Port Royale Review

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Publisher: Tri Synergy
Developer: Ascaron

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium III 1.2 GHz, 256 MB RAM, DirectX 7 compatible video card, 4.5 GB HD space, internet connection, Windows 98 or more recent operating system

The high seas of the Caribbean during the 16th and 17th Century: filled with traders, buccaneers, pirates, and you, a young adventurer setting out to build his fortune with only a ship and a meager sum of money. Port Royale is a trading and sea battle sim that allows you to produce and trade your own goods, hunt down pirates or other ships, and eventually become the governor of your own town.

Robin Kwong

Port Royale's main attraction lies in its detailed recreation of the world of 16th and 17th Century Caribbean Sea. This is not meant in the Grand Theft Auto sense of letting you see, steal and otherwise interact with every object in that world, but in the conceptual sense that everything is tied into a system that runs according to certain rules, and you're free to act within that system. It is important to keep this idea of reality in mind because making your fortune on the high seas is no easier than making your fortune in this day and age, and you could easily become frustrated and feel that the game is 'out to get you' by imposing artificial challenges. Port Royale rewards your patience.

You are plunged into this world with a small ship and a meager sum of money. You'll select an alliance with one of four nations (Spain, England, Holland and France) vying for power in the new world, and depending on which era you choose to start at, those nations control differing number of colonies in the Caribbean. Towns exist in various sizes, but all come complete with a few basic structures – an inn, a market, a dock, a dockyard, different businesses and living quarters. What differs from town to town is the locals' expertise in producing different goods. A town may be efficient when it comes to tobacco production, but have no means of growing grain.

This, naturally, creates opportunities for trade, and the trading system in Port Royale is great. The price of a particular commodity is solely determined by supply and demand. The more of a good there already is in a town, the less the inhabitants will pay for it, and vice versa. What enriches this basic model is not only that different towns consume goods at different rates (for example towns with a governor in them have a high demand for colonial goods because they send periodic shipments back to the Old World), but also that there are a legion of other traders plying the high seas. Like you, the AI traders are constantly looking to service acute shortages, and it is by no means uncommon to arrive at a town only to find that they have already driven the prices down. These traders also own businesses and houses, and while it has no noticeable impact on game play (there are too many of them to keep track of), the ability to click on any business in any town and find out who owns it adds an interesting level of detail.

Beyond the Invisible Hand

There is plenty to do in the Caribbean aside from making trading runs between towns. Governors and people hanging out in the inns often have quests that the player can take on for various rewards. You can build your own businesses (by supplying the raw materials rather than paying a set amount of money, which adds a realistic touch) to supplement your trading empire. There are notorious pirates that nations will pay a bounty for, and adventurous players can hunt down other merchant ships for fun and profit. This can be done either by purchasing a Letter of Marque (legalized looting of ships belonging to a particular enemy nation) or by turning pirate and looting indiscriminately, though that is a risky and difficult path. Finally, there is a central plot line surrounding the death of the player's parents, which is advanced by gaining experience and rank, and also by completing certain missions. In the end, the game can be "won" by becoming the governor of a town, although this somewhat arbitrary goal is but one (and maybe not even the most compelling) motivation for advancing in Port Royale.

While ostensibly the player has the freedom to choose his own path, this choice is not really available until at least a few hours into the game. Building one's own businesses might seem like a great idea, but regular payments for wages and building maintenance will quickly run players into debt unless they already have a steady source of income. Quests are not really viable in the beginning either, as most have a very short time frame for their completion and generally involve running halfway across the map.

The same is true for hunting pirates or even just repelling their attacks. Sea battles can be won either by sinking the enemy's ships or by boarding them. The problem is that in the beginning, it is difficult to avoid being boarded if the enemy is determined to do so, and when a ship is boarded, whoever has more crewmembers wins and captures the other ship. A ship with 20 cannons and 10 crewmembers, for example, will be captured by a ship with no cannons but 60 crewmembers. Employing a large crew, therefore, is crucial to winning sea battles. But crew members demand daily wages, and so once again you need a steady stream of money to support this venture.

At first, you might also notice and be frustrated by the fact that convoys are always attacked by pirates that are one grade better – either having more or better ships. It all makes more sense when you realize that it's not that the game arbitrarily scales up the difficulty to keep things interesting, but rather it is a fact of life that pirates hunt weaker prey. Pirates of the grade your convoy can easily destroy are not likely to come looking for trouble, while those vastly superior your convoy will not deem it worthy of attack.

Maybe too Good

Port Royale admittedly has a steep learning curve, and the functional but not ultimately helpful tutorial is partly to blame for it. However, the perceived difficulty is also the product of a complex simulated game world. Players are used to games where their tasks are structured to gradually increase in difficulty, thus giving them regular milestones for success. This is not reflective of reality, and Port Royale nods at, but ultimately discards this convention. The fact in life is that a lowly merchant, who cannot in the beginning afford to hire a large crew or purchase the newest ship, will be harassed and looted by pirates. A different game might have protected the player by structuring the games such that, for example, players cannot build businesses until they reach a certain point in the game.

While it is true that Port Royale's open and realistic world makes for a difficult and occasionally frustrating time, especially early on, the game succeeds because it manages to preserve a sense of progress and accomplishment. In a minor way, this is experienced as you acquire better ships, and quests require the delivery of larger quantity of goods. Mostly, however, it is in the changing nature of the tasks involved in growing a trading empire. The beginning focuses on micromanaging and following one's sole ship around, the middle to end of the game on more big picture tasks such as tweaking the buy and sell prices for different trade routes and spending more time pursuing quests and building reputation.

There are minor flaws in the game, the most notable being that, despite the lush 2D graphics and the many variables in their make-up (size, types of industry, etc), towns ultimately lack personality. Towns of the same nation look the same and the only qualitative differences are between towns with and without governors in them. Likewise, the side quests are all one-off affairs and appear randomly, so only the main quest offers any interesting plot elements. Sea battles, which are conducted in 3D, are simple and adequate, with only just enough detail concerning wind speed, different types of ammunitions, and maneuverability to make them interesting. Unfortunately, the AI has difficulty handling large fleets and you might find your ships tripping over one another during combat.

Port Royale is not for those seeking easy and instant gratification. Instead it rewards those who are willing to invest the time by providing an in-depth experience of the sixteenth century Caribbean Sea as an intricate system of interconnected factors. It creates a surprising degree of realism through some of the most beautiful 2D graphics to come out in recent years and also an attention to details. It is, in many ways, a revival of old sea-trading games such as Pirates!, and more directly Uncharted Waters 2 on the old SNES system. But it breaks new ground by minimizing the artificial structuring of that world while preserving a sense of progress and accomplishment.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on November 11, 2003 6:22 PM.

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