Review: Harbor Master

This review is based on the iPhone version of Harbor Master.

Developed by indie team Imangi Studios, Harbor Master is a touch-and-turn strategy game where you steer around boats to rack up cargo drops. It’s fast, frenetic and a whole lot of fun with pick-up-and-play design and a lot of different things to do.

Harbor Master is often compared to Flight Control, and that’s certainly valid. It starts with vehicles of different types which come with unique colours, sizes and movement speeds. Your goal is to hustle the stream of incoming boats to their respective ports by colour, unload their cargo and then whisk them off the map without any collisions along the way. The game picks up in the number of incoming vessels as you accumulate cargo, which leads to some pretty frantic sequences.

What’s really cool is that every level offers a different experience. Now up to 6 maps at the time of this review, the game radically redraws the map and/or drops in a unique mechanic on each level. It starts off with a basic port system with Fishing Bay and some pesky cyclones in Cyclone Island, and then the game goes off in some wild directions. Monster Cove asks you to fend off demons from the depths of the ocean by frantically tapping their tentacles away, and Smuggler’s Reef loads up 2 and 4 unit long boats with cargo of both colours. My personal favourite is Cannon Beach, which gives you a southern mounted cannon to shoot down pirates as they chase around your precious load bearing boats!

It’s all wrapped up in a bright and cheerful visual style that always feels fresh. Colours are bright and lines are very crisp, and the shading/shadows used in Harbor Master give it a really supple feel from menus to the levels themselves. The ambient harbour sounds of seagulls chirping and foghorns in the distance are neat, and the boats themselves sound off succinctly which works well as audio cues, especially when things get hectic.

You can compare yourself to fellow captains with a global leaderboard that breaks down by cargo received, shifts worked and a lot more which all come with your individual rankings. This even segments down to individual maps/ports, if you want info that specific (which I do, as someone who hangs around Cyclone Island and Sturgeon Creek for a lot of my games).

If you want to tweak the settings, there’s an Auto Docking (guides your boat in to the docking bay if it’s already angled on a vector towards it) that you can toggle on or off. The Fast Forward option added in the latest update can also be adjusted with a slider to tweak its effect on the game speed, which becomes insanely fast if you crank it all the way up.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find another Harbor Master fan to try out the multiplayer mode with. It runs on Bluetooth only for local games, and I’m pretty impressed with Imangi’s decision to add it for free in the last update.

Harbor Master is simply a great game, with really solid mechanics and a lot of variety that extends naturally from that foundation. It’s easy to learn and hard to master, and I’ve had tons of fun with this title since picking it up in the summer. The husband and wife team of Keith Shepherd and Natalia Luckyanova have created an experience that only gets better over time as you figure out new and better strategies for each port and the unique wrinkles they introduce, and it’s a game that I heartily recommend to everyone.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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