If games were like family, Age of Pirates would be that geeky cousin you interact with most at boring family functions. You know, the one with encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek/Simpsons quotes/Westeros, who takes little stock of his personal appearance and a lot in his ability to confound lesser beings with obscure references. Whether you enjoy this cousin’s company or not really comes down to whether you can nerd out as hard in kind: hold your own with the corny jokes and endless trivia, and maybe you’ll hang out sometime without the pretext of Grandma Edie’s 90th birthday, to play Settlers of Catan or something. This metaphor is getting out of control, but only because it’s so apt. Allow me to explain.
Age of Pirates is a turn-based sandbox open-world RPG from the Trese Brothers, a brave little indie dedicated to the old-school gamer’s mentality of substance over style. You have the option of starting with a storyline character, a merchant out to save his dying kid by blowing a ton of cash on an expensive magical cure, or choosing one of several generic pirates to take on the huge fantasy-tinged world however your scallywag heart desires. You start with a basic fluyt ship and crew, a supply of rations and gold, and a gridded overhead view of your ship and all the ports in the region. This initial region is just one of the 36 that make up the six by six square game world – although inland tiles are unnavigable – and with hundreds of tiles of ocean and roughly 10 ports per square region, that means a ludicrous amount of ground to cover and explore.
Graphics-wise, Age of Pirates looks like it could have been released in the early 1990s. Not that it goes for the retro chic look, but everything is 2D, top-down and visually so spare that it could pass for a port of an old Genesis game. There’s almost no animation and very little artwork in general, with only the overhead maps and some decent static drawings for the myriad menus as eye candy. The sound is similarly minimal, with only a couple sound effects for cannon fire, sailing and the like. Musically, there’s stock music in the main menu and a grating “epic” battle tune that plays every time you encounter a ship (whether friend or foe). Shoutout to my faithful friend the mute button, without which this review wouldn’t be so positive.
Alongside the scope of the content, what really sells the game is the nuance and complexity of how things work. The user interface is menu-heavy to be sure, but fairly intuitive considering how exhaustive the gameplay is. Your ship’s various components (sails, hull, cargo space, morale, etc.) are expressed numerically like a character sheet, but you also have a captain with upgradeable stats and skills specific to life on the high seas. Sailing anywhere costs time and rations, damages your sails, and randomly kills crewmembers. Each region has a wind direction and sailing against the wind has a higher chance of hurting your ship and using more rations. Use up all your rations and your crew might get mutinous, so part of the challenge is in plotting your course according to the wind and your food stores. Design features like this you’ll either find incredibly tedious or immersive depending on your tastes, and there’s not much room for middle ground.
Any new ocean tile you enter may lead to a random encounter with another ship, which opens up the battle menu. Be it friend or foe, you have the option to attack, avoid, or give up your precious cargo to inspection/robbery. Choosing to attack or being engaged by a faster ship starts the turn-based battle system. As with everything in Age of Pirates, there’s little in the way of visual stimulation so the drama of battle is more imagined than experienced. Damage and hit registry are managed by unseen die rolls, making for straightforward wait-and-see style of combat embellished by a small bevy of tactical options. You have three distances (long, medium, short) from which to attack via cannon, assuming you have stores of gunpowder handy, and at closer distances you have the option of firing grapeshot or chainshot (which are anti-personnel and ship-wrecking weaponry, respectively). Get your ship on top of the enemy and you can board to duel the enemy captain. Disable the ship or kill the captain and you can take what’s left of the crew, cargo, cannon, and even the whole ship itself if you so desire—or you can just scuttle the thing for extra cash.
Aside from the battle menu and the overhead map, there are also menus drawn onto the image of each port. There’s a tavern where you hire crew members, listen to rumors, and treat your crew to boost morale; a dock where you can repair and upgrade your ship; a governor’s fort where you can find missions, join the port’s faction, or purchase letters of marque; and a market, where you can buy and sell via a convenient slider-based menu. All ports have their own economy and certain commodities will be more available or in demand depending on its archetype (fishing village, population center, military fort, and so on). One cool thing about this is these economies are actually influenced by your trade, so oversupplying a port can lead to a drop in prices, encouraging you to peddle your wares elsewhere. You can pick up mini-quest commissions from the forts and taverns for extra money, with goals ranging from dropping off a package somewhere to scuttling some enemy ship. Additionally, there is an array of factions you can do these missions for, advancing your reputation and eventually allowing you to join them.
As you can probably tell, the gameplay is nearly impossible to summarize without glossing over all the neat little details. Ultimately, your own predilection for menu upon menu of this stuff will determine Age of Pirates‘ true value. Figuring out how all this minutiae works is half the fun, the other half being a mixture of random events and the bounty of choices available at every turn. While engaging on an intellectual level, the gameplay has an aimless quality about it (outside the merchant’s quest), so as a player you’re left to set your own goals most of the time. Outside of the story/tutorial, Age of Pirates doesn’t hold any hands, and while this might repel casual gamers it will definitely absorb the obsessive, nerdy sort. You know, just like your uber-dork cousin.