Yo heave ho … A pirate I was meant to be, trim the sails and roam the sea.
Genre: Action, Adventure, RPG
Release Date: 25 May, 2021
Ahoy there Matey’. One of the first pirate games I played was the Monkey Island series, and it was more pirate themed than pirate gameplay. I tend to make references to that series often in my reviews, admittedly sometimes shoehorned a bit in, but still relevant if you look at it in just the right way. Sid Meier’s Pirates was probably my first true pirate game. I have enjoyed many pirate games over the years, sometimes as Cap’n and sometimes as bilge rat, some better than others and each handle things a little differently. Since I was playing King of Seas just prior to launch I feel this is likely a good reflection of the released version.
That Voodoo That You Do
The story of the game is an interesting enough one. There is quite a bit of exposition early on but eventually you get to the gameplay. The basic idea is that you are wrongfully accused of high treason and escape to a life of piracy as you attempt to clear your name. Your former friends are now your enemies, and your former enemies are your friends. You also get little snips of side stories if you do the optional side quests but the stories there are more or less just there for ambiance. The various secondary gameplay elements are tied to story progression, so it is best to find a blend of story progression and resource building. Hopefully being hung from the yardarm or walking the plank is not part of the plans.
The gameplay is your standard fare for the genre. Ship to ship combat, exploration, treasure hunting, fishing and resource trading around the various small islands. You also have the ability to take over the settlements on the islands as well if you are daring enough to take on the fort. Once you control the fort, a fairly steady stream of allies will start replacing the neutral or enemies that previously spawned from that settlement. Docking at a settlement saves your game and gives you access to the various shops and services.
The ship is where you will spend most of your time, so it is a good thing you can customize your ship to your tastes and playstyle. There are several ship types available that run the gambit of typical ship classes. Picking the ship that best meets your need at any given time is likely something you should be doing. You can own each ship, but only utilize one at time. The various things you equip to your ship change its appearance which is a rather welcome addition. The sails and the hull are the most obvious when things change simply because of their relative size, but the finer details of your ship change too.
Besides just firing off the ol’broadsides at your foes you also have a number of special abilities you can equip and use. One I am particularly fond of is “Welcome to Hell” which basically launches a fireball at the nearest enemy ship regardless of which direction you are facing relative to it. It is great in a pinch if your hull is a bit too damaged to continue exchanging cannon balls although it can miss and it does have a longish cooldown, if it hits it will set the enemy ship on fire for a little while. I also like Haunted Ship as well as it almost feels like cheating to deploy it when enemy ships are too close to you.
The Open Seas
Sailing around the areas can take a bit of time especially if you are in a large slow ship fighting against the wind with damaged sails. It can be hard to find your away around until you have purchased a few map pieces from the cartographer as you will basically be sailing blind until you have a map of the area. As you sail though you will encounter the wrecks of other ships for you to loot, debris and hidden treasures for you to collect as well as fish to catch. It isn’t all sunshine and fair weather though; you will often encounter storms, pirate hunters and a plethora of kraken tentacles.
The cartographer was an interesting idea for the game, but I have to say I did not like it. The idea was that you are incapable of drawing your own map, so even if you visited an area, you are still completely clueless of where it was until you visit the local cartographer and pay to have him draw on your map. In theory this is not bad, but each segment of the map has a cartographer associated with it, so you will find him and visit and pay the guy every time you encounter a new area (assuming you want the map to update.) I feel it would have been better to have the cartographer being there to fill in your map for you if you are too lazy to chart it yourself or to perhaps also sell tips to treasure locations. Maybe bring him a map you found and have him help narrow it down for you, or something other than just doodling a tiny area on your map (and he only did the area he was in, no other areas, you have to find him again for those areas).
Fishing is both interesting and annoying. It is easy enough to find fishing spots, and the type of fishing spot even has a different colour sparkle to let you know the rarity of the fish, typically the type of fish you catch doesn’t matter as they all sell for gold anyway although some are worth more, it ultimately makes little difference with how quick and easy fishing is to complete. However, trying to complete the quests to get better rods was quite a long and painful process for me. I sailed around the world twice to get each type of fish I needed. For the next tier I ended up going around the world at least three times hunting down the fishing spots to get the elusive final fish type I needed. For the next tier… well I never did finish that, despite stopping at all the highest rarity fishing spots I could see I just couldn’t get the last fish type I needed. I also gained over 10 levels just through fishing (and fighting off the occasional pirate hunters) trying to complete this quest. Arrr I could have quaffed a good slosh of grog after that trying experience.
Some of the quests were a bit tiresome as well, especially before you had a proper map. Seeing a red X on the map told you the basic area to find the target in, but often you could be sitting right on the red X and nothing would be there or there would be a possible target there, you engage it in combat and it turns out it wasn’t the ship you were looking for. Now I get the fact it is just a general area marker, but sailing in circles trying to find the ship can get a bit tedious, especially when you see the red X has now moved and now you have to chase after it and repeat the search again. The actual main story quests versions of these mission worked much better than the optional side quests though. The funny thing about the main story missions where the enemy will come to you once you are in the correct area is that you can kite them. Dropping explosive barrels or using other abilities that do not require you to aim in any particular direction as you sail away from them (and towards your near by fort if there is one!) I had a lot of fun using the fastest ship in the game (with very weak hull and very few cannons) against the biggest ships I could find and just had them chase me, unable to catch me, until I whittled away their health or lead them to my stronghold where my fort, towers, and allied ships were waiting for them.
The overall gameplay of the game was quite fun although very repetitive. There is enough freedom in the game that you can always find something else to do if you get bored of doing any one thing. Once I got the hang of it, I particularly enjoyed the challenge of capturing forts. Sometimes they were laughably easy with a lucky hit or they could be painfully hard. I managed to take out a merchant fort with a single volley of the broadsides of my galleon by parking directly next to it while it was neutral and opening fire. Other times when I tried this tactic I either sank or almost sank. It was actually hilarious when I took out the fort in a single volley because the cry for help drew in two navy ships (like it always does when you attack a port) and since the fort and port were under my control already, they arrived just in time to have all the cannon towers begin firing on them. The hit detection on towers and forts is a bit iffy, and sometimes natural formations also get in the way, but even when there are no obstructions the damage the fort/tower takes seems random at times. I experimented by parking between a fort and a tower and firing on both and seeing how much damage I did. Despite the fact I never moved, the damage I did varied greatly, sometimes it was marginal damage, other times it was catastrophic or somewhere in between. Originally when I first started attacking forts, I was doing strafing runs but found I was “missing” a lot, however after carefully watching my cannon balls fly (sometimes to the point of crashing my ship) it showed visually that they were hitting, but they were not really doing any significant damage. This led me to believe maybe hitting a specific part of the fort/tower caused more/less damage, so I started parking to test it with careful aiming. It didn’t really seem to make a difference and ultimately parking my galleon and unleashing as many volleys as I could before trying to escape and repair was the most effective tactic for expediently taking a fort. Often I could take the fort just before sinking and then could sail to the newly captured port and repair before the enemy reinforcements arrived.
Ramming Speed, Brace for Impact We Are Going to Crash!
Let’s talk about crashing. One of the tactics you can do in the game is ram other ships. Crashing into the side of the enemy ship with the bow of your ship does damage to both ships, however, the one being sideswiped definitely seems to take more damage. You also can run into the scenery, sinking ships, etc. and do minor damage to yourself if you are not careful. I actually ended up sinking once because I didn’t turn sharp enough and clipped the shore hard enough to finish off my badly wounded ship.
However, that is not the kind crashing I want to talk about here. Until level 35 or so, this game ran smoothly without any issues. I did not see any patches occur, and I had no system updates that changed anything however, around level 35 the game became quite prone to crashing. Invariably when it did occur it was when you were in combat. I am not sure if it was an enemy ability being used that caused the fatal error, if it was something I was now using that I didn’t before, or if it was linked to a skill I upgraded because I did quite a few around that time. I often had to redo battles because I could not save in time due to the game crashing. Going through an extended siege with a particularly problematic fort just to have the game crash in the final moments was painful to say the least. Now I am playing the pre-release version so it is quite possible a day one patch will fix that issue, or it could somehow be an issue with my system that suddenly started happening, but either way it did sap a lot of the fun out of the game. The crashes came quite frequently, I retook the same fort eight times before I managed to save the game. I caught a rare fish I was after and got jumped by a pirate hunter that crashed my game before I could save. I found a treasure map (rare drop) and crashed before I could save it… you get the idea.
The game looks great for the genre. When you are zoomed out there are plenty of things to look at but when you zoom in is when you are in for the visual treat. As mentioned, every time you upgrade your ship your appearance changes. You can see the details much better when you have zoomed in on the ship. The scenery even has nice bits of detail for you to take in as you sail around such as the various skull shaped rocks, camp sites, bridges, light houses, etc. The characters you meet in the game are all drawn in a kind of comedic style which really adds to the humour and fun of the game.
Pretty much all the dialogue while playing the game is delivered as text on screen. You get to choose which of the two characters you want to play as, but ultimately it didn’t feel like it made much difference. While I didn’t beat the game twice, I did play it through to the end with one character, and played a considerable amount with the other. Whichever character you are not playing shows up periodically in the story, and the characters simply swap roles if you are playing the other character.
The music was dynamic and quite welcome. When you are just sailing around it was peaceful music but if there were enemies near by it would turn more dramatic. The sound effects were all quite suitable as well. Despite the fact you could not board enemy vessels, you would hear the clink of swords as your crew did battle (if using the looting ability). The roar of your cannons firing off or the sound of the various magical abilities all helped bring the experience together.
Controls and User Interface
The user interface I found a bit lacking. While it was easy enough to use, the stick on my Xbox 360 pad didn’t really let me select things all that easily. Often it would jump over what I wanted to go the next one. I was going to chalk that up to my pad being well used, but the same issue also occurred with my Xbox One pad which is pretty much brand new. It wasn’t a big enough deal to care about though. Once thing the game could definitely do better is explaining what things mean. I get that the sword is damage, the shield is defense and the spell like thing is voodoo/magic. However, what I don’t get is what some of the bonuses do. Like leveling my diplomacy skill. I invested multiple points into it and still have no idea what it did for me.
Actually, there are other elements that I am not entirely sure what they did too. The game tells you if you lose too many crew you will fire less cannons. That is fine, but even without any crew remaining on my ship (as evident when docking at a port and hitting the tavern to hire more it said I had 0 crew), I am still able to fire most of them (I would say all, but I am not positive on that). And when my sails are completely torn away, I can still sail quite well, yes albeit marginally slower, but it was barely a noticeable reduction. The same applied to the enemies too though, so it was still fair. This led me to giving defence preferences when upgrading my ship as that was the only stat that really seemed to matter in the grand scheme of things.
Another odd element in the User Interface was the rarity system. Rarity systems are nothing new, and are quite easy to understand, but the rarity system in this game seemed semi-meaningless. Typically, the rarer the item and the higher its level, the better it is. However, in this game that is not always the case. I had items that were higher rarity and higher level be significantly inferior to a much lower level and common item. A great example of this was a level 60 item I got for taking out a level 60 fort. It was purple and I figured well that will be better than what I have surely! So I went to equip it and my level 35 common item I got from sinking a ship while taking that fort boosted all three of my stats more than the level 60 purple.
Speaking of levels, there is one thing I would like to mention about levels. When doing side quests, you will see what the quest rewards will be. Often these side quests will send you to random far away places or have you hunt down specific ship types. By the time you complete the quest, you will often have leveled up and found better stuff than what the quest offered you. This basically means unless you drop everything and do the side quest exclusively, forsaking any other opportunities, odds are high that rewards will be useless to you when you get it. Sure, you can still sell it, but it was hardly worth the bother! It would be nice if the reward scales with your level, rather than being linked to your level when you picked up the quest.
The game recommends against using a keyboard and mouse and it is quite evident why that is. The game handles very badly using the keyboard. This is definitely a game you want to use a gamepad for. The controls in general though are quite easy to understand and the ship handles well. The A button being linked to many things did cause issues at times, but nothing major. Sometimes I would slow down in an attempt to dock or collect something and accidentally trigger my A ability instead of docking/collecting because I drifted slightly too far and the A button switched from action to ability again.
So, should you pick up King of Seas? On the surface it is definitely an enjoyable pirate game. I enjoy games that let me sail around in old ships, and this one did it quite well. The game does get quite repetitive and there are some questionable elements (darn you Cartographer and fish quest!) but overall, it was not bad. If you are looking for a procedurally generated pirate game, then this may be one you will enjoy. There are plenty of customization options available to tailor your ship however you want and with loot being so prevalent you are bound to find something to suit your tastes. The tavern side quest system seemed kind of pointless since the rewards were linked to your level at the time you collected the quest rather than your level when you completed it. Even if it was linked to your level better, with loot being so prevalent it would not have made much difference. I also experienced a fair amount of crashing, as mentioned, I never did figure out what caused that as the game had ran smoothly for days before it started occurring. I did verify my game files, reinstalled the game and tested the game on a second computer and it still crashed there as well so I do not believe it was my system at fault here unless something happened to slightly corrupt my save file. Overall, this is a great start, if this game gets a sequel, I could see quite a bit of potential for growth. For now I shall Save for Later.