Port Royale, developed by Ascaron Entertainment, is a game that allows you to sail the Caribbean during the 16th and 17th centuries -- that is, in the place most famous for pirates and during the time period when pirates were the strongest. However, you don’t play a pirate in the game. You don’t even play a basic sea captain. Instead, Port Royale takes a higher level approach to the pirate game genre, and it allows you to hire pirates and merchants to work for you. Does this approach work? Keep reading to find out.
If you ever played the Sid Meier classic Pirates! (or Pirates! Gold) then Port Royale will be familiar. In both games you buy ships and trade goods and hunt pirates (or become a pirate yourself), all the while picking up bits of treasure maps and searching for lost relatives. The main difference between the games is that in Pirates! you played a captain yourself, and your skills determined how well you fought duels and sailed your ships. Meanwhile, in Port Royale you’re more the CEO of a shipping conglomerate. You still gain experience and attain new ranks, but the ranks simply allow you to hire more captains to work for you.
By having multiple captains working for you, that means you can enjoy multiple sources of income. Maybe a couple captains will trade goods to give you a stable flow of gold, while another captain hunts pirates and occasionally scores a big prize. Nicely, the game allows you to automate captains, so they can sell goods without you having to oversee them. That way you can concentrate on what should be the fun part of the game, hunting pirates and merchants.
Except that Port Royale isn’t an action game. It isn’t even really a pirate game. It’s a merchant game with some pirate activities thrown in. So you don’t fight duels (like you do in Pirates!), and while you can control sea battles, if one ship attempts to board another, all you do is watch while the number of sailors on each ship decreases, and eventually one ship gives up. Ho hum. You don’t even have to control the sea battles. The game can quickly decide the outcome for you.
In other words, Port Royale is sort of dry and boring, unless the idea of being a merchant sailor excites you. I had some fun with the game, trading goods and making a profit, but eventually I just felt like I was doing the same thing over and over. Buy rum here, sell rum there, rinse and repeat. However, there are a bunch of quests you can go on -- with everything from exploring new parts of the map to escorting people to different cities to performing military actions -- but there are only so many quests, and eventually they start repeating. The game world is also fixed, including the goods each city produces and needs, and so once you get a feel for it there’s nothing new to see. I would have liked Port Royale better if it had included some sort of random map generator, or, really, if it had included any randomness at all.
Plus, while Port Royale isn’t the most exciting game around, it also has an unfriendly interface. How you group ships together to form “convoys” isn’t exactly intuitive, and you might not even realize you can attack towns in the game. And even areas where you’d expect the interface to work well, like in how you automate sea captains, are sort of a mess. It took me a long time to figure out how to use the automation interface “correctly” so it didn’t simply reset my work.
And then there are some balance issues, like how it seems impossible to keep a convoy of ships stocked with ammunition, that dragged down whatever little fun I was having. So I wouldn’t recommend Port Royale unless you’re looking for a slow-paced game that challenges your brain more than your reflexes, and unless you’re only planning to play an hour or two each night. If you play any more than that, the game will get too repetitive and too boring too quickly.