Apparently, Pirates: Duels on the High Seas is actually a sequel to a WiiWare title that I hadn't heard of until I sat down to play the DS version. After playing the game for a bit, I could easily see why it slipped under my radar, since Pirates: Duels on the High Seas is very unremarkable. There aren't any real technical shortcomings surrounding the gameplay, but it's extremely bland, and I can't see any appeal in spending more than a few hours with it, even at a budget price.
The idea of Pirates: Duels on the High Seas is that you're piloting a pirate ship around different areas or coastal lines in an effort to retrieve seven different keys that'll lead to riches and lift a horrible curse from your crew. When the game begins, you're situated in Port Royal, which is where the Navy resides, and you end up stealing your first key from there, which sets off the actual curse. The story is pretty light; there are a few scenes with a bit of readable dialogue between stages, but there's not much else. There's really no reason to play this game for story alone.
Since you're only piloting your ship, don't expect any crew-to-crew battles or go into some kind of single-player duel with another ship's captain. All of the combat is handled by boat, which comes equipped with cannons that can fire from either side of your ship, along with some weapons you'll pick up along the way that can be fired from the front of the ship. You'll run into a variety of vessels to sink, like Navy ships, merchants and other pirates, but there's not enough of a difference between them to really tell them apart, aside from the color. There are three sizes to the ships, and aside from that, they all handle and perform in the exact same fashion. As you might suspect, the larger the ship, the more powerful yet slow it is, and the smaller ships are lighter but can only take a small amount of damage. That's also how the game approaches its difficulty level, so if you're going to choose the hardest difficulty to start on, you'll be piloting the smallest available ship.
There's no damage meter attached to the other ships, and it's sometimes hard to tell whether your shot actually hit or came up short, since the explosion animation seems to be the same either way. After a few direct hits, though, the opposing ship will usually catch fire, signifying that one more blast will sink it. There are also a few boss fights, but they're just as unsatisfying as the mundane combat, and they end up being a battle over attrition more than any real strategy being involved. When you sink a ship, it'll sometimes drop cargo, gold or even a crewmember that you can hire for a paltry sum. These crewmembers act as power-ups, which you can activate via the touch-screen, allowing you to do a variety of things, like increasing your mini-map view, repairing your ship and so on. There are only four variations to see, and I found myself rarely needing to use them aside from the occasional ship repair, so their usefulness is negligible.
There is plenty of gold to be had in Pirates: Duels on the High Seas, but you'll amass that pretty quickly, and there's little to spend it on other than the crewmembers that you'll find. I suppose it acts as a score, but since there's a lot of it scattered about each stage, you would think there'd be some incentive for searching it out other than just boosting your overall total. That's one of the reasons why I find the game to be so mundane: There's little to do other than make your way through the labyrinthine waterways and destroy ships to get past gates. That's pretty much the entire gist of the game. A lot of the time, you can even bypass the enemy ships, as there are only a few instances per level that actually require you to bother with clearing out a level, which is really a blessing in disguise.
Ship combat isn't tactical or interesting; you can often just sit still, let enemy ships come to you, and adjust your firing angle to blast away at them. They're not smart enough to get out of the way, and they don't deal enough damage to make it worth the effort to dodge them. Only the boss fights and tower placements will cause enough damage to give you cause to worry, and even then, you can generally get to them at some angle or spot that'll make it impossible for them to hit you. If there was a bit more strategy involved or some type of interesting play mechanic to the combat, I could definitely see the title being fun, but in its current state, I was bored with it after an hour or so.
The controls aren't particularly great, either, with movement being mapped to the left and right portion of the d-pad, and the actual forward and backward movement mapped to the top left and right buttons. Why all the movement couldn't have been performed by the d-pad itself is beyond me, but it feels a little awkward to pilot your ship this way, especially when you need to fire your cannons using the face buttons. It's not the worst setup in the world, but I wish I could have adjusted the controls or something to feel more comfortable. There's little use for the bottom touch-screen, too, which displays your map and your crewmember power-ups that you can use, so all of the action will be handled on the top screen of the DS.
If you're looking for a definitive pirate game on the DS, Pirates: Duels on the High Seas isn't going to be it. I've played better pirate-themed titles, like Sid Meier's Pirates on the PSP and previous generation of consoles, and this doesn't even hold a candle to that one. It's boring, the art style is bland, the music is awful and the controls are barely competent. I'd suggest avoiding this one, regardless of how low the price point may be, and you'd be better off spending your time on something else.Score: 5.0/10
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