Curse of the Sea Rats is a Metroidvania with RPG elements featuring hand-drawn characters and animations. The game features four playable characters that you and up to three friends can play as. The journey will take your chosen rat characters all over a mysterious and beautiful island, beating up monsters, bugs, and bosses, and leveling up. While the charming characters, music, and locations are a joy to experience, the platforming and performance issues lead to big frustrations. Still, Curse of the Sea Rats has something for the Metroidvania fans to admire.
Curse of the Sea Rats is available for Xbox Series X|S, PS4/5, Switch, and Steam for $20.
Story – Mice and MacGuffins
In the 17th century, the witch Fiona Burn curses a British ship. Everyone on board is turned to rats, though Fiona and her crew are also turned. You play as four prisoners on board who are tasked with retrieving the captain’s son (who Fiona stole) in exchange for your freedom. This adventure brings you in contact with an ancient Chinese spirit who gives magical power, Fiona’s devious crew, and many other side characters and quests.
Everything above is told in narration over a few still images at the beginning. Though the game is light on story, it can still be confusing. There are a surprising amount of MacGuffins that can be hard to keep track of. Also as I mentioned above, we are told that Fiona cursed the ship’s occupants to be rats, but Fiona and her crew appear as rats as well. She hints at a greater plot and reason behind all of this, but the game doesn’t really care about deeper character motivations. You are simply here to beat up bosses and that’s okay. Other than that, the game features a good amount of side characters with quests for you to find and talk with.
Gameplay – Exploring the Island
Curse of the Sea Rats claims it is the world’s first “ratroidvania”, meaning the game is a rat-themed Metroidvania. In the tradition of Metroid and Castlevania games, you will explore branching paths, fight enemies and bosses, and gain new powers and equipment to then explore and battle further. The map is unveiled as the player goes through it. There are no quest markers or objectives, just environmental signs like reaching a dead-end and having to fight a boss to progress. In a good Metroidvania, the player feels like they stumble upon the progress by their own exploration. Curse of the Sea Rats delivers on this satisfying feeling.
There are four characters to choose from. Friends can hop in to play each of the characters – allowing 4 players at once. Having friends join does not affect the gameplay experience greatly except making combat easier. If you are struggling with a boss, having a friend join may help. However, I tested co-op gameplay on a platforming section. This part of the game was made more difficult with having a friend because the camera only moved with player one. If all players are not in sync with each other, platforming is very difficult because a stable camera is required for judging jumps and distances.
In fact, platforming in Curse of the Sea Rats is a source of major frustration. In some parts of the game, you are tasked with jumping across bottomless pits. Falling will result in death, which sends you back to a save room. Unfortunately, these sections have unpredictable hindrances like enemies that fly at you from off screen and gusts of wind that blow you away. In a particularly annoying boss fight, platforms will crumble beneath you at random while you are attacked. You cannot jump while in the air, so you immediately plummet to your death. There is a ledge grabbing mechanic, but it is not trustworthy. After the first hour of learning the ropes of combat, these platforming sections are the only places I died.
In each of the many diverse parts of the island, there is a boss fight. Each has a creative concept that matches the island’s section, like a giant rat spider or a magical vampire. These characters and their funny dialogue before and after the battle are amusing and add to the charm of the game. However, because of the combat and leveling system, these bosses are often incredibly easy. Unlike other Metroidvania bosses that feature a vulnerable spot, every attack to their body is effective. This allowed me to power through almost every boss without paying attention to their move set or phases.
There are several performance issues and bugs to note. While exploring the island, a loading screen separates each room or chamber. On the Switch, these loading screens were often 3-7 seconds. Quite often, I would travel through a small chamber without loot or enemies just to get to another loading screen. The amount of time I spent in that traveling chamber was less than the time spent loading in and out of it. This technical limitation was quite baffling and extremely frustrating when I know plenty of other Switch games that can handle larger spaces and more seamless loading screens (ex. Metroid Dread). Out of my nearly 12-hour play through, I’m confident 30-minutes of that time was in loading screens. In a game built on exploration, the constant loading screens put a damper on my enjoyment and excitement to backtrack or regain ground after dying.
Graphics & Sound – That Indie Charm
The art direction is wonderful. Petoons Studio fills the island with a wide variety of locales as you can see in the gallery. From creepy spider lairs underground to bright and beautiful treetops, Curse of the Sea Rats is a pretty game to look at and explore. I really enjoyed traversing through so many different settings. A big draw on the visuals side is the hand-drawn elements. The game features a few cut-scenes that are entirely hand-drawn and all moving characters appear to be hand-drawn. These elements are a unique and charming part of the world.
From the title menu, the music is exactly what I wanted to hear. It is magical, mysterious, and swashbuckling. Each section of the island (of which there are over 10) has its own theme music. In addition to the setting, the music kept me engrossed through all exploration because it continues through the black loading screens.
Curse of the Sea Rats was reviewed on Nintendo Switch.