Genre: Trading/Economic Simulator
Release Date: June 4, 2003
Buy 'PORT ROYALE': PC
European based developer Ascaron Entertainment is starting to show a knack for finding simple little circumstances buried within the history of this great planet and turning them into interesting, fairly accurate strategy games. Their 2001 release of Patrician II featured sea trade based around the exploits of the Hanseatic League, a real life assembly of European sea trading companies very successful around the late 14th century who grouped together for protection as well as monetary gain. Patrician II attempted to simulate some of the pomp and pitfalls from that era, and succeeded in several areas. Patrician II was generally well received, and developed a respectable following amongst gamers of multiples preferences and tastes.
Rather than go off in a totally new direction, Ascaron went right back to the same general idea with their latest offering, Port Royale. Released a few months ago, Port Royale features the same basic premise of real time sea trading and profiting as Patrician II, but does so in a much more streamlined way. This streamlining has the welcome effect of making the entire game world feel wide open to the player. Go anywhere, do anything.
Port Royale is generally played out on a large map, in this case a large chunk of the Caribbean. The map features most of the major coastal cities and towns that existed in this part of the world in the 17th century, which is roughly the time frame the game takes place. You start out the game with one sailing ship, a little gold, and some high hopes. You visit your hometown, buy some cheap cargo, sail your ship to a neighboring city that is short of the particular cargo you happen to be carrying, sell it to them for profit, and then go back and do it all over again. Whenever your ship pulls into a city or town to do business you’re presented with a bustling community complete with its own needs and wants. As you make more money, you can afford more ships to add to your convoy, bigger ships that can carry more cargo, as well as a host of other things. As you familiarize yourself with the map and the game world, you become more aware of what products towns and cities have and don’t have. Once you get a handle on that, you can build several different item producing businesses, with the idea that you can sell these various items for profit more consistently. As you progress forward, you gain rank, and your reputation impacts how you are perceived in different towns and cities. Rank is gained as you achieve certain monetary and social goals, while reputation is a little more complex. Doing things like creating jobs for people through businesses raises your reputation, while acts like completely buying a town out of a rare commodity lowers it. Depending on how that goes, you may receive missions from local governor’s, or even go on a few missions of your own, looting and pillaging rival traders. In other words, you can be a pirate. And as we all know, being a pirate in a game is usually really, really cool.
But what really brings this game together is the wide open manner in which it is presented to you. There are always several different directions you can go in, many different goals. If you want to make some gold, get the trading machine going. If you’re more interested in missions, focus on combating pirates, which will raise your reputation and bring the governor’s calling. If you want to reach the top, go for it. You might find yourself getting elected governor yourself some day. Of course, should your interests tend more towards skullduggery and subterfuge, the game offers more than a few directions to take that approach in as well. This is one game where you can be a real piss ant and have a ball doing it. Whatever your aspirations, the point is, you have the world at your finger tips.
As with most strategy games, combat plays a role in Port Royale. Combat usually comes about on the high seas, between ships. This can involve pirates, enemy nations, or rival traders. While the sea map and city screens only display the main ship in your convoy, sea battles feature all of the associated ships. From there, it’s simply a matter of firing one of three different types of ammo from your cannons. Each ammo type damages a different part of the enemies ships, targeting either the ships hull, sails, or crew. When in combat, it is important to keep your ships moving, generally as fast as possible. The main goal is to out maneuver your enemy and fire off broadside volleys at them. Wind direction is actually modeled when in combat in the form of clouds, and impacts the fore mentioned maneuvering. One of the tricks of the trade is learning to consistently use the wind to your advantage. Enemy ships can be destroyed and sunk outright, or boarded. If you should be lucky enough to board an enemy ship you have the option to either loot it or take it over, adding it to your fleet. While the combat in Port Royale might not appeal to the hardcore realist or history buff, it fits the scope of this game perfectly. One of the knocks on Patrician II was the amount of micromanagement and sheer excess combat required. It definitely turned more than one gamer off I can tell you that. With Port Royale, the combat is toned down enough so that it’s interesting, yet totally manageable. The only real downside to combat in Port Royale is with the graphics. Where the rest of the game is sprite based, Port Royale’s combat mode employs full 3D graphics. While these graphics don’t look bad, I was expecting a little more in terms of detail. Everything is just a tad bland. Based on what I have seen to this point, I believe 3D was used here more for subtle effects like wind through sails and cloud animations rather than fine detail and explosive pyrotechnics. To that end, it worked, but it would have been nice to have seen Ascaron take full advantage of their decision here. If you’re going to use 3D graphics, then get the most out of them. I’m not saying the combat graphics totally suck; it’s just that when I read that the games combat mode featured 3D graphics I was expecting a little more.
Speaking of graphics, the rest of the game looks fairly good. Games like Port Royale do not require bleeding edge graphics to get the point across, but Ascaron has shown some cleverness in this area as well. Cities and towns bustle with appropriate activity. Bright, vivid colors are used to great effect. Buildings have that weathered European look one would expect of a coastal seaport town. Of particular note with the graphics in this game is the water. The ocean is modeled in Port Royale extremely effectively. The various shades of blues and greens look great, but the whole mass is animated with deep, massive sea swells. Combined with waves crashing against the shore, the effect is quite good. It’s so convincing that I was actually worried about getting sea sick from looking at it for too long. The game does allow you to zoom in when in city or combat view, and the graphics do get quite pixalitious when doing so, but it’s livable, and there’s really no reason to zoom in anyway. Overall, aside from the lack of advantage taken on the combat graphics, the visuals in Port Royale look quite good.
Sound is also decent, for what effect it brings to the game. Notable is the music, which varies between moody orchestration, tropical Hawaiian, and even a couple of Enya inspired odes. The music seems to flow in and out appropriately, showing up when things slow down a little.
There are some downsides to Port Royale, and unfortunately the biggest issue is carried over from Patrician II. Patrician II tried very hard to be a historically accurate simulation of sea trade in its given time period, and at times, it tried too hard. This became the biggest knock on the game. I mentioned the issues with combat in Patrician II already, but this same deluge of details and specifics crept into other aspects of the game as well. Despite the fact that Ascaron really concentrated on this issue with Port Royale, there are still some areas that could be worked on. Issues like having to purchase a builder’s permit each time you want to build something somewhere, or dealing with the games rather demanding and totally unforgiving economy. There are times in the early game and even further in when you’re whole operation is running on fumes. Gold becomes scarce, and a scarce commodity or two you were counting on suddenly shows up en mass. There are a few other instances where this problem arises, but the point is, these complicated interludes take your focus away from the more positive aspects of the game, like making money and antagonizing other traders. This by no means speaks of the entire game, and only affects a few areas over all, but the game can get frustrating when these complications arise.
Other minor issues would be with the games presentation. While the printed manual is decent, the games tutorial is a little on the basic side, and advises you to refer to the various interface buttons tools tips for an idea of what they do. The problem is that Port Royale’s tool tips don’t all work or only work sometimes. It’s a minor issue until you get into buying and selling goods, of which there are a lot. You rely on the tool tips to learn what the various products are, and when they don’t work, it makes it hard to know what you’re doing. It might seem minor here, but it becomes an issue in the game. Some of the missions that show up throughout the game can be extraordinarily complicated, sometimes even giving you unreasonable time limits. The missions themselves are all really cool, so it sucks when plain silliness takes all of the fun out of them.
There was an unfortunate major bug rumor going around the internet regarding this game, but I never experienced anything of the sort. A patch has been issued recently that addresses a few minor issues, but nothing major. I have played the game for many hours now and from what I have seen to this point, the game seems pretty tight.
Ascaron does seem to have things going in the right direction. The company has recently signed a deal with Encore to publish two additional games, which are Patrician III and another game entitled Pirate Hunter. Again, as we all know, pirates are cool. Port Royale is a good game, but because there is nothing totally new or innovative here, I can’t call it a great game, hence the lack of the Worthplaying Award. But for the time being, if real time trading with light doses of city building and historical accuracy is your thing, then Port Royale is the game for you. It’s one of the better titles of its kind currently available.
Score : 8.4/10
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