dedicated adventure on the high seas, and when you complete one, you've unlocked another. As you unlock everything, you can mix and match ship and character to your liking. If you want a faster ship with less firepower but a devastating unique ability for attacking multiple enemies, you can do that easily. Best of all, Survios could easily add more characters and ships with this format and have some fun with different abilities later on.

All of the gameplay in Battlewake happens at the helm of whatever ship you choose. You keep a hand on the wheel, and to your left and right you have chains you can pull to dredge your anchor to turn faster if you need it. Not exactly 100% accurate for a naval vessel, but entertaining all the same. In the real world, you've for one hand out at all times to grab the wheel, gripping the controller and moving slightly. Your other hand is then used for combat. As you point your other arm out, you see the combination of a crosshair and an arcing arrow. You can shoot a simple gun mounted on the bow, or volley your cannons from either side of the ship. The stern has some great weapons as well depending on which ship you choose, ranging from giant flamethrowers to mortars for hitting farther away targets. The variety gives you some flexibility in combat and doesn't take particularly long to get over the learning curve for each ship.

Battlewake is everything I've ever wanted in VR naval combat. The combat is intense, the scenery is stunning, and the characters are compelling. It's also not strictly speaking accurate from a naval perspective thanks to a healthy supply of fantasy and magic. It's great fun all around. And like other Survios games, it will be made so much more fun by adding in multiplayer combat, which I've not yet been able to test.

Battlewake review: What I don't like

Survios has done a fantastic job dropping me in the middle of the beautiful world with dynamic and fascinating characters to wage a unique kind of war. Every minute I've spent in this game has been a feast for my eyes. Unfortunately, even now as I've reached the end of all four stories in the game, I know basically nothing about the world.

Who are these incredibly powerful pirate-types? Where do their powers come from? Why do only a handful of people in this universe seem to have the ability to bend the world itself as a weapon against their foes? What motivates my enemies? Outside of the somewhat generic "we've fought you before and are now doing so again" story we get in the dialogue, there's not much there. There are so many opportunities to make this world feel fuller, and it doesn't seem like Survios felt any of that was a priority. I get that online gameplay is a lot of what drives Survios games, but come on folks! You've created such an incredible world here; it is downright shameful not to more with it.

This doesn't just end with the world. The individual stories for each character are just sort of there. The absolute minimum effort to make some of these people feel connected to or aware of one another is present, but that's about it. Each character has a set of quests leading to a dramatic final battle for a grand treasure, and this treasure is something each character wants for themselves no matter what. But there's no payoff. When you get what you want, the game just moves on to the next character and questline. It's tragically shallow, and something I wish Survios felt was more important to the gameplay experience.

Should you buy Battlewake?

As much as I would love to explore a deep story in this world, the game Survios has delivered is excellent. And if you enjoy playing VR games online with friends, this experience is going to keep you busy for a long time. There's so much to explore and so many fights to get into. It couldn't be more clear Survios is planning to grow this game into something even more impressive over time.

Grab the wheel, summon your strength, and battle some magic pirates in VR. It doesn't get much better than this.

Russell Holly

Russell is a tech nerd who chases the best of everything, from phones to game consoles to laptops and everything glowing or beeping. He's the Managing Editor of gaming content for Mobile Nations and can be found contributing to all of the Mobile Nations sites. Reach out on Twitter!