Sid Meier’s Pirates! originally released in 1987. Although I missed out on this classic, I was able to play the 2004 remake on the Xbox and PC. Since that moment, I’ve looked for other games that could capture my imagination the same way that Pirates! did. Enter King of Seas, a new offering from developer 3DClouds and publisher Team17 that’s set to release tomorrow. At a glance, I noticed how it was heavily inspired by the classic and I was enticed to try it out.
Truth be told, King of Seas does manage to scratch the itch, and I found myself adventuring across the oceans. There’s plenty of stuff to do to keep you engaged for hours. Sadly, certain concepts and features did feel lacking, so much so that it seemed like a more streamlined or simplified version of what I had expected it to be.
The life of a pirate
King of Seas’ campaign starts out with you choosing either a male or female character, siblings who are scions of the royal family. As your character sets out on his or her first voyage as a captain, you receive word that your father, the king, has died.
There is something amiss. Although the king’s death isn’t explicitly shown, you do realize that an ambitious admiral and several members of the Royal Navy have branded your character a traitor. This false accusation leads to your character’s ship getting bombarded and sunk. Thankfully, friendly pirates manage to rescue you. From this point onwards, you sail under the banner of the Jolly Roger as you reclaim the throne.
Factions in King of Seas
Forget the concept of nations in King of Seas. The campaign instead presents you with three factions. Your character is solely part of the Pirates faction, a ragtag group of buccaneers at the edge of a procedurally generated map. Opposing you is the Royal Navy led by the ambitious admiral, bolstered by a sycophant captain and a mighty armada. All vessels and towns that belong to this faction will remain hostile throughout the campaign.
Lastly, there’s the neutral Merchant faction. Think of this faction as independent city-states of sorts. You can freely trade with them and undertake quests to help you level up and acquire perks. Likewise, you can buy upgrades for your ships and dock at their harbors for repairs. However, since you are a pirate, you’re still able to attack their craft without any penalty as long as you do it on the high seas. If you bombard them too close to any port held by the Merchant faction, only that settlement will be hostile to you for a time.
It leads to situations where you can basically farm a nearby town over and over, sinking boats and running back to a friendly harbor. Alternatively, you might want to stay on good terms with a few settlements since you can pick up goods in a certain location and sell them for a profit wherever the demand is high.
Naval battles and skills
In King of Seas, what reminds me most of Sid Meier’s Pirates! are the naval battles. You start out with a tiny sloop, but, later on, you’ll be able to purchase other options such as a flute (fluyt), brig, frigate, and galleon. Controls are fairly responsive, at least as long as you’re using a gamepad; it’s extremely clunky when you’re using the keyboard. You speed up by raising your sails, slow down to make quick turns, switch to different ammo types that deal damage to certain components, and fire your cannons at the port and starboard sides.
Moreover, you can equip your craft with various contraptions like masts, hull designs, cannon types, ammo, and more. Each particular piece of equipment has its own stats that can boost the offensive and defensive capabilities of your vessel. Perhaps the only downside here is that things can get a little too confusing, as I’ll explain in a while.
On a positive note, the action is further emphasized owing to four different skill brackets that also act as equipment. Player-controlled and computer-controlled ships can have a combination of skills from flamethrowers and explosive barrels to a ghostly summon that drains the health of an enemy’s sails, hull, and crewmen. There are also abilities that speed up your movement and those that can negate damage temporarily. Yes, there’s even a particular skill called “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” which is akin to that scene in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End — just imagine that you’re controlling the HMS Endeavour and you’re firing every gun at two ships that surround you.
Problems with King of Seas
Sadly, not everything in King of Seas leads to smooth sailing. One of the key features, the cartographer, just happens to ruin immersion. Games that rely heavily on exploration keep you interested as you set out for the unknown. Good examples of this concept in practice would be Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies. Now, while you are definitely exploring in King of Seas, you don’t actually fill the blank spots on the world map just by sailing to a location. Instead, you’ll need to find a cartographer’s lighthouse and pay him some gold just to reveal the nearby area. It just feels inorganic and tacked on.
The presentation of information could also use a bit of work. For instance, the map is opened by pressing the right thumbstick. That’s because the active HUD only has a compass, not a minimap. Even then, the map screen itself won’t tell you important details about a settlement such as the types of goods. You’ll need to visit each one and take note of what needs to be brought along.
Also, going back to what I mentioned earlier regarding ship equipment, I feel that the stats are too streamlined without regard for rarity colors. Let’s say I have a rare, expensive, level 60 purple item for my cannons. That sounds neat, right? Well, it’s also possible for a cheap, level 45 common/grey item to provide more helpful boosts than the one I have.
Likewise, progression can also be a hassle, and it’s not just because you can level up so fast that even rare gear becomes outdated within a few minutes. It’s due to a plethora of sidequests that you can complete — usually the ‘destroy X ship,’ ‘bring Y goods to settlement,’ or ‘escort this vessel’ varieties — that send you to far-flung corners of the world. You’ll soon realize that quest rewards are tied to your character’s level the moment they were picked up. As such, you’ll need to complete them soon or the rewards, barring gold and experience points, would be useless down the line.
Sid Meier Streamlined
To be fair, there were also other issues that I noticed while reviewing King of Seas. Some were technical, such as the music cutting out randomly (probably because the game was trying to figure out which track to play). Others were baffling design decisions, such as having only a single autosave for your entire campaign which triggers whenever you visit a port settlement. God forbid that you’d lay waste to several frigates and brigs, only for a random kraken’s tentacle to send you to the bottom of the ocean (which means you’ll have to reload your save at the last harbor you visited).
There were also those that filled me with a bit of disappointment. I was looking for something that would complement Sid Meier’s Pirates!, but I was only seeing bits and pieces of the inspiration. You can think of Pirates! as the complete game, and once removed of a few features you’ll end up with King of Seas. For instance, you can conquer towns with your powerful ship and even upgrade some fortifications, but there are no additional diplomatic options. Indeed, taking over settlements happens so late in the campaign that the feature hardly matters at that stage.
Additionally, you could demolish another craft’s masts and sails, and it’d still be able to travel instead of being dead in the water. The same goes for killing off the entire crew. I’m not even sure what the crew does since you can’t board vessels to take control of them, and, even after losing all my crewmates, I could still fire broadsides with ease. Then again, cheesing the AI was so laughably easy since opponents happily chase you around, allowing you to shoot cannons or use homing fireball skills before they can even let loose a salvo. Lastly, even after finishing the game and knowing that I had scoured countless islands and shipwrecks, I actually haven’t found a single treasure map. I’m not sure if this is just pure randomness and I’ve just been extremely unlucky.
Still, King of Seas isn’t a bad game at all. As mentioned earlier, if you’re a fan of Sid Meier’s Pirates! and other open-world, naval-based adventures, then it does scratch the itch. A full campaign would take you roughly 12 to 15 hours. In the end, it’s the sandbox adventure, easily exploited ship battles, and exploration that will keep you entertained throughout your journey.