Bootleg Steamer review

by on May 28, 2024
Reviewed On
Release Date

April 25, 2024


Bootleg Steamer is a roguelike smuggling sim from Junkfish that took me a little while to get my head around. Presented from a top-down viewpoint it lets you select a player character and a ship before kind of just throwing you into the action with little fanfare or direction. Ultimately, your aim is to transport illegal goods while avoiding authorities, exploiting the supply-and-demand economy of Prohibition Era USA.

You zip around in your little boat, buoyed by currents, bouncing off other ships like marbles, hauling whiskey, grain, and all manner of other goods to multiple ports, avoiding the Coast Guard where possible. A run ends with you being arrested enough times to run out of “lives”, though the criteria for getting arrested seems a little uneven. Sometimes the Coast Guard would cotton onto my illegal activities just by smelling my farts on the wind, while other times I’d be laden with exotic goods and bounce clean off them without triggering an incident.

Bootleg Steamer

Like many good roguelikes, the main thrust of Bootleg Steamer is risk versus reward. The more you carry, the more dangerous it is, but the greater your reward when you’re successful. You hire crew to help you accomplish your schemes, but each of these likely lads or lasses comes with their own ups and downs involving the business or the law that governs it. Some are better at hiding contraband, for example, while others have pre-existing beef with either the law or the Mafia.

The difference between “illegal” and “prohibited” goods might not seem like much on paper, but in Bootleg Steamer this definition will determine how quick you get arrested and the level of punishment – though oddly it seems to want to gloss over most incidents, hauling you in, processing you, chucking you in jail and releasing you in a matter of heartbeats.

If you really want to throw caution to the wind and take the big risks, you can organise “boat parties”: illegal shindigs where you sell your illegal booze to the rich and inebriated over the side of your boat, literally pulling up next to them in open water to hock your wares. This is one of the best elements in Bootleg Steamer, as it genuinely heightens the tension. It also gives you something else to work towards, as you can’t attract the hoi-polloi in any old floating tub. You must outfit your boat and raise your Glamour score to bring in the big spenders.

Bootleg Steamer

Which brings us neatly to the other primary element of Bootleg Steamer: the Mafia. It wouldn’t be much of a Prohibition Era crime sim without them, and the Mob are a major player here. They work to increase the aforementioned risk and reward factors, issuing loans and even supplying you with get-out-of-jail cards, though you’ll need to pay back everything they give you or you risk incurring their wrath, too.

It wouldn’t be worth indulging in such a life of crime if there weren’t spoils for you, and the bulk of these come in the form of upgrades to your ship. You can add multiple improvements to your little steamer, increasing the size of the cargo holds, adding secret smuggling compartments, or go smaller and swifter by increasing your speed. There’s a decent level of balance between carrying more and simple delivering faster, which at least gives you multiple progression routes.

Bootleg Steamer

My issues with Bootleg Steamer mainly focus on the way these mechanics gel together; or don’t, as the case may be. While it’s undoubtedly fun to avoid the Coast Guard and make it to port with a hold full of contraband, it’s an often inconsistent and poorly explained experience. There’s a lot going on, and the screen can simply feel too cluttered at times, with boats smashing into one another and half a dozen boxes and icons depicting your cargo and destination. It’s also pretty forgiving for a roguelike, rarely punishing you harshly for failure.

There’s fun to be had, though, and the water-colour art style is gorgeous. The implementation of the Mafia elevates the standard gameplay by giving you the ability to essentially customise each run at a significant risk, but controlling your ship and navigating the numerous menus (with very few keyboard shortcuts, for some bizarre reason) isn’t always smooth or enjoyable. Best in short doses and played at maximum risk, Bootleg Steamer is fairly unique title among the indie releases of the last few years.


Mafia element is great
Some intriguing systems at work
Decent progression options


Can be a little directionless at times
Getting arrested needs more gravitas
AI is all over the place

Editor Rating
Our Score


In Short

Best in short doses and played at maximum risk, Bootleg Steamer is at least fairly unique among the indie releases of the last few years.