Publisher: Atari /1C Company
Release Date: November 20, 2007
Do you remember when "Star Wars: Episode One" came out? It had been over 20 years since the first movie was released, and Star Wars fans everywhere were ready to revisit the universe. They came out in droves and waited hours for tickets, ultimately to be disappointed by what they felt was a lackluster attempt by George Lucas to recreate his accidental masterpiece. Swashbucklers: Blue vs. Grey falls along the same line. Going into it, everything you know about this game tells you that it should be incredible, but ultimately, weak presentation and boring gameplay cause it to fall apart.
In Swashbucklers, you play as Abraham Grey, the captain of a private vessel sailing the Caribbean Sea during the Civil War. According to the title, the North has put blockades in place at all southern port cities to prevent trade, creating a new breed of pirates and smugglers. As you play through the game, you're pulled into the war and join either the North or the South, creating more problems than solutions. If this game concept sounds original and fun, you're not alone. When I read the back of the case, I was thrilled with the awesome setting for a pirate story. I got myself hyped up because I was convinced that this game was going to blow me away.
I was sadly mistaken. The gameplay in Swashbucklers takes place in two areas: land and naval battles. Land battles are, of course, fought against a group of enemies that will taste either your blade or your bullets. Naval battles pit your ship against the enemy as you try to outmaneuver them while simultaneously firing your weapons. After you've reduced the opposing ship to about half-power, you're given the option to board it, and it becomes one of the previously mentioned land battles.
The main problem with the gameplay is that both types of battle are incredibly boring. In land battles, you basically hit the same button over and over while swinging your sword at anything that moves. Auto-targeting takes the majority of the strategy out of it, as you just continue to hammer that one button to cut down enemy after enemy. On occasion, you'll meet up with the captain of the opposing ship or perhaps the leader of the gang you're fighting, and you'll be treated to a duel.
Now, duels provide a bit more strategy as you use high, low and special attacks in combination with high and low blocks to whittle away your opponent's life bar. On top of this, you have an energy meter that depletes with every attack. If you run out of energy, all of your attacks slow down, leaving you open to the enemy's blade. While this seems interesting, it's really not. Quickly, you learn that every duel plays out exactly the same: You attack until your energy runs out, block until your energy refills, rinse and repeat.
Naval battles are a little more interesting, as you have a little more freedom in your movement and your weapon selection. Every ship comes equipped with a set of cannons that will rip through your opponent's hull. However, there are a variety of special weapons that you can equip, which all have their strengths and weaknesses. The mortars do an incredible amount of damage, but they're really slow, where whereas the Gatling gun can do a lot of damage, but you need to be extremely close to use it effectively. Truth be told, however, the different guns don't have much of an effect on the battle. What's really important is the type of ship you're using, which brings me to my next big complaint about the game: the balance of difficulty.
Swashbucklers is an RPG and, as such, a lot of emphasis is placed on leveling and building up your character. The problem is that the game basically hits you over the head when you need to power-level. At some point in the game, you'll hit a wall that you just can't get past. No matter how many times you try, you just won't be able to beat a certain mission or defeat a certain ship. At this point, your only option is to spend some time leveling or earning enough money to buy a new ship and trying the challenge again. That's not the bad part, though, because every RPG has power-leveling and difficult points. No, the big problem with Swashbucklers is that when you finally get over that wall, the pendulum swings in the other direction and the game becomes way too easy. It'll continue to be way too easy until you hit another wall and the game becomes impossible again.
The questing system is also kind of odd. You have two types: story quests and side quests. The former usually has you earning your keep by attacking or defending something important to each side of the war, while the latter generally involves transporting goods or escorting diplomats from one location to another. The problem is that the game only lets you take on one quest at a time. Now, one story quest I can understand, but I have no idea why I can't take on two side quests or take on one side quest in the middle of a story quest ? especially since a quest is often impossible to beat without having to level up a bit. The game would've been much more accessible if I could have put my story quest on hold to take up some side work to level up a bit.
The leveling up system in Swashbucklers is pretty standard RPG stuff. With each level, you get a point to sink into fencing, shooting or defense. You also get to pick a "perk," which enhances something about your character. For example, one perk is called "Lucky One," and it increases the amount of loot you score from land battles. As the levels move on, the perks get incredibly useful, and the game starts to actually feel playable, but at about that time, the campaign is almost over and you're left wondering why they didn't offer this to you earlier.
Leveling also controls which items are available to you at any given point. This gets incredibly annoying, as each level requires you to revisit each shipyard and weapon store to find out if you've unlocked any sweet gear. This also creates problems in comparison to the opponent because sometimes, you'll go up against some sea captain only to find out that he's using some ship that you've never heard of and is sold in none of the shipyards. Where did my opponent get a "battleship" if none of the shipyards in the Caribbean sell them? If you level up a few levels, though, the game will probably let you buy one. This presents a problem in knowing what ship you should buy. Ships aren't cheap, and it gets very frustrating to buy a ship, upgrade it and install weapons, only to find out that if you had waited one more level, an even better ship would have been available to you.
I've spent a bit of time talking about the innards of Swashbucklers, but let's touch on the presentation, which continues to disappoint. The sound is the first real drawback, as none of the characters are voiced. This, in itself, isn't a bad thing, but the problem is that instead of voices, they make a weird grunting sound, kind of like the adults in the old "Peanuts" cartoons. The first characters you encounter are two drunks, and I was convinced that the reason they weren't actually forming words was because they were off their rockers. Little did I know that every single character in the game talks as if they've had a bit too much whiskey. I can certainly understand why the sound is like this. Akella is a small developer, and this is a pretty easy way to avoid the cost of rerecording dialogue, but it probably would have been better if they had left out voice acting altogether. There are plenty of RPGs that just use text, and they play fine ? scratch that, they're even better because they don't make my ears bleed.
Unfortunately, the graphics are similar to the sound and just aren't up to par. Akella went with a very cartoony, stylized look, and that looks good in the cut scenes. In the actual gameplay, however, everything reverts to a very dull, boring appearance. The character animations are tight, but everything else feels like this should be a PS2 launch title. There are some incredibly severe jagged edges, and all of the items and backgrounds just feel dated. It blows your mind when you play the game and hit the incredible amount of loading screens through which you'll have to suffer in order to see the bland graphics. You'll pull into a port, see a loading screen; move into another section of the town, see a loading screen; enter a bar, see a loading screen; talk to the bartender, see a loading screen; exit the bar, see a loading screen; etc. Mind you, the loading screens are quick, but they break up any flow this game might have and get annoying really fast.
By far the biggest disappointment with Swashbucklers is the story. As I mentioned above, I was really excited to see what they were going to do in this unique setting, but nothing ever really happens. Only a couple of the story quests are held together by any sort of plot, and when you get to the end of the campaign, the only thing that tells you that you've reached the end is the fact that's there are no more story quests to complete. It feels like such a waste for a concept that had such tremendous potential.
Now, I've spent the majority of this review ragging pretty hard on Swashbucklers, but I'm willing to concede that there are a few good things. The dialogue is actually pretty funny; there's a bit of wit in Abraham's cynical outlook, and the interchanges with any characters he encounters is pretty entertaining. The game is also quite lengthy. There are two separate campaigns to complete, and hundreds of side quests to consume your time, if you enjoy the game enough to keep playing it after the campaigns are over. However, neither makes up for the rest of the game, which is just plain bad.
I wanted to like Swashbucklers: Blue vs. Grey; I really did. It was an incredible concept that intrigued me to no end, but the finished product leaves so much to be desired. Between the lackluster story, the poor presentation and the boring gameplay, Swashbucklers leaves you feeling cheated. Even at the budget price of $20, I find it difficult to recommend this game to anyone, even the most stalwart fans of RPGs and pirates.
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