Reviews

Port Royale 3 – Review

Platforms: PC, Playstation 3, Xbox 360.
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Release Date: Out now!
Publisher: Kalypso
Developer: Gaming Minds
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No
PEGI: 12+

This title was provided by Kalypso Media for review.
Frustrating. Patience. Satisfying. These are the three words that I would most likely associate with playing Port Royale 3, the first in the strategy game series which has you taking to the high-seas to make it to console. In our modern world of shooters and explosions a title like Port Royale 3 is a much needed breath of fresh air, providing a change of pace and a  proof that not everything has to involve people being shot in the face. Although, to be completely fair, Port Royale 3 involve some ship-to-ship combat, which is sort of like shooting someone in the face, but on a slightly bigger scale. Most importantly, though, is that Port Royale 3 allows you to live out your dreams of creating and ruling a sea-based empire all of your very own, be it through economic or violent means. But the big question is does Port Royale 3 sink or sail? Okay, that was a terrible joke. Sorry.

So what’s the premise? Simply said you take control of a ship using the top-down view that’s standard to strategy titles around the world. From there you’re free to make your way in world by trading, constructing businesses, taking over towns, becoming a pirate, setting up trade routes or even forging your own nation through fire and blood. Freedom is the name of game here and for those willing to deal with the aforementioned frustration and demonstrate some patience, there’s an enjoyable and satisfying game to be found here. For everyone else, Port Royale 3 has a lot of holes in its hull. And I promise to stop making such terrible jokes. Honest.

Chuck Port Royale 3’s disc into your console and the very first thing you’ll likely click is the campaign option which presents you with a choice: would you rather play through as a Trader or an Adventurer? The Trader campaign tells the story of an unknown lad who falls for a highborn lady. To impress her he sets out on a journey to become a wealthy trader and thus manage to come to his beloveds attention. The Adventurer’s campaign on the other hand has the very same boy and highborn lady, but this time around she gets captured by an evil pirate and the unknown lad sets out to save her. Both campaigns actually serve as tutorials in disguise lasting a few hours apiece and both of them tell instantly forgettable stories. There’s no substance to it, no characters to enjoy and no reason to give a damn about what happens in any of it. It’ a shame to see the beautiful 16-17th century Caribbean setting wasted in such a fashion, but the stories do at least boast some solid voice acting throughout.

It’s always nice to have choice, but in Port Royale 3 it’s rather pointless choosing between campaigns because both of them have some serious flaws. In fact, they should have just been combined into one large and far more enjoyable campaign. As their names imply, each campaign offers up a different focus on the games core mechanics: choose to go down the Trader route and you’ll learn the joys of trading and building a stable economy, while going down the Adventurer’s path emphasises the games combat mechanics and more aggressive options, such as annexing towns. Both of them offer tutorials as you go that introduce you to the games core mechanics and concepts, but the catch is both campaigns actually require skills only tought in the other campaign. For example, the Adventurer campaign only teaches you the most basic of techniques for earning money, and yet to actually complete the damn thing you’re going to have to be able to utilise the more advanced methods of constructing a sea-based economy that are only tought within the Trader campaign, otherwise you’ll never be able to afford to purchase the ships and equipment required to wage war. Likewise in the Trader campaign everything goes well until you get attacked by pirates and the game refuses to teach you anything about the combat  because you only get to learn that over in the Adventurers campaign.  Why oh why have separate campaigns that only teach you about certain mechanics when you actually need to understand all of the gameplay elements to complete them? Surely it would have made far more sense to create one far longer adventure that tought you everything and provided a mixture of goals to complete? As such I highly recommend to anyone picking up this game that you take the time to read the fairly substantial manual. Yes, I know that for many of you actually reading a manual is a strange and suspicious concept, but in this case it’s well worth it.

One thing that the campaigns do right, however, is how they end: once you’ve completed  a campaign you’re given the option to transform it into a Free Play game, allowing you to just keep playing with all of the resources you worked so hard to acquire. It’s nice to have this option rather than having to go back to the main menu and start a Free Play game where you have to start from scratch again.

For the purpose of this review, though, let’s assume we have gone and started a brand new Free Play game, as this will allow me to happily run you through how the plays.

The first thing you’ll be doing  in Port Royale 3 is basic trading, moving from town to town buying low and selling high, as the old rule goes, so that you can build up your cash reserves and open up more options for yourself. On the games nautical map you’re free to sail your very own ship where ever you wish, with a grand total of 60-towns spread across the map to be discovered and traded with. Each of these towns and cities  produce 5 of the 20 different commodities available to you, such as sugar cane, coffee, metal goods, clothes and even hemp. That’s right, you can trade in marijuana! Sort of, anyway. The point is that it’s cheaper to buy a commodity in the town that produces it, allowing you to then sail away and offload your cargo in another town for a much higher price, earning you a small amount of money in the process. At the heart of this trading empire beats the games dynamic economic system that aims to create a more authentic experience. Because you’re not the only ship sailing the seas and trading with the various towns and cities the amount of commodities available in each location is constantly fluctuating which in turn affects prices. So, for example, if the town has a large amount of sugar in stock then it’ll be cheaper for you to purchase it. Purchase too much, however, and the price will start to go up as the towns supply dwindles. The very same concept applies to when your selling your goods: selling sugar to a town that already has loads of it will get you nowhere, but sell it to a town with none and you’ll make a nice profit. It’s a neat system

The system isn’t without some flaws, though, primarily that even though goods are constantly being sold to towns they rarely seem to have a decent amount of anything that they don’t produce themselves which breaks the sense of authenticity the system aims to create. In fact you’ll quickly find that no town ever seems to have more than a little of any given item, even if they do produce it. There’s a little bar in the trading display next to each item that shows the stock level, but unless I personally sold that town a lot of one item I never actually saw the bar go above two-fifths full.

It’s within these first few hours that Port Royale 3 is at its worst. Your initial aim of amassing some money via basic trading is a tedious grind simply because towns have very little of any given item in stock, forcing you to buy and sell relatively tiny amounts at each port. Your first half-hour to hour of gameplay is spent sailing in circles selling a few bananas at a time and pondering the depths of boredom that real traders in the 16th century most have faced. This is further exasperated by copious amount of numbers, icons and menus that Port Royale 3 loves to throw at you. Again, this is where the frustration and patience I mentioned come into play. Gamers raised on the more modern diet of shooters and action games may find themselves lost when staring at the trading screen for the first time, an imposing wall of numbers and little icons that hold little meaning to the  uninitiated.  For the first while simply doing the most menial tasks can be frustrating thanks to the games unwieldy interface and control scheme. Part of the problem is because Port Royale 3 offers up a lot of options and thus cramming them all onto a controller is a tricky task, especially since this is a PC game in disguise, but the brunt of the issue simply comes down the fact that it’s a clumsy control system that makes doing the most basic of things feel awkward. Playing through the game I can’t help but notice areas where the interface could have been streamlined. For example to check what commodities a town produces you must highlight it and tap Y, and yet when using the trade route menu (more on that later) a simple pop-up box allows you to quickly check what each town produces. Why isn’t the pop-up box present in normal gameplay? It would have made the game feel much slicker. It’s a trend that’s present throughout the game, but the good news is that like any control scheme and interface you’ll grow used to it and before long you’ll be flicking through menus like you’ve been doing it your whole life. The incomprehensible walls of numbers and icons will transform before your eyes from gibberish to meaningful statistics that let you keep a careful track of your ever-expanding empire.

It’s around this time when Port Royale 3 starts to  come together. The frustration of the first few hours starts to give way and things begin to click: Port Royale 3 goes from being a game that tests your patience to one that rewards it with a sense of satisfaction. By this point in the game you’ll have finally amassed some cash and will also have learned that taking on missions for town’s local governments, such as supplying the town with X amount of a certain commodity, is a good source of income both early and later in the game. With your new-found wealth more options become viable, the first of which you’ll choose likely being that of purchasing a new ship or two and crewing them with a captain and sailors. You can add these new ships alongside your existing ship to create a convoy, giving you considerably more storage space for your goods.  As mentioned earlier, though, you’re generally going to be trading in relatively small amounts until much, much later in the game, so this extra cargo space isn’t that useful or important early in nautical career. Rather a better reason for purchasing new ships and adding to them to your existing convoy is that it increases the amount of guns you can bring to bear should you find yourself in a scrap with pirates or with another nations convoy. Everything from small transports up to massive Ships of the Line that boast huge amounts of guns are available to you, although obviously the amount of money you have is a limiting factor, as is the fact that for a ship to be at its most efficient for combat it requires a full complement of sailors, which is a constant drain on your cash reserves.  The better, far more interesting and lucrative option, though, is to purchase a  ship and use it to form a brand new convoy under the command of a captain that you can command to do business on your behalf using trade routes. Choose to do so and you’ll be greeted with the trading route menu where  you’ll see that Port Royale 3 doesn’t skimp on options: there’s a variety of preset strategies to choose from to form the basis of your trading route which the captain will adhere to, such as pure profit strategies or strategies that attempt to increase the prosperity of towns. If preset options don’t really suit you then the game allows you to design your own strategy from the ground up, presenting yet another initially confusing menu of numbers and icons. You can create your custom strategy by choosing what towns your convoy will visit, the goods your captain will trade in at any given town, how much of it he will trade in and what prices he will be willing pay or sell at.

Once you’ve got a couple of trading routes set up and providing you’ve managed your strategy correctly, money will start to roll in at a steady pace, making your next logical step to open up some businesses of your own, expanding your trading empire. Get your reputation high enough with a town and have a good relationship with the nation that owns it and you’ll be able to purchase some licenses which allow you to construct your own buildings in town, starting with a warehouse to store your goods. you’ve got a business running you’ll need to ensure there’s enough workers in town to run it. If there isn’t you’ll need to build some residences and possibly even go import some workers by heading to another town, hiring them as sailors, bringing them to your business location and dumping them off. Many businesses simply require workers to start producing goods, but some require raw materials, such as the rum factory which needs a constant supply of wood and sugar. While you can sail back and forth between your warehouse and other towns buying the needed supplies, it makes far more sense to set up a new trading route and command the captain to acquire raw materials for your business and dump them off at the appropriate warehouse. The smart gamer will quickly realise that the best option is to create a supply and demand chain by building businesses in another town which produce the raw materials that you require, thus allowing you to supply yourself rather than having to purchase it from around the Caribbean.

A little while after constructing your first business you’ll have likely forged yourself a huge trading empire with a network of convoys supplying your businesses and selling the commodities you produce. It’s here where the satisfaction I mentioned earlier truly comes into play: watching the money roll in and your empire become a self-sustaining juggernaut is immensely satisfying. The only problem with it is that by this point money will be coming in on its own accord, leaving you personally with very little to do. The truth is that after the initial  tedious trading grind to earn enough to open up more options, acquiring riches in Port Royale 3 isn’t that difficult. You can lose it, though: in fact should you make one major mistake Port Royale 3 can be a harsh mistress, your money suddenly vanishing like it’s being sucked into a black hole. Later in the game when you have vast amounts of wealth you’ll have plenty of time to fix the problem, which is good because actually finding the source of your hemorrhaging money can be tricky, and the game certainly isn’t any help in pinpointing it. Early in the game, though, a single mistake can cost you everything, which is why keeping several saves at all times is advisable.

Still, even with the money coming in thick and fast there’s other options open to you, such as creating your own country by taking over a town. If you manage to become the dominate economic force in a town by having multiple businesses and the vast majority of the population in your employee then you an persuade the local government to sign over the administrative rights of the town to you. With this done you collect any tax earned from the inhabitants and build a manor of your very own! If the peaceful economic takeover isn’t to your liking then you can always go for a good old annexing by attacking the town and taking it over that way. And that brings us nicely to the more violent side of Port Royale 3: piracy and combat.

Even if you don’t entertain the idea of becoming a pirate yourself you’ll eventually encounter pirates on the high-seas intent on plundering your convoys. Ship-to-ship combat should be an entertaining and thrilling battle between mighty ships, but in Port Royale 3 it’s just….tedious. You can assign up to three ships in your convoy to combat duties and once you get into a fight you’ll take direct control of them. Using the left stick you can control the direction of your ship while the bumper buttons swap between vessels, RT fires a broadside and the A button swaps between different ammunition types. As you would imagine from their size, controlling these massive lumbering ships once again comes down to patience: even turning them can take a while. The goal is to draw up alongside enemy ships so you can broadside them, indicated by a circle that appears beneath their ships. The simple fact, though, is that there’s zero skill involved in combat – a little maneuvering lets you get in the first shot, but after that it’s generally just a case of keeping your ship at the optimum firing angle for maximum damage. A little strategy can be employed in choosing ammunition types: for example you could use the buckshot-esque ammo that kills sailors, thus increasing reload time for the enemy ship and making a boarding action a little easier. In the end, though,ship-to-ship combat is just downright boring, encouraging you to simply just use the automated button. Likewise attacking a town is a drag: you simply use your ships to annihilate any town defenses and then park them at the harbour to launch your troops, at which point you just have to sit and watcht the action play out, unable to influence it in any way. If you want awesome sea-based action, pick up Assassin’s Creed III next month – its naval battles look awesome.

As for the life of piracy itself, while Port Royale 3 boasts complete freedom for its players choosing the life of a pirate isn’t the most viable of choices. Attacking ships and plundering them immediately decreases your standing with every single nation, and if it drops too far they’ll deny you access to their towns meaning you can no longer trade and, more importantly, you won’t be able to get your ships repaired, hire new sailors or acquire equipment such as swords and guns. Of course you can solve that problem by annexing a town or two, but once again that’s a tricky proposition because annexing a town requires plenty of ships and gear, which you’ll likely have to gain through trading. And the plunder you gain from taking out convoys usually isn’t enough to sustain you either.  In short, piracy is a pretty tricky proposition. The answer, then, is to get in close with the nation of your choice so that they’ll offer you a letter of marque against whomever they’re at war with. A letter of marque allows you to plunder and attack the towns without your reputation going down with the other nations. In fact, attacking towns and ships will actually increase your reputation with the nation that gave you the letter. It’s not true piracy, but it’s close enough

So what about the games presentation skills? Over on the PC the game looks pretty good, but here on console it looks….uh, mixed. There’s only actually one map available in the game to play on, an understandable hazard of choosing to base your game in real life. That map actually looks pretty nice, offering up a vibrant wash of colors in a style that almost looks hand drawn. Of course the map is, on a purely technical basis, about as simple as it gets, but that doesn’t mean it can’t look pretty. However, what’s not so great is that things mentioned earlier about how transitioning from the nautical map to towns isn’t seamless. Considering this game isn’t pushing the technical boundaries in any sense it’s a shame that they couldn’t have at least given us this one little thing. As for the towns themselves they actually look pretty good, though obviously zooming in does display a lack of detail. On the other hand the animated faces that pop up on-screen to provide your tutorials are utterly terrible, with lip syncing to match. Likewise ships in combat don’t look very good, either, though it should be said that the water effects are nice to look at. But at least the voice acting is good, and the backing music, while fairly generic, does a decent job of relaxing you which is important in a game like this.

Port Royale 3 isn’t going to last you too long, either. The PC version of the game boasts a multiplayer mode, but strangely for the console version this has been taken out.  The two campaigns vary in their length depending on how quickly you adjust to the game, but you can expect around 5-8 hours to complete them both. Free Play offers up a fair few customisation options and obviously allows you to simply jump into the game without having any particular objectives or goals to complete, but how long you’ll be willing to play for depends on how much you enjoy the gameplay. The chances are you’ll find yourself bored for too long because of Port Royale 3 ultimate flaw: it’s not that deep. Sure, there’s a lot of options during play, but none of them actually offer up that much depth. Trading is simple, building businesses and a trade network doesn’t require a whole lot of strategy or skill, and once the money starts rolling in things start to become even easier. I suppose a good way to describe the game would be like a shallow pool: plenty of surface area, but not a whole lot of depth. And yes, that was a terrible comparison. But you get the point.

Despite this though Port Royale 3 remains a satisfying game to play. It’s not fun in the sense that balls-out action games are, but it’s an enjoyable and relaxing trading simulator. It’s hard not feel a sense of satisfaction at building up your own little empire and watching the money roll in at a steady pace. It’s just that the game has some serious flaws that mar the experience, a lack of any real depth being the primary one. Still, the game is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise fairly stale market, and so for those looking for something a little different, Port Royale 3 is certainly worth a look.

The Good:
+ Taking over a town.
+ Building an economic empire!
+ A breath of fresh air.

The Bad:
– Lots of options, not a huge amount of depth.
– Ship-to-ship combat sucks.
– First hour or two of gameplay is tedious.

The Score:

Graphics: 6
A pretty nautical map and okay looking towns are coupled with horrible facial animations and lip syncing.

Sound: 7
The voice acting, music and sound effects are solid. That’s really about all that can be said.

Story: 4
Some dude either rescues or impresses some girl. Nobody cares.

Gameplay: 7
Flawed but satisfying and enjoyable trading simulation.

Lifespan: 7
Around 5-8 hours for the two campaigns. Freeplay mode largely depends on how enjoyable you find the gameplay. With just one map and things become pretty easy after a certain point, it’s hard to see people playing for long amounts of time.

The Verdict: 6.5
Frustrating. Patience. Satisfying. The three words I began this review with, so it seemed fitting to end it with them as well. If you have the patience to dig into Port Royale 3, if you can handle the initial frustrations, then there’s an enjoyable and quite rewarding trading simulator to be found that lets you captain a ship and build an economic empire.

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