Publisher: Ubi Soft
Developer: Three Rings
Release Date: May 5, 2005
Buy 'PUZZLE PIRATES': PC
Before we begin, I make you this solemn vow. Nowhere in the text of this review shall I make any aspersions towards "pirate-ness." I shall not roll my r's, refer to anyone as "matey," nor shall any petards be hoisted, planks be walked, or rum be placed upon the chests of dead personages. Nay, I am professional, and this shall be professional! So let's get on with this already, before parrots overwhelm me and I run off in search of gold.
Puzzle Pirates, silly title notwithstanding, is a unique approach to a concept that's overwhelmed many of the internet's less geeky residents in the last few years. Often referred to as "Pop Cap" games (based on the name of a large developer of them), these are self-contained, simple games based less on any deep strategies or intense action but rather on making attractive games that even Grandma Sally would feel right at home spending a few hours playing. I'm sure that everyone's given up at least few minutes to the things, suckered in by pretty colors and mouse-based interfaces before spending hours at such things as Bejeweled, Mummy Maze, or Zoo Keeper; they're pleasant things with low overhead, and this has been a tenet of their continued success.
Puzzle Pirates pioneers new territory in the "pop cap" game realm. The "pirate" theme is essentially a heavy façade to the game lobby: instead of simply throwing some text at players in a fashion more native to IRC users, it builds a world around the games. Players are pirates on an infinite sea, set out to see the sights, buy the clothes, and play the night away. Sure, it's very simple; character creation is underwhelming when compared to, say, EverQuest II or World of Warcraft, but that's comparing apples to oranges – Puzzle Pirates is massively multiplayer only in the strictest sense of the term. Via very simple graphics, limited animation, and only the barest of sound effects, the world of the pirates is large, bright, and easy to navigate. The interface itself is built around the easiest of all inputs — the mouse. The games themselves use unique input for each, but all strive for that same simplicity, using the mouse when possible and when not, as few keys as possible.
Some games are takes on a standard or just the standard itself: Swordfighting is a variation of Columns, while Bilgepumping and Drinking Contest are Bejeweled and Alchemy. Others are completely unique: the pipe tracing and color-mixing insanity of Alchemy is one of my favorites, while Brewing is somewhat less fun due to a complex set of rules. There's also a set of card games, such as Spades or Hearts, just to round out the pile. Time limits are applied to each game in some manner or another — some with physical timers, others with just fixed rounds — but these are simply in place to keep things moving and add a touch of intensity.
Each game carries a set of rewards with it: performance yields experience, allowing you into harder puzzle sets and most of all, the money rewards that go with. Money is the only collectible item, and can be traded in for clothing and other items. Customize your pirate, get a few items here and there to make yourself look cool, or get an edge in certain games, and really just have a blast. A chat system is keyed on top of the whole fandango to allow quick and easy communication between all the connected players; it features all the requisite minutiae of any MMO chat system: friends, groups, bans and ignores, highlights, and all the rest. At the highest point, it's akin to Yahoo! Games or MSN Gaming Zone, done with more polish and a centralized theme.
There's even some strong technological merit in this package. Those who scan the box will see the usual subjects: the little window indicating Windows-compatibility alongside the MacOS X icon. What's more unusual: the penguin arm-in-arm with them. Puzzle Pirates is entirely Java-based, meaning while it carries an extremely heavy resource footprint (several hundred megabytes of RAM), it ensures that any system with a current version of the Java libraries can play it — even Linux users. Linux support is still very uncommon, even after years of development, so it's interesting to say the least. It also means that no matter what kind of machine the player is using, so long as it's at least modestly current, it'll probably play Puzzle Pirates well enough. This, of course, is all sheer fluff to the target audience: Aunt Tilly and Mother aren't going to really care one way or another if you can play in that "luneks" thing, just that you can get in there and play some Shipwrighting.
Now it may have occurred to you: "MMO usually means pay-to-play", and sadly, Puzzle Pirates is no different than the norm. A nominal monthly fee is required to keep sailing the Seas Of Fun; while not more than the mainstream, some may raise an eyebrow at paying $120 a year to play what they can get for free from, say, Pogo.com. It's worth it, really, just for the social elements and extremely professional design of the whole thing. If you're insistent on taking at least a few dollars off the overall price, the client can be downloaded for no charge from the Puzzle Pirates website (where it's been available since the initial release). Players who buy the boxed edition get some free items and 15 days of free play time, though you can redeem a CD key at any time during your subscription for those bonuses.
And there it is: Puzzle Pirates takes several well-established internet games, mixes in some excellent new ideas, and ties them all together with a friendly, simple theme that's interesting, fun, and certainly inoffensive. It won't grab the focus away from Half-Life 2 or reduce the sheer fervor over World of Warcraft, but it isn't even trying to. Instead, Three Rings has done what The Sims did for offline play: create an environment and playstyle that appeals to those who don't commonly play games while still presenting enough elements for the average gamer. This package is excellently put together, and worth a look for any player who enjoys a bit of puzzle fun now and again without any major overhead. Three Rings should be commended for going in uncommon directions, and I'm excited to see where Puzzle Pirates goes from here.
And I never said "arr" once!