Publisher: Atari /1C Company
Release Date: November 7, 2007
The box for Akella's Swashbucklers: Blue vs. Grey is a lot more exciting than the game. Promising an exciting budget-priced adventure on the high seas in the midst of the Civil War, the packaging gleefully describes what could be a privateering first from a developer that has had plenty of experience in building pirate sims. Budget games aren't necessarily bad, as the price can often hide a well designed title behind the numbers, but in this case, scurvy might be a more entertaining alternative.
The American Civil War rages on land, but on the waves, there are opportunities everywhere for someone with the right connections. Cast in the role of an unlikely cowboy hat- and poncho-wearing pirate by the name of Abraham Gray, you're eventually approached by both the North and South to run a few jobs that require someone to raid ships, carry goods into blockaded ports, and generally make a nuisance of himself on the high seas.
Swashbucklers feels like a Saturday morning cartoon that's trumped by the occasional F-bomb, not that you would actually hear any of this. Everyone speaks in a hilariously awful mumble that passes for speech, and I found myself quietly wishing for the sound cues that the 8- and 16-bit console JRPGs use for each character. Fortunately, the music does a much better job at delivering more pirate-filled moments than the rest of the presentation.
The characters are shallower than a beach at low tide, and the main character's split personality (not schizophrenia) exists more to excuse the fact that he travels alone than provide badly needed material for Swashbucklers' tongue-in-cheek approach to the vapid story. At one point, you have to choose whether you'll fly the colors of either the North or the South, and the story changes appropriately enough until the end, but the potential of the setting is not only squandered by the awful dialogue but also by just about everything else.
Swashbucklers' cartoony graphics style might also seem charming until you dismember your first enemy and send his limbs and head flying in opposite directions, earning the game's Mature rating. You won't need a Crysis-rated rig to run the dated, although creative, graphics that leave nothing else to see after the first hour. Savannah, Ga., might look exactly like three or four other "cities" in the game, which is a joke in itself since Swashbucklers' idea of a city is a handful of locations that could fit into a village. Saving your game happens at the sheriff's office, and to make things more "fun," not every city has one.
Most cities provide an opportunity to buy new weapons, outfit your ships or purchase new ones, trade goods, or box with the locals. Every time Abraham enters a building, a quick cut scene has to play out; this is tolerable at first, but as the game wears on, it can really get on your nerves when you realize you can't skip it. There's also some kind of delay with the menu when you leave a location. The basic game controls are easy to get a grip on, and it's a good thing, too, since you're unable to change them, aside from selecting one of two predetermined schemes from the buggy menu. There aren't any camera controls, either, as a fixed camera follows along for the ride everywhere you go.
Once you've had enough of the exciting city life, it's time to get a taste of the salty air with a little piracy. You sail from city to city across a 3D map, watching other ships wander around in the Gulf of Mexico or along the Confederate coast. There's even a small display showing what time of day it is and a number that represents how many game days have actually passed, not that either really matters since everything remains sunny and bright in the Caribbean, and no one will sail out to tell you that you're spending too much time playing.
Not every city can be visited, however, as the South suffers from a naval blockade of her ports, which you can eventually challenge. As for all of the other ships that you'll see on the waves, you have the option of letting them pass or tearing them apart with your cannonballs. Swashbucklers will give you an idea of how hard the battle will be, although it really comes down to how powerful your ship is as opposed to how smart the AI is ... which is about the same for every ship, just like everything else in the game.
Combat switches the point of view to a close-up of both you and your would-be victim. The arcade-like sea battles are pretty fun; cannons, mortar shells and even rockets are hurled between you and your opponent. Movement is still handled by the WASD keys as you speed up or slow down in an attempt to chase your foe. With enough money, you can also choose to outfit your ship with a variety of weapons, upgrade its armor, carrying capacity, and fit it with a steam engine as a booster to chase your foes around — as long as you don't overheat and blow it up. The graphics and sound effects are much better on water: damaged vessels burn, sails get torn apart, and masts shatter and collapse.
As long as you have a decent ship, every battle, including the final one, can be a cakewalk, which is too bad since what passes is the most exciting part of the battle, if not the game. If you've managed to shred more than half of the enemy crew with your guns and are within close enough proximity, you'll get a chance to board their ship. Most every boarding action goes like this: fight through two rounds of the most inept crew on the Seven Seas until you can fight the idiot leading the charge.
Boarding an enemy vessel will introduce you to Swashbucklers' idea of Errol Flynn as you fight through two rounds of enemy crew members by mashing your mouse buttons to have Abraham swing and slash his way through a Dynasty Warriors-inspired melee of cloned sailors and officers as he tries to reach the captain. You can even shoot your foes with a trusty, useless sidearm, but it's easier and faster to slice and dice the enemy instead. First aid kits and food keep you healthy, thanks to a handy inventory that you can access in battle. After boarding a few other ships, you realize that not a lot of time was spent in making them look remotely like the ones you've attacked.
Once you've made your way to the captain, a "duel" begins that can be won by simply doing the same move over and over again as long as you have the energy to keep swinging. To make it a bit more challenging, you can't use your inventory to heal up or equip other weapons. One of three different captains will face off against you, and all of them fight in exactly the same way, turning what should be an exciting fight into a dull exercise.
Winning allows you to do whatever you want with the ship. You can grab its cargo, weapons, take it over, burn and sink it, or auction it off for cash that you'll get a day or two later. Attacking ships for their stuff is a good way to earn fast cash, as long as you aren't bored to tears by the experience.
You can even box for cash, but since your opponent is as smart as rocks, the boxing game boils down to mashing your mouse button, resting to recover energy, and mashing some more until your enemy is knocked out. The unique boss encounters show off the more creative side of the developers, but they hardly pose a challenge to any player who can keep up with Pong. There's really nothing to fear here, and once you learn how to block attacks, enemies practically leave themselves open to getting skewered.
The "advanced RPG" elements of Swashbucklers will make any role player snicker when he sees just how advanced they really are. You earn experience points for killing bad guys, taking on and completing delivery jobs, and sinking enemy ships; earning levels give you a chance to improve your fencing, shooting and damage soaking skills. Improvements in those areas hardly feel like they actually do something, though, which makes this feel like a weak attempt to empower the player.
Daring to borrow from a real RPG like Fallout, players can earn "perks" whose icons show off the best graphics in the game, if only because I like Fallout. Unfortunately for you, this system is just as broken as most everything else. There's no way to know in advance what perks will lead to, so you have to hope that you don't screw up your character and guess which of the four rows on the upgrade screen represent what you want. Some of the perks make combat considerably easier than it already is, allowing you use savage moves that litter the decks with blood and body parts. Others make your ship deadlier or allow you to move faster on the world map.
Money is easy to earn, but you'll usually end up with more than you'll ever need. The only time that you'll ever need cash is to perform upgrades on your boat since the selection of items that you can purchase and equip Abraham with aren't even worthy of being sold at the newbie store found at the beginning of RPGs. By the time I finished Swashbucklers, I had nearly half a million in game money and nothing to spend it on.
The ending breaks the fourth wall by coming right out and saying that the loose threads might be finished in a possible add-on. When the main character asks what he should do now, his "inner voice" tells him (as part of a joke) that he could continue trading for as long as he wants. How funny that might be to you will depend on what else you could have purchased instead. There's no multiplayer offered, not that I had expected any, and there's little else to look forward to. At least the game is stable and didn't crash once while I was playing, which was nice.
For the budget price at which Swashbucklers is sold, you can easily pick up something that offers far more for your dollar, such as one of Akella's other pirate titles that doesn't suffer from the repetition, empty storyline, and RPG system that teases the player with options while gambling with character development. Piracy on the high seas should be filled with exciting ship battles, cunning villains, and ports of call that invoke the imagination. Instead, we get a bargain basement title with more press than gameplay … and where the only piracy practiced might be the time that it steals from your day.
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