Looking at recent releases, there must have been some kind of competition among game developers to release B-class adventure games starring female characters. Two discs with cheesy titles hit shelves within a month of each other, and they're very similar in a lot of ways. While Drakan: The Ancients' Gate was first to stores, Pirates: The Legend Of Black Kat was right on its heels. Both have their share of flaws, both feature alternative forms of free-roaming transportation, and both have a distinctly PC (as in Personal Computer) flavor. One has dragons, one has boats, but down deep they're amazingly alike in terms of their graphics, structure and play value. I'll be tackling both games in two separate reviews to compare and contrast, but if you like either one of these titles, it's a safe bet that you'll like the other.
Pirates: The Legend Of Black Kat is the story of a young firebrand named Katarina, and her quest for salty vengeance after her fathers death at the hands of evil rogues. The setting of the story features an interesting mix of classic swashbuckling elements, fantasy monsters and magic items. While the pirate theme itself isnt very common on consoles, what makes this title particularly noteworthy is that it was produced by Westwood Studios, more famous for their Real-Time Strategy titles under the Command & Conquer banner. However, Pirates is nothing but console-style action, unlike their other titles.
The game consists of roughly 80% third-person adventure, and 20% ship sailing. While on foot, control is simplified and straightforward. Kat can walk or run according to the direction and tilt of the analog stick, and she has a double jump more suited for dodging blows than covering great distances. Combat is basic, featuring auto-aiming, a block maneuver and a preset five-hit combo. Things to do on the seas are equally limited since your vessel is basically transportation from point A to point B, but combat does occur when you venture too close to enemy forts or hostile ships. Your scow comes stocked with cannons and a magically powered masthead, but other special weapons can be acquired. In the main game, you will occasionally be able to upgrade a handful of larger and sturdier vessels.
Looking at the games high points, the graphics and appearance of the island chains and the seas around them are fairly attractive. While being a bit on the sparse side as far as small details go, the water effects are nice and the various lighting and reflection tricks are impressive. The auto-map function is also well done, and aids in your journey significantly.
While sailing through these mostly tropical environments, the incidental sea battles between ships actually turn out to be great fun, and my favorite part of the game. In a smart move, the ship combat is also available in a stand-alone two-player melee mode. Very reminiscent of a little-known PSone game called Shipwreckers!, dealing death with a fiery volley of cannonballs provides a nice adrenaline break between scouring the islands. Besides projectiles, you can ram into enemy ships broadside to get a satisfying visceral thrill as well. The handling of the boats is good, and basically what youd expect a galleon to feel like, with minor tweaks to make things more fast-paced and exciting. FYI, there is no reverse gear on a sailboat.
Before going on, I think I need to clearly say that I basically liked the game—but only in short, controlled sessions. Its one of those pick-up-and-play affairs that you can take and leave on a whim. Being an "older" gamer with a family and job, I can certainly appreciate titles that dont require you to devote days and weeks of your life. I generally dont have huge blocks of free time, and getting a quick game when I have twenty or thirty minutes is nice. However, Im not necessarily saying that I think this is a very good or balanced game, either. The "lite" quality that I found somewhat appealing is also a double-edged sword when its taken to the extreme the way it is in Pirates.
The biggest problem with the game is that it IS the definition of shallow, repetitive gameplay. You sail to an area, walk around an island to find treasure chests and items to advance the quest, and then sail on to the next island. Thats literally all there is to it. There are bosses here and there along with a tiny handful of characters to talk to, but the entire thing adds up to one humongous string of fetchquests. There are no towns, no townsfolk, no crew members, no customization of your boat or your character, no experience points for killing enemies, no extra abilities to be learned, no levels to be gained, no puzzles, no pirate hideout to call home, no dark caves with traps, no landing anywhere but on a dock, no swimming, diving or even walking through water, and absolutely no variety, spice or depth. Quite honestly, after the first hour of gameplay, you will have seen every trick the game has to offer. If you can get past this huge list of "NOs" and the amazingly narrow concept, its not bad.
With the amount of things you cant do, it seems to me that the game should focus on doing a few things well, but even here it comes up short. Theres a lot of potential in the way the world and characters are set up, and I could easily imagine a whole slew of adventures taking place with the magic/pirates/tropical vibe going on here. Sadly, any immersion you might experience is constantly shattered by the complete lack of cohesive presentation. Theres never any illusion of being in a believable world since Pirates is the type of game that never lets you forget that youre just PLAYING A GAME. Constant loadtimes and abrupt transitions break up the flow of play, the random cutscenes leave you wanting more story development, and the simplicity of the geography has a very no-frills "PC" feel to it. The best adventure games make you feel like you are a part of their world, but Westwood fails miserably in this area.
Technically speaking, the game is no great shakes outside of the visuals. Most annoying is that the camera needs constant babysitting, and theres no first-person lookaround button. Youll often be surprised or bushwhacked because an enemy was coming from the direction the camera wasnt pointing, and its hard to get a good view of areas above and below you since youre limited to zooming the camera in or out. Theres a little chop in the framerate on some larger islands, a bit of clipping here and there, and some textures pop in and out as you approach or withdraw from areas. Combat is mindless and amounts to nothing more than tapping one button and aiming in the general direction of enemies. Put it all together, and it doesnt add up to anything particularly polished or special.
I dont know why, but for some reason nearly every videogame that has attempted to use a pirate theme has ended up either sucking, or sucking hardcore. While I definitely wouldnt say that Pirates is at the bottom of the barrel, it misses more opportunities to enhance the game than I can count. Hour after hour, I kept expecting the thing to pick up and surprise me, but then I saw the ending cutscene and realized that was all I was going to get. The entire package is nothing more than a brief diversion that stops being fun less than halfway through—which is sad, because it could have been an expansive, engrossing adventure if only the focus of gameplay had been shifted just a bit deeper. Hopefully, any future sequels will try to achieve more. With the developers goals for the game set as low as they are, the game is more like an underfed cabin boy than a fierce swashbuckler. Arrrgh.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.