Pirates are one of the lesser explored areas of interest in games anymore, which means when a game pops up that uses these swashbuckling evil-doers, people generally take notice. Pirates: Duel on the High Seas is a title that was released last year on both WiiWare and Nintendo DS in Europe. Now Oxygen Games has deemed it fit to bring the adventure to the US for Nintendo’s touch-happy handheld. While it does possess quite a bit of charm, the repetition of mindlessly sailing from point A to point B collecting crates and shooting other ships wears out its welcome far too early. Still if you enjoy the life of a pirate there may be enough here to justify spending your booty.
The story literally had me laughing out loud, and not always because it was injected with quick wit and sharp humor. You play the role of an out-of-luck captain who simply cannot catch a break to save his life. One day you bump into an old man who tells tale of the mysterious treasure of Blackbeard in return for his next meal. This starts the journey of seven keys across seven seas in seven days; fitting isn’t it? Cut scenes are presented in pirate lingo, which is much harder to read than it is to understand in any Johnny Depp movie, which is for sure. Personally I liked the way everything was presented, especially the random shouting of “Arrr” by the captain as you sail around. If I had one complaint it is that the text screens are illuminated by candle, making them flicker on the DS, almost like a strobe light effect. It can be quite disorienting.
Pirates is an action game at heart. You sail around the maps firing your cannon and collecting booty along the way. This is what you will be spending most of your time doing, and at first it really is quite enjoyable. The problem is that the developers never really flesh out the game. There are minor upgrades that you can earn by recruiting new crew to your ship, but they really don’t make a major difference in the big scheme of things. Every level feels strikingly familiar and enemy types are really uninspired. It also doesn’t help that the game delivers virtually no challenge on most of the difficulty levels. As long as you don’t stand still for very long and keep firing, you can get through the entire game without ever dying. This doesn’t make the game feel like a chore, but without challenge there is little reason to learn all the nuances of the mechanics.
Lately whenever I play a DS game that doesn’t use the touch mechanics as its core control input, I get befuddled. Such was the case with Pirates as I stared at the screen aimlessly in the beginning because tapping the map screen at the bottom did not move my ship. After realizing I was just an idiot, I got more comfortable with the way it handled. You can rotate your ship using the d-pad and move it with the shoulder buttons. The right accelerates while the left decelerates. The touch screen is used to activate your various upgrades you have accrued from obtaining more staff. There are four icons, one in each corner of the screen, that represent various abilities such as added firepower and repairs. Tapping these will activate them, and that is about all the touch screen is good for. This game was not built with the stylus-type control in mind, which personally I think it would have been more suited for.
The single player game is relatively substantial, and it will keep you playing for quite a while. The problem stems from the fact that it really never changes up the pace, so you will likely get bored before the end credits roll. There is a multi-player offering that can be played over the WiFi connection, but it is so limited in design you will likely exhaust that after one session. The idea of circle-strafing your opponent until one of you manages to deliver the final blow seems rather rudimentary after five minutes. Which inevitably seems to be Pirates problem all around; the game simply doesn’t rise above the label of mediocrity in any one area. The game almost feels like it was designed using the basic tutorial of game coding. Nothing is broken, but again nothing really draws you in either.
Visually the game looks good enough that you wouldn’t be ashamed to introduce it to your parents, but like everything else it doesn’t stand out in any way, shape or form. The levels all look and feel similar and the perspective between switching screens can be disorienting. I feel that the camera could have been pulled back just a touch to help with the viewpoint, but it works well enough the way it is. Audio is almost non-existent except for the random “Arrr” that is blurted out time and time again as you sail around. The music is there, but it is so muted and pedestrian that most of the time you will not notice it.
Pirates: Duel on the High Seas is not a bad game, in fact I had quite a bit of fun while I was sailing around, and looting treasure from fallen ships. The problem arises from the fact that it never tries to better itself as you progress. The game reminds me of myself in the later years of high school, where simply getting by was good enough. I regret this decision, and this game does too. The multi-player lacks a hook, single player grows tired quickly, and the presentation simply falls flat on too many levels to make it stand out. Pirates is the definition of a mediocre title, but I still recommend fans of the eye-patch wearing scallywags give it a go.