Humanity has its own set of rules and ideas of what is right and wrong. Theft, murder, and deceit are frowned upon, yet the romanticism that surrounds piracy still burns strong. People are obsessed with this “free” way of life; sailing the seven seas, plundering, pillaging, and murdering whoever stands in their way. Several games and films have fed off this obsession, and some of the best-loved franchises have blossomed in this dark criminal world. Pirates of the Caribbean, Port Royale, Sid Meier’s Pirates, and Patrician are to name but a few.
I for one sit in the love/obsessed camp with pirate-themed entertainment. I happily admit that I own, and have played all the major games that have been released on both PC and console. When I saw that Under the Jolly Roger was coming to Xbox One, I jumped at the chance to review it and was lucky enough to receive a code. Developed by Lion’s Shade and published by HeroCraft, it is an open-world pirate RPG that is accessible to gamers of all ages and skill sets.
It follows a classic approach.
Like many of the great pirate based games of the past, this one is set in a Caribbean style landscape. You are the Captain of a small vessel, you offer no allegiances, and the only way to guarantee favour is to pay for it with gold. The world is your oyster, and you are free to explore it however you wish. You can live your life in peace, sailing from each port trading with the many merchants or you can become interesting and; fight, plunder, and destroy everything you see.
There is a basic storyline that you may follow if you so wish, but the beauty of this title is the freedom to do whatever your heart desires. Many towns are available that allow you to; purchase goods, sell stolen ships, and undertake missions. Each of these habitats has an affinity to a country, and each time you complete a task for them, the trust builds, and dealing with them then becomes easier. If you do something wrong, your reputation will be harmed, and you will be hunted across the vast oceans. So, think before you act as actions have consequences, and you don’t wish to ruin the small bond of trust that you’ve built up.
The open-world is fantastic.
Unlike its peers, that weigh you down with a constant resource management idealism. Under the Jolly Roger focuses heavily on the action rather than the minor details. Gamers who are used to a complex trading, battle and political system, may find the simplicity a little underwhelming, but for me, I enjoyed the ease at which I could learn the fundamentals. Don’t confuse this straightforward approach with a lower difficulty, because you will be massively underestimating the learning curve you have ahead of you. It’s deceptively easy to pick up, but you will make mistake after mistake, and you will have to restart several times before you can truly progress.
Yet, once you understand the core concepts, you allow yourself to feel free in this gigantic world. You can explore as far as you wish, and many missions will require you to move from your local area to further afield. It gives the impression of going on a journey, and you plan your approach as if that is the case. You ensure that you have the most talented crew members possible, the biggest ship, and the best arsenal. However, this usually isn’t enough. You must balance the morale of the crew with constant repairs, ammunition refills, and keeping your people healthy. It’s like trying to spin 10 plates at once.
Life as a pirate is a balancing game.
This continual juggling act will challenge new players. To take out the big ships, you must improve your vessel’s equipment. Upgrades are expensive and difficult to find, so the early game feels a little unbalanced. Yet, this challenge will inspire you to keep playing. The early stage grind isn’t as bad as you’d think, and the starter quests help to even up the score. You will slowly move from a green horn to a legend of the Sea quicker than you think.
Every element that you think of can be improved from its base standard. Ships can get stronger, faster, and more accurate. Spy glasses assist you with identifying the details of your opponents, and crew members can be levelled up for a massive stat boost. But the most important thing is crew management. A badly placed and unhappy crew will turn the tide of a battle in seconds.
Place your team on any of the decks for a boost in performance. Where you enhance one area, you weaken another, and it’s a challenge to get right. You must also know your crew’s morale, as unhappy sailors perform badly. Your powerhouse ship can quickly become as weak as a kitten when your team is depressed. Sailors will leave their posts and mutiny will occur, so keep battling as this makes a pirate giddy with delight. These multilayered elements ensure you must consider your approach before taking on many of the sea battles that are presented.
A game of three perspectives.
The gameplay is broken down into three distinct concepts; the World map, the open ocean, and third-person exploration and fights. Each has a unique look, and they are mostly successful with their ideas and delivery, but sadly one holds the other two back.
The World map.
A 2D classic presentation of a sea chart. It starts with the unexplored areas covered by an opaque fog, as you venture into the unknown, cities and forts appear from the gloom. It’s a basic, but well-detailed navigation tool that allows you to complete your tasks with ease. The simple UI is clean and doesn’t complicate the issues. From this screen, you’ll see random fights that you can take part in. Pirate battles, wars, trade routes, fort attacks and more are available.
An open-world where 3D models of your ships and the opposition appear on screen. You must select which ammo you wish to use and either blow your enemy out of the water or destroy their sails and decimate their crew. You must observe the wind direction, reloading times, your ship’s stats and more to be victorious. If you decide to take the ship for yourself, you will be thrown into a third-person fight upon both vessels.
Grab your cutlass and pistol, as you will go face to face with another crew. The victor takes all the spoils, and the loser leaves with nothing. In theory, this should be the most enthralling part of the game, yet sadly it’s a dated and clunky experience that is just serviceable. The character models are well designed, the ships look great, but it’s full of glitches and bugs. The animations are slow and cumbersome and you will ghost through solid objects with ease.
Though this area wasn’t as good as it should have been, it shouldn’t detract from what is otherwise a fantastic game. You’ll still have fun competing with enemy crews and exploring different tropical islands. It was just a shame that it wasn’t as polished as the other elements.
Sea shanties and booming sound effects.
The audio is as piratey as it comes. Plenty of “Yar me hearties” and drunken roars await you. Jolly sea shanties accompany you across the great oceans. The constant crash of waves on your hull emphasises the pirate theme. The roaring of cannons being fired and the cracking of timber as it exploded on impact were glorious. Lion’s Shade has done a spectacular job with the sound, and it instantly transports you to this dangerous tropical paradise.
Lots to consider, but easy to play.
With so many aspects to consider, you may worry that it’ll be difficult to handle. I was pleasantly surprised at the ease at which I picked this up. A well-designed tutorial guides you through every aspect of the game, yet you’ll still make mistakes. You will have to restart it repeatedly, but once you iron out the errors, you’ll control this like a pro.
I liked the lack of a linear approach. The game allows you the choice of how you wish to progress, who you side with, and what style of gameplay you want to adopt. This design choice increases the desire to return. Alongside its challenging achievement list, and many battles, you’ll find it is brimming with replay value.
It’s not without its faults, but the open water will get under your skin.
This rather thorough review has given you all the ins and outs of a great pirate game. It contains many layers that add up to create a thoroughly rewarding gaming experience. Choose how you wish to spend your time, become renowned on the ocean, and command the most powerful vessel in this tropical world. It compares well against its peers, and I recommend you play it, so buy a copy here! Grab your ship, maintain your crew, and destroy anything in sight. You deserve to become a renowned pirate, and the free world must fear your name!