One of my favorite aspects of media set in the wake of an environmental apocalypse is the architecture and design. Whether it’s the rusted metal dieselpunk of Mad Max or Snowpiercer’s grimy, breakneck microcosm, humanity always seems to find a way to reconstruct some semblance of society from the broken pieces.
Developer Pajama Llama Games must feel the same because their new city builder, Flotsam, takes the setting of Waterworld and transposes everything but gilled Kevin Costner and oil-hoarding Dennis Hopper. The world of Flotsam has sunk beneath the rising oceans, leaving humanity floating amongst endless waves of trash. The survivors must harness the potential of their own consumer waste towards securing a tenuous tomorrow.
You begin the game with a floating water reservoir, three “drifters”, and not much else. Land is scarce and, the game intimates, too dangerous for personal settlement — monstrous tidal waves festooned with deadly garbage regularly sweep away anything that doesn’t float. So, you go about strapping planks to boards and boards to metal and metal to anything else to construct the most immediately necessary tools for feeding yourself and your motley crew of castaways.
Half of the game consists of managing the recollection of trash from floating resource piles. You don’t start with canoes or even rafts, and your crew must paddle into the open waves to bring back the eponymous flotsam. Collecting enough will allow you to build walkways, beds, tool sheds and more, but hauling loads of plastic and driftwood is thirsty work, and fresh water is the literal lifeblood of your fledgling community.
Thus enters the second of Flotsam’s interconnected systems: worker management. They know work means the difference between life and death, but everyone must eat, drink and sleep at some point. Neglecting any of those essential needs for long could kill your community members, dealing a substantial blow to everyone else’s chances, as well. It is absolutely in your best interests to care for the wellbeing of your dedicated drifters while also fostering the growth of your floating village.
If Flotsam sounds grim, it leavens the reality of the situation with a hand-drawn graphics style that makes everything, from mascot Steven Seagull to the plastic drum barrels floating in the ocean ooze charm. A soundtrack full of slow, twangy banjo keeps the mood mellow, even when you’re down to four units of water and the damn wood won’t dry fast enough. The developers could very well have leaned into the dismal, hellish reality of existence after the fall of modernity, à la Frostpunk, but the cheery cartoon veneer is just the coating on a bitter pill: things do not get easier.
After constructing your first boat, you might feel a rhythm to Flotsam: set buoys to direct your drifter’s scavenging efforts, assign someone to desalinating water and another to construction and upkeep of your floating barge-city. You might even delight at finding a pair of stranded folk on an island as you progress through the game’s maps. Many hands make light work, of course. But those hands are powered by bodies, and I felt the strain on my already meager food and water stores immediately.
At it’s best, Flotsam leaves players torn between two or more decisions to address vital community needs. That dried wood could be used to build a third boat, allowing you to bring in more resources. But that same wood should probably fuel the water purifier since almost everyone’s thirst meter is bottoming out and your storage is in the single digits. There is no wrong decision in how to use the trash you collect, an evil and delightful truth.
Unfortunately, Flotsam doesn’t offer much to do beyond the constant struggle to survive. Each map sports points of interest that your drifters can explore, bringing back salvage, survivors or technology you can invest in more powerful facilities. But those looking for a story or some narratively satisfying finish line will be disappointed. The meager progression map will sometimes offer a choice of two locations — each promising a rich vein of one resource or another — but survival is an end in itself.
Flotsam is ultimately a strong, engaging skeleton of a city builder with little meat to chew on once you understand the interactions between its major systems. That’s not to say the grind becomes easier — quite the opposite — but those not already interested in the genre may want to wait until Pajama Llama fills its seas with more interesting sights.