Pixel Piracy is wonky, checkered with bugs, counterintuitive controls, and annoying nuances; and yet I got addicted. The massive sea-faring ships, unique procedurally generated cast, and variable details – I couldn’t help but become attached to my band of pirates as I plundered and pillaged my way across the pixel sea. Quadro Delta and Abstraction Games infuse FLT-like elements with the much-adored glamour of piracy during the Age of Sail to deliver a delightful sea adventure, albeit with a few too many defects.
As one would hope, you’ll spend nearly all your time plundering ships, searching for treasure, and outfitting your ship and crew into a fine galleon of ruffians. Intermittent stops at divey towns let you hire additional sailors of various backgrounds and strengths, as well as purchase weapons, food, ship accessories, and skills. Crewmembers possess short backstories which add a frivolous but enjoyable bit of personality to your crew and make it easier to remember who’s who when leading your party. I never would’ve remembered that I’d equipped John with my strongest blade if I hadn’t already recognized him as the “former samurai” in my crew or taught Denise to cook had it not been for her intermittent spells of depression. It’s details like this that made Pixel Piracy’s gameplay feel meaningful in the absence of a formal campaign and cast.
Much like in FLT, you’ll find yourself exploring and attacking various points of interest, like islands, ships, and towns. Both islands and towns feel generic, especially when compared to crew members, as they share background music, assets, and have similar residents and layouts. Different shops carry different stock and enemy pirate vessels do receive unique names; however, I think the game should’ve gone much further with characterization. Enemy ships with their own unique treasures and infamous captains or taverns known for their particularly unruly clientele could’ve made simple tasks like hiring crew and commandeering ships feel like chapters to a great pirate novel.
Characters level up through combat, performing basic duties while onboard like cooking and cleaning, and by spending time sailing. Every level awards characters with two skill points that can go toward increasing their physical attacks, chance-to-hit, vitality, etc. Crew members can equip two weapons at a time – one ranged and one close-quarters – and don’t need to specialize in either to be decently effective; however, balancing strengths and equipment does become essential once you start taking on higher level targets.
Individual crew members become even more important once they’ve learned a few skills. Skills can be purchased in towns and give characters access to both active and passive abilities. They range from things as simple as faster movement speed or stronger attacks to actions as essential as cooking, cleaning, swimming, and manning cannons. You can even teach crew members how to act as first-mate, effectively replacing your captain upon his or her death. While first-mate training isn’t so essential given that you can save and reload your game at any time, it does encourage players to craft their own pirate legacies and cope with their decisions rather than undo them.
Players take direct control of their captain and give orders to their crew through a free-moving crosshair. Despite the simple nature of the controls, they managed to disoriented me more than a few times. Sometimes my captain just wouldn’t walk or continue up a ladder despite my controller input. It even seemed at times like a handful of controller directions were needed to do things as simple as ascend directly “up” a ladder: I needed to jostle left and right and left and right to climb because “up” somehow wasn’t enough.
The floating crosshair used to target enemies and issue orders is also incredibly inconsistent. It regularly refuses to lock onto enemies, which is necessary to issue an “attack” order, even while hovering over them. When locked on, the reticle and camera stick to enemies until they’re dead, even as they’re thrown off ships or high into the air, but don’t recenter on your captain afterward. It’s frustrating and makes the game feel broken. Just imagine your camera spazzing out and turning toward a completely irrelevant area at the height of action in any RTS setting. Totally unacceptable. It’s worth noting that the spastic camera alongside the aforementioned movement issues may simply be telltale signs of a bad port job; however, as I haven’t played PP on PC, its original platform, I can’t confirm. Either way, they’re major problems that desperately need a fix.
Combat was still fun, killing satisfying, and warfare tense. Gun shots and cutlass clanks are loud and powerful. Sadly, successfully raiding enemy ships often feels like a matter of attrition and over strategy. That is, the fights I did lose were because I didn’t have the numbers and, conversely, most of my winning matches resulted from overwhelming the enemy in terms of weaponry and fighters. This is especially true of the island levels which take place on a single flat area with enemies approaching my crew from a single direction in a tight line. Developers could have improved island exploration by diving deeper and thinking vertically with their level designs. In contrast, strong enemy ships feature several levels and rooms for players to clear, encouraging team-management and strategy. Islands with layers of caverns, mountains, or fortresses could’ve made island exploration much more memorable and fulfilling. I found nothing scintillating about walking the length of a generic, flat island, not the first time nor the fiftieth.
Players can split their crew into various teams of defenders and attackers to take on larger galleons. Defenders can face off against enemy boarders and man your ships cannons to clean the enemy deck as your attackers charge right in, grappling their way aboard the enemy vessel. Once I’d developed a rather large crew, battles got cluttered and chaotic fast, with characters disappearing behind others and a mess of enemies scattering my reticle all over the screen. The lack of a strategic “pause” only added to the mess and made managing multiple teams nearly overwhelming, especially since most of your crew will just stand idly until issued orders.
The game’s tropical colors are pleasant to look at and, despite their bite-sizes, characters have personality to their faces, clothes, and hairstyles. I also really liked the juxtaposition of the 8-bit world over 3D environments, even though it often seemed to directly tank the frame-rate. Most of the time, I found myself wishing for a zoom button so I could get a closer look at the game world. In fact, the game’s camera is positioned so far from the environment, it’s hard to make out any details, of which there are a lot. Important items like piles of cannonballs, bowls of ramen, and treasure chests look like unidentifiable blobs under the wide viewfield. That’s not to say they aren’t well drawn. They’re just too small for an HDTV display. It also would’ve been great to see some varied environments and some weather effects. You spend the entirety of the game sailing around a flawless tropical paradise. Where’s the fun in that?
I’m sad to say that Pixel Piracy on PS4 is just too wonky, if not buggy, to recommend. The theme is great, the concept is great, and gameplay is a lot of fun. I’d readily recommend it at least had its fundamentals together. Until developers take the time to properly refine their port, there are just too many broken elements in the PS4 version of Pixel Piracy to justify any price-tag, let alone $14.99.
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