Midway not only put me in a nautical mood, it reminded me that its designer, Peter Turcan, had released a game relatively recently. Launched in 2017, genre mermaid Trireme Commander garnered bouquets and brickbats in roughly equal measure. THC’s forerunner, The Flare Path, praised its unusual premise and staunch realism, but grumbled about its “curmudgeonly” ways.
In isolation TC’s most frustrating characteristic – its string of padlocked missions – probably wouldn’t have kiboshed sales. However, in combination with a bug that prevented Steam players from finishing an early training exercise, the win-to-progress campaign structure did untold damage to the game’s reputation and commercial prospects. When plaintive forum appeals went unanswered, and patches failed to materialise, many disgruntled customers drifted away.
Fast-forward six years. Niggled by the thought that he may have missed a diamond in the rough, THC’s proprietor reinstalls the world’s only (?) first-person, pre-Christian naval sim, completes the first two training challenges then runs headlong into the bug that ensured most desktop admirals never tasted battle. After an hour of unsuccessful file tampering, he’s on the verge of throwing in the towel again, but decides a direct appeal to the retiring Doctor is worth a shot. The appeal bears fruit (see this post for a simple workaround to ‘the race bug’) and, several days of engrossing fleet action later, here I am seriously considering the possibility that far from being his lame duck, Trireme Commander is actually Peter Turcan’s magnum opus.
Don’t get me wrong. The passage of time hasn’t made the game’s “rough hewn” graphics any more attractive, its camera system any less unintuitive, or its dearth of customisable difficulty and realism settings any less disappointing.
The camera in the dowdy, shadow- and sailor-less TC is manipulated with a mad mix of on-screen icons and the mousewheel. Want to switch to a chase view of your flagship? Click icon ‘A’ in the the bottom-left of the screen. Fancy looking aft at deck level? Click icon ‘B’. Want to zoom in on the closest vessel in your periplus, diekplus, or kyklos? Rotate the mousewheel whilest holding down the RMB (because rotating the mousewheel on its own, pans the view). Need to tilt the camera? Cursor the southern or northern quadrant of the compass rose in the top-left corner of the screen (C)!
Once you’ve grown accustomed to its eccentricity, the view system actually works well enough, but for the first day or two it’s guaranteed to cause fumbling and frustration.
“There are no features that enhance the capabilities of the triremes to make the simulation more exciting, fast, explosive, fiery or whatever. Playing the game should educate the user to the point where they understand clearly the mechanics of triremes and the tactics and pace of the battles.” (Peter Turcan, 2017)
As the dev’s admirable devotion to realism didn’t prevent him providing a time acceleration toggle (very useful considering the cruising speed of triremes and the massiveness of the game’s single Aegean venue), and a de-facto telescope, and allowing us to switch vantage points at will, it’s not clear why he didn’t also supply toggleable ship icons and a more useful chart. Telling friend from foe at distance is almost impossible, and larger scenarios like the Battle of Salamis are incredibly confusing without an icon-dotted overhead view. Personally, I don’t mind the dense, non-negotiable Fog of War, but offering a few optional battle legibility aids really wouldn’t have hurt.
New camera controls, a better map, clickable AARs, replays, a skirmish mode, a pdf manual*, playful porpoises … it’s not hard to come up with a list of features that would improve TC, but this forgotten one-off is far more than sum of its various flaws.
* Instruction comes in the form of short narrated and illustrated lectures
Over the last fortnight my fondness for Trireme Commander has grown kelp fast. Able to participate in its biggest engagements – one of which involves around 170 ships – at long last, I’ve witnessed time and time again the game’s ability to generate exhilaration, satisfaction, confusion, panic, and awe, sometimes within the span of a single scrap.
The adrenalin surge I experienced the first time I ordered my invisible rowers to accelerate to ramming speed, still kicks in when I issue the command today.
The sense of power that came the first time I saw dozens of subordinate vessels manoeuvring into parallel diekplus lines at my bidding, has proved just as enduring. In last night’s fracas, my heart genuinely skipped a beat when, moments after executing a successful ramming attack, I glanced aft and saw a previously unnoticed enemy warship about to return the favour. Bearing down on an opposing kyklos is one of the game’s most memorable rites of passage. The dread and excitement that accompanies such an action are exquisitely and inextricably intermingled.
If you’re not careful, your first attack can be your last in a TC scenario. While it’s rare for a single ram impact to send an undamaged trireme to the bottom, reckless manoeuvres can leave your floating command vehicle hopelessly enmeshed in a knot of stricken craft. There’s a crude‘disentangle’ order which endeavours to jerk your ship free, but it’s not wholly reliable and even if you get loose, you remain vulnerable to further collisions until you gain speed and turning space.
Collisions and chaos are part and parcel of TC and must be accepted if fun is to be had. The AI captains who respond to your signal flags aren’t automatons. Formations can take a long time to take shape and are often pretty untidy when complete. Manoeuvre violently in close proximity to fleetmates and sometimes you’ll lose momentum, crew, and hull integrity as a result.
It would be remiss of me to recommend the £14 Trireme Commander without mentioning in passing the AI (generally dangerous and unpredictable) and the steering mechanics (sophisticated thanks to the modelling of asymmetric oar actions). And if I dabbed ‘publish’ without pointing out that the game features two of my favourite wargaming wavs (the rhythmic sounds of dipping oars and creaking rowlocks) that would be very wrong too.