I am not an avid fan of pirate games. That does not mean I do not like them—that is certainly not true either!—merely that “pirate” is not an immediate selling point. Nevertheless, I gave Pirates Outlaws ($0.99) a shot. At worst, it’s a very mediocre disappointment, right? After all, it certainly looked appealing with its pleasing art, card-based gameplay, and rogue-like tendencies.
Fortunately, “disappointment" can hardly be used to describe any immediate aspect of gameplay: The strategy behind selecting and removing cards to best improve the odds of success, weighing one relic’s value against another, and planning out a general path from start to boss are all impactful mechanics and feel well designed. The fundamental mechanics and immediate feedback are all positive and range from well done to acceptable… so where, then, does it fall flat?
Its flaws are quickly noticed, although understanding why they are bad is a little more complex. After completing the tutorial, players are sent to the main screen and tacitly encouraged to look around. Following this advice, players are introduced to the other characters, the majority of which are unlockable by simply playing. Character unlocks start at one thousand gold and increase (ignoring the Admiral, who must be unlocked for $5 of real money). Moreover, all characters after the Sword Master require a minimum reputation of five hundred. Not a big deal, right? Gold can’t be terribly difficult to acquire—repute is probably the real bottleneck. That’s a fair assumption… but, unfortunately, wrong. A quick look at the shop reveals gold for purchase, various boosts (some of which are permanent upgrades) available for a few thousand gold or more, and card booster packs. Okay, maybe the gold rewards are inflated to compensate. It wouldn’t be the first game to do so! But, moving to the play screen reveals three chapters: The first (which is aesthetically similar to the tutorial), and two additions which cost five thousand gold each. In addition to the gold cost, the second chapter requires a minimum of five hundred repute; the third, two thousand. Large numbers are not the exception, they are the norm.
Really, such high numbers wouldn’t even be that bad if completing a voyage offered a few hundred gold as reward. Unfortunately, they simply are not. After finishing two consecutive stages, the gold reward tends to be between one hundred and one hundred fifty gold at most. While the content for a good fifteen or more hours of play is there, it is locked behind painfully high walls. As such, long-term play in Pirates Outlaws is not one great achievement after another, it is a slog. For a game that feels like it wants to be pirate Faster Than Light mixed with single-player Hearthstone, it simply doesn’t deliver enough satisfying progression to incentivise an extensive amount of replayability.
In contrast to the progression, the actual gameplay—killing pirates, optimising the card deck, and plotting a path to the boss—is solid. Each battle is a puzzle requiring strategy and a dash of luck to not only beat the opponents, but beat them with enough health to continue on. While the initial stage can be difficult at times, the real challenge comes from the boss fight at the end. While the fight changes each voyage, the opponent is always a hulking beast of a man sporting far more health, damage, and sometimes armour, than the player. Passing this battle requires careful thought for a skilled player, and no small amount of luck for a poor deck. Should players surmount this obstacle, they are presented with the choice of continuing their voyage—retaining their current action points, deck, relics, and character—or calling it quits and returning to port. Continuing offers the chance of even greater rewards, although the odds are certainly stacked against the player. Returning to port offers the safety of immediately banking gold and repute, which is no doubt a boon for the risk-adverse.
Stage one can only provide so much entertainment and practice, however. Pressing on is a necessity for any kind of substantial progress. For those brave enough to enter stage two, there are new enemies, bosses, and relics available. For those who are able to beat them, and enter stage three… the greatest challenge yet available awaits. While the difficulty in enemies cannot be understated, there is more to it than that: Each successive stage magnifies poor decisions in the prior levels. Continuing on with insufficient action points may result in an inopportune demise with no tavern in sight; taking too many risks in previous battles or events may tax not only the easily replenishable health points but the health maximum as well. Taking every card and discarding none will quickly result in a bloated deck with no easy way to access the necessary cards in a difficult fight. In short, caution and a certain amount of planning is required to travel far with any measure of success.
The basic gameplay fundamentals, while enjoyable, do not entirely make up for the poor progression. As such, Pirates Outlaws is merely a decent game instead of a great game. Turning it into a great game—that is, unlocking the characters and/or chapters based on difficult achievements instead of gold—would require no small amount of effort from the developers, however, and so is certainly not likely to happen.
As such, while it is a fun little game to fill five minutes here or ten minutes there, it isn’t something that is likely to last long-term. While the basic gameplay is fun, the visuals are beautiful, and the broader gameplay loop is enjoyable, the reward system simply isn’t there and it really shows. Perhaps this will change in the future but, more likely, it will not, and the grind for gold will drag Pirates Outlaws down, down to the dark abyss below.
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