At first glance, Sea of Thieves seems to be the treasure-plundering, sea-fairing, and all around swash-buckling pirate game that’s been sorely missing from everyone’s collection. Never has there been a game that so successfully translated the violence and vulgarity of pirate antics into a delightful playground that’s reminiscent of childhood scallywag make-believe. But beyond the stunning environment and the many charming details, Sea of Thieves is severely lacking any sort of element that could keep players coming back for more.
The main gameplay features a loop that represents the crux of the issue: buy a quest from one of three types of vendors that represent a larger “guild,” find an island on your ship’s map, sail, plunder, return, and repeat. The first missions you do feel much like any game’s first missions in their simplicity and directness. But despite the fact that most games use this simplicity as a way to teach you mechanics that you will later implement in increasingly complex and creative ways, the intricacy in Sea of Thieves doesn’t stray far beyond that of the first hour. Sure, you may end up taking a contract on a more powerful and resilient skeleton captain, but you will still have to defeat it using the same imprecise and repetitive swordplay that you used to kill your first skeleton. Even if the gameplay were to get more varied and exciting later on, it’s doubtful that many people will want to stick around long enough to find out. On top of that, the game’s polished and inviting environment seems to be encouraging you to investigate its many islands and caves, but without providing you with the payoff that makes exploring in other games so satisfying and worthwhile.
Sea of Thieves does have its moments; the sailing mechanics are intuitive and involved enough to make navigating the high seas with your crew feel fulfilling. Some of the more intricate treasure hunts do actually make you feel like you’re accomplishing something beyond the core gameplay loop. The many charming aspects, such as your ability to drunkenly play a hurdy-gurdy or shoot yourself out of a cannon, make for some very fun and jaunty moments. But all of these elements are practically wasted on a game with no narrative or real incentive to advance. This results in an experience that is more suited for streamers, not a game that entices you to keep playing with your actual friends. If anything, Sea of Thieves resembles a Disney World ride: from the right angle, it’s detailed and charming. But if you stay for too long, you’ll notice its unfinished backside and the novelty will wear off.