Port Royale 3: Pirates and Merchants Review

By DavieMarshall, 4 years ago
In a slightly delayed review owing to a mailing mixup, today we're looking at the seafaring escapades of Port Royale 3: Pirates and Merchants. If you're coming into this wondering where the preceding two titles, these were PC only titles and it's just the third in the series which is making the jump across to the Xbox 360. Does it bring something new to the table or is too much lost in translation? I shall do my very best to give you a full picture.

Logo


One thing you should know straight away about this title is that it's not an 'all guns blazing' affair. Whilst combat certainly factors into the equation the game is, at it's heart, based upon economies, trading, the building of empires, and crushing the competition. If I had to draw a comparison to a similar (though non-Xbox 360 title) it would be to the likes of Railroad Tycoon.

You begin the tale as a young Spaniard who joins as a deck hand in a trading convoy for adventure upon the high seas. Following a mishap at sea he finds himself thrown overboard, where he is washed ashore the beaches of Port Royale. From here he encounters Elena, the daughter of Port Royale's Viceroy and falls in love with her. In a bid to prove himself and win her heart, he must set about building fame, notoriety and most importantly wealth, through the life of a trader, or an adventurer.

I can't quite fathom the need for a story with such shallow depth in a game that revolves real-time strategies and the playing of economies. It's just baggage to the game and you really won't care at all. Elena will be nothing more than a voice in your ear asking you to do certain quests. You do end up (spoiler) marrying her if you follow her quests and 'complete' the Trader storyline, but the game is neither better nor worse for it.

Screen


Button, button. Who's got the button?
With the peculiar setup out of the way, you'll begin the game with the aid of a NPC guiding you through tutorials, tips and videos. This is where I discovered the gameplay is complex but uneasily so. Whilst your first dozen objectives or so will be accompanied by ample text and a set of instructions to walk you through the steps, there is a lot that has been left out in the port to Xbox 360. Dialogue screens for towns and ships are incredibly detailed. On the PC this is a good thing. You have a mouse and you can quickly whip between options with a keyboard for help, of course on the Xbox this isn't easy to replicate. Worse is the fact the floating cursor has been totally removed.

Port Royale 3 chooses to go with a button driven interface when you're away from the Naval Chart (world view). This becomes incredibly frustrating when you're bombarded with hugely detailed screens which all use icons as their legend. Take the screenshot below for instance:

Icons


Some icons are straightforward. We've got supplies of lumber, cotton, sugar, bricks etc... But what are those down the center? I can't be sure, and the manual doesn't tell me. Plus, there's no hotkey for help to have the tooltip read out to you (as you would see if you hovered over it on the PC version). Sadly, this uneasy complexity means you'll fail to explore the wealth of options contained within the games strategical nuances and instead opt for the bullish approach of simplicity in a world which demands finesse.

Away from top level screens such as this, menu options are buried within nested layers of options and settings. For example, to optimise a fleets setup for battle readiness requires you to select the fleet, d-pad five times through the tab menus to find the combat settings, then press down to auto-apply the best settings. You need to do this every time you alter the fleet, or the leading vessel takes damage and the convoy needs to be reconfigured to retain it's strength and superiority. You get used to it and are soon flying through, but it's going to take some getting used to.

Trading up
With the clunky controls out of the way, once you get into the concept of trading goods, you'll happily be turning an easy profit. The premise is simple. There are 20 resources of varying worth available within the Caribbean. You can make cash by buying low and selling high. A great visual system of red/green bars here makes determining good value trades a cinch. You can also hotkey 'down' on the d-pad to automatically jump to the most appropriate amount of a resource. This allows you to quickly snap up and unload goods without a) leeching a port dry of it's stock (thereby damaging relations politically) and b) unloading just enough to retain command of a higher price (thereby keeping your vessels cargo worth up and return visits viable).

By now you should be starting to see the kind of socio-economic depth required in the title. It's involved and it's deep enough to evoke tough decisions of whether to burn one nation in favour of better supplying your frequented ports of call with valuable resources. This decision will become all the more necessary as the game introduces new concepts later on. The idea of investing in an islands infrastructure.

Screen


Once you're in control of a convoy, and that convoy is docked in a port (note the need to drill down through requirements and menus again), you can elect to visit the city in person. This will open a topdown flyby of the locale and allow you to get your hands dirty in shaping a nations future for better or worse. The tutorial will guide you somewhat haphazardly through the process of investing in a warehouse for resource storage and distribution all the way through to ordering the construction of new rum distilleries and sugar cane farms. You can use this to shape promising lands to bend to your whim and act as a major supplier in your chain of trade for key resources. This is a nice touch but perhaps offers a little too much micromanagement. If I ask the architect to build me 10 residential houses, I don't really want to have to then place each one individually on vacant land. Take the cash and start the process. All too often Port Royale 3 offers a promising idea only for it to be marred by a control concept which definitely worked on PC but is only clumsy on console.

It's a double edged sword to be fair. For Port Royale veterans nothing short of the full package will suffice, for newcomers however more could and should have been stripped out. This leads me to wonder if the game would have greatly benefited from a simple choice at the games front end. "How would you like to play? Experienced or Casual?"

Prepare yourself for a plundering
It's around this point in the game's pace on the Trader Campaign (the campaign you must start on until the Adventurer Campaign is unlocked) you'll begin to notice something rather frustrating. You're investing in islands as per the instructions you're receiving, you're setting up trade routes to automate your selling (thanks for hiding that golden nugget until about three hours in and making me manually control this from port, to port, to port by the way), and you're perfectly on track by all accounts. Why then are you being repeatedly hit by pirates time and time again? The game suffers from an identity crisis. It spoon feeds you (wonderfully I might add) as to how to trade like a champ, but offers zero advice on how to survive in a world infested with plundering pirates.

Your convoys will be mercilessly hit and looted with ease by the AI and you'll be flicking through the pages of the manual and task screens for any glimmer of advice or words of caution. I honestly became so lost I decided that the best course of action was to totally disregard the game's instructions for the next four hours and set about building up a private army of vessels. I taught myself all of this and in doing so rendered the Adventurer Campaign and associated tutorials boring. It also led to the discovery that anyone picking this up in the hope of sailing the high seas and playing the role of a vicious and loathsome pirate will be disappointed. Port Royale's strength lies in it's trade and economy system. It's aware that any attempt to convince you it's in possession of a competent combat mechanic is a bit of stretch and so you're offered the chance to automate skirmishes each time, and you'll inevitably take it. The combat is little more than a mini-game should you choose to 'go manual'. You'll get a couple of extra options such as boarding the ship to capture it and plunder the loot (which is quite cool) but the effort isn't worth the repetitive outcome. There's no thrill to the chase and it's better avoided where possible.

The self-taught sailor will sail to victory
Returning to my digression from the main 'story line', I believe the fact I was able to self teach without access to the locked Adventurer Campaign highlights that a competent gamer will be able to methodically work through the menus and options and begin to develop a fearsome and effective number of patrol fleets. It's perhaps more damning of the broken learning curve of the game. The world is open, freely flowing and always changing. The tutorial does not account for that and assumes that your world's politics will always be close to what it requires for your next task to be completed swiftly.

I kid you not, upon completing one task (and the final one for that island I might add) the task notes stated that this 'would probably be enough' to take Cayman for myself by purchasing ownership. Yes, it actually uses the world 'probably'. If they can't be sure if the criteria will be met, the system is broken. The requirements stated that the affluence of the island would be 90% or above, and their approval rating 80% or above. The trouble here was that my constant dogfights with pirates had interrupted my trade routes to the island and stalled production of my refined goods. That coupled with two totally randomised island events (a period of drought followed by a pretty impressive forest fire) meant the inhabitants of Cayman were 'less than chuffed' and consequently I could not snap up the right to rule them with an iron first.

World Map


This cued another hour of gameplay as I meticulously restored their faith in me, themselves and their supply of food. Only then could I complete this task. Again I had to resort to my own tactics and teach myself a indiscriminate amount of the gameplay mechanics and procedures required to restore a nation on the brink of total collapse. Plus in order to fund this epic struggle I was restorting to meeting shady characters in bars and buying up leads for local pirate nests which I would dutifully destroy as I went seeking a cash injection for the relief effort. Don't misunderstand me here, I had a lot of fun doing this despite my initial cries of angst in the face of unhelpful and misleading task notes. I learned so much more about the game and came to appreciate this niggling addictive quality it has buried beneath the surface. The spark of a gem is there, it truly is, but the way in which the title has been packaged up all but obscures it from view. Very few will manage to uncover it thanks to this ridiculous learning curve.

Rage quit in 3, 2, 1...
Not only does the learning curve mean tasks are somewhat askew to what you may be able to accomplish at any given time. Not only are the tasks suffering from tunnel vision and prone to make you susceptible to failure at the hands of external forces. The learning curve is brutal in its punishments. To get this level of enjoyment out of the game and be able to write as much as I have for this review, I had to can three separate save files which held between them around 7 - 8 hours of gameplay. Why? These external forces which you are not 'trained' to deal with can and will totally decimate your empire. As you struggle to cope with the financial strain placed upon you by pirates, dwindling resources, competing trade routes, political leanings, wars and global events it is incredibly easy to see your bank balance descend into the red. As soon as you see a minus figure appear in your account, it's nigh on irreversible.

You could begin to sell off ships, but then that reduces your ability to earn income and support the maintenance requirements of all those buildings the tasks demanded that you construct. I inevitably entered into a spiral of decline on three consecutive playthroughs despite following the task requirements word for word. It was beyond frustrating. It was rage quit worthy as I once again canned the save file wondering why I'd been punished so badly in the first three hours of a game.



Summary
When it comes down to it, Port Royale 3 is an opportunity missed. There's a genuinely good game in there somewhere, and when you get lucky and can truly enjoy the power of commanding a fearsome naval fleet with the power of a dominant series of trade routers, you'll find yourself losing time in blocks of hours to the mildly addictive nature of the game. In reality however, this is the end game 'sandbox' scenario achieved after a dozen hours of hard, gruesome work. The main experience for most gamers will be short periods of highs quickly followed by beat downs and knock backs at the hands of the game and not always their wrongdoing. During that time you'll not be so much playing the game as hopefully clicking and carelessly experimenting. The pay off is good, but the required investment of time will ensure this game remains a niche purchase.