I grew up on pirate games like Sid Meier’s Pirates! and tycoon titles such as Caesar and M.U.L.E.; these games put you behind the wheel. They were a blend of city planning, economic development, and warfare, giving players the keys to every aspect of the game and told players to go and create their empire however they saw fit. Whether privateer or pirate, the world was yours, but only if you could grow powerful enough to grasp it. Port Royale 4 looks to combine these worldbuilding and piracy genres, blending it with turn based battling to sail the Carribean once again. Let’s hoist the sails and see what’s on the horizon.
Before we get too deep into this review, I want to frame my experience a bit. I’ve never played a Port Royale game before now; as such, my ability to compare this title to its predecessors will be non-existent. Instead, I’ll be giving you my perspective as an avid fan of pirate games and turn based battlers, but also as a complete newcomer to the series.
Port Royale 4 puts you into the cavalier boots of an ambitious governor of a small port town in the Caribbean during the 17th century, also known as the Age of Sail. Trade is your primary source of revenue and power to grow, but that doesn’t mean you can’t traffic in a bit of side hustle to line your pockets, right? Pirates can’t have all the fun. Before you can have any of that fun, legitimate or otherwise, you’ll need a fleet.
Your trade fleet starts with a single boat that you are granted at the start of the game, but you’ll need a Captain to run the crew. Starting your campaign you are greeted with four archetypes — a Buccaneer, Piratess, Adventurer, and Merchant. You’ll also get to choose a flag color, as well as a standard to emblazon upon it. These characters have two advantages and one disadvantage. For example, the Merchant doesn’t require a trade license, and can trade with all nations at all times, but combat vessels cost twice as many fame points to unlock, so you’ll be working extra hard for the Viceroy. It’s a little strange that sandbox mode still forces you into these four archetypes, but you rarely see your captain so it’s almost a moot point. Before you set sail, however, you’ll want to check out the tutorial.
I don’t normally talk through tutorials, but when the 10 tutorials combined take you roughly an hour to complete, you have a good idea of the complexity of the task ahead of you. Convoy management, trade routes, production, and two sequences on naval combat will make you a more steady hand at the tiller, but I’ll readily admit I had to refer back to these tutorials more than once. This reveals a different problem entirely.
There are moments where Port Royale 4 is quite obtuse. Hovering over some icons yields nothing in the way of tooltips, and the mechanics of simply juggling your fleet around should be handed with dragging and dropping but is instead clicking indicators to move ships from the left to the right. Similarly obtuse things like setting up trade routes require a bit of repetition before it becomes clear how the game wants to handle these mundane tasks. UX/UI design could use some work in this Caribbean adventure.
With the tutorial under your wide-brimmed hat, you can move onto managing your tropical paradise, and that starts with your hometown. Each town’s lifeblood is gold and commodities, but more than that, people and production. A town’s inhabitants work to produce goods that you’ll use to establish trade with other towns. Keeping them content also keeps them in place and working for you, so you’ll need to keep a steady supply of commodities, available housing, farms, and you’ll want to build the occasional tavern or two. If you’ve played a hex-based building game like Civilization, you have a fairly good idea of how this all works.
Each town produces up to seven commodities like grain, beer, sugar, cotton, timber, and steel. These commodities can be transformed into things like furniture and cannon, or traded for goods that the people in other towns can’t get for themselves. You’ll need to establish trade routes to ferry those things from here to there. Loading up a schooner full of warm beer (blech!) and carting it to a nearby town doesn’t guarantee sales or even a warm welcome. Upon arrival you’ll need to purchase an expensive trade license before you roll off your first barrel. Having paid the price to set up trade, you can now buy and sell there at will.
Running a trade route requires maintenance. You’ll have to visit the shipyard to kick the barnacles loose and tighten the planks periodically lest you risk sinking to Davy Jones’ locker, or worse, springing a leak in battle. The Shipyard is also where you’ll be able to purchase both new and used vessels for your trade or piracy ambitions.
Setting up a trade route also means understanding the whims of the sea and the trade winds. Sailing into the wind helps you move goods quickly, and avoiding high-wind areas that can cause damage to your ship is equally as important. Doing it while avoiding lulls in the wind patterns can help ensure you get goods to their destination before the winds of fortune shift, too.
Naturally there is a focus on trade, but making your commodities into finished goods is almost always going to be cheaper than buying it, transporting it, and selling it elsewhere in the long run. This creates another balancing act as you have to ensure you don’t flood your own market with cheap goods and spoil the market. You need to create enough scarcity to keep prices high, but not so high that people stop buying.
Each town is capable of producing a variety of commodities which have a direct impact on profitability and overall happiness. A small town might appreciate the simpler trade goods like grain and coffee, whereas a larger city might appreciate textiles and furniture. As a great deal of profitability is tied to scarcity, managing which goods are in ready supply at your town versus what another town wants is important. In simpler terms, sell what you’ve got to spare in one town to the town who needs it most, and for the highest possible price. You’ll then balance that against the amount of commodities each town consumes, resulting in a hopefully positive trade balance. It turns out, like any real business, this is far more challenging than it seems on the surface. Before I made it anywhere in this game, I had bankrupted several captains and their crew. Turning a profit through trade is something best left to the AI. Listen to your advisors, keep a decent amount of working capital, and stick close to military routes to get started. Piracy will cause you nothing but trouble until you’ve got your sea legs. Sail wisely.
It’s in this trade route system that I ran into my first real hitch with Port Royale 4. The age old adage about buying low and selling high applies here, and you can automate that with your trade routes to a degree. There is a four pip indicator that tells you the overall scarcity of a good. You want to buy until the price begins to fluctuate, and you want to sell at the peak of the curve. If you are familiar with supply and demand curves, none of this is new to you. Unfortunately, the AI doesn’t seem like it understands this concept in the current build as profits and losses seem to be somewhat hard to understand. The game boils it all down to a simple statistics page that covers the overall trade route, but it doesn’t give you enough information to figure out what leg of your journey isn’t working well. That level of micromanagement inside of something that is supposed to be AI-driven and automated is a bit much. You can also store items in a warehouse to perform a little bit of market manipulation, but it feels like everything just stacks up there and doesn’t move out. I’d hope my Captains were smart enough to help me control regional pricing, but right now the warehouse seems to be where profit goes to die.
The Viceroy is the person in charge of this area of the Caribbean, and ultimately your handler. He will assign you tasks that you’ll want to complete as they’ll grow your fame, unlocking special buildings, boats, and even taking direct control over towns. Administration of towns is a challenge, but it does give you complete control over every aspect of their production, any construction, and all profits — a boon to your wallet. He’ll also grant you the ability to recruit captains, grant letters of marque, and other things to expand your empire. He isn’t the Captain of your ship, so all of his requests are exactly that, but it can make a pretty big difference should you keep him happy.
War is the continuation of politics by other means, as Carl von Clausewitz once said, and nowhere is that more true than on the high seas. At some point you’ll gain enough in your hold to gain notice, and at that point you’ll run afoul of pirates and nation states that might want to sink your ships and salvage what’s left. Using letters of marque to fight against warring nations, taking down neutral convoys, or raising the Jolly Roger against your own allies is all possible in Port Royale 4.
Keeping your trade convoys safe means sending ships out on patrol. Patrol mode allows your combat-capable ships to sweep your trade routes, attacking any ships and pirates that come near. You can let your patrol do the work for you, or you can take manual control of your fleet and get hands-on with the turn-based tactical portion of the game. I do like that this combat system is entirely optional as it keeps the game accessible for the players that enjoy tycoon-style games, but maybe not turn-based combat.
Before you tangle with another ship you’ll get a quick rundown of the number of canons, ships, troops, and an overall strength rating. It will also show the relative strength and skill of the ship Captains involved in the fight. Once in battle, your vessel type’s maneuverability, a handful of skills, and using the right kind of armaments at the right time can turn the tide of insurmountable battle. Even when it looks like all is lost, harassing a far larger Frigate with an army of sloops can keep them so confused and unable to chase down any one target that you can prevail.
Combat in Port Royale 4 is turn-based, letting up to eight ships fight in a single engagement. You’ll move one ship, turn, fire, deploy any skills you might have until you’ve expended all of your movement, turns, or action points, and then end your turn. An enemy ship will then do the same thing, alternating back and forth until a victor is declared. Your ship’s ability to turn is a key element of getting broadside to fire, and any shots you don’t take inside of a round are wasted, but you can’t just flip your ship from one side to the other in a single round. Each pip is worth 30 degrees of angle, to a maximum of 120 degrees of rotation in a single turn.
So what about being a pirate? After all, this is a game taking place in the Caribbean and during the Age of Sail, so what about flying the Jolly Roger yourself? With the English treasure fleet making regular trips to the area, it’s hard to resist occasionally availing yourself of its precious and shiny cargo. In the beginning of the game you’ll struggle to take down any other ships as you simply will not have the firepower, even if you have the maneuverability to dance around your would-be target. Getting in good with the Viceroy and solving problems for towns around the Caribbean will yield Fame points that can be used to build sturdier ships that are more up to your nefarious task. There’s only one problem — everyone is poor. The amount of money you’ll yield versus the cost of repairing your ships isn’t often worth the effort. Taking down a ship of the line only to end up with a few crates of fruit and a massive repair bill is a stark reminder that civilized trade is more profitable than piracy.
Captains don’t grow on trees, and you’ll need a license from the Viceroy to bring one into your enterprise. Each one has a number of stats and traits including their level, pay, their hometown, and how happy they are just to name a few. They also have four skills with levels for smuggler, navigator, eagle eye, and leadership. Leveling up these skills reminds me of tactical games like Wasteland or XCOM, granting additional “powers” like the ability to approach a town that is currently under blockade, expanding the distance you can spot other ships, or how many more sailors you can pack onto your combat vessels. These powers manifest themselves in battle in a way that reminds me of tabletop gaming. Some skills can let you trade positions with another ship or even push it out of the way. It breaks any and all realism, which may be a deal breaker for some. On top of feeling out of place, it also made the endgame occasionally feel very unfair. Lucky combinations of powers can beat skill, and that works for AI as well as the player.
For a game that is played at 50,000 feet away, zooming in reveals a game that is rich with a staggering amount of detail. Dry docked boats have deckhands working away on them as others unload goods and mill about. Each town, regardless of size, is teeming with life and movement. The ships themselves are even more detailed, as is the water they ride on. It’d be very easy to build a world where all of this was more basic and representative, but the Gaming Minds team spent a great deal of time and effort making this outing as gorgeous as possible. While there are numerous areas that need work in Port Royale 4, graphics aren’t one of them.
At the end of my time with Port Royale 4 I can honestly say that I’m not sure how to feel about it. On one hand the game is gorgeous, and the skeleton of a sturdy trading system lies underneath. On my hook hand, it’s a game that is obtuse and confusing, features immersion-breaking turn-based combat, and carries with it some bugs in the cargo hold. Developer Gaming Minds has promised to continue to listen to feedback while they batten down the hatches, but right now this game has a few holes in the hull that need pitch applied and quickly. She’s still seaworthy, but new would-be Captains might want to beware.
Port Royale 4
Occasionally obtuse and sporting a few UX/UI barnacles, Port Royale 4 could use a little more dry dock time before setting out on the high seas. AI trading bugs and occasionally unfair combat sequences discourage combat, which takes the wind out of the sails of this pirate adventure. Developer Gaming Minds can patch the hull, but they need to do so before people find another ship on which to set sail.