There seem to be surprisingly few pirate games. Take the Monkey Island series out of the mix and there are not a lot left, and very few of them are sailing based. Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag and Sea of Thieves are about the only two that stick in people’s memories, and right now the future seems bleak with Skull and Bones looking like it’s never going to dock. To fill the void it’s time to board King of Seas from 3D Clouds, and published by Team 17. An open world action RPG pirate adventure sounds like just the thing to spark the imagination and give you reason to shout “Arr ya’ scurvy dogs!” at the TV. Will the Italian developed top down cruiser give us a procedurally generated perspective for ruling the high seas? Or will it try to sail against the wind and end up feeling like it’s dropped anchor in the wrong place?
In a tale as old as time, our hero (Luky or Marylou depending who you pick) is the offspring of the king and destined to be a great naval commander until an unfortunate run in with the unscrupulous and power hungry elite of the kingdom. Left to die in the ocean, they’re rescued by pirates who once roamed the kingdom until they were forced to flee by the navy. It turns out that they’re actually not a bad lot, and give Marylou/Luky a boat and support so they can return home. Things aren’t that easy though, and it’s not long before they’re declared full on traitors to the crown. With only a single ship and some guidance from rum swilling brigands, they need to build their legend as one of the pirate greats and head back to claim what’s rightfully theirs. It’ll require all their cunning, guile and skills in battle to become King of Seas… as well as the wind blowing in the right direction.
The entirety of King of Seas is set… well… at sea. It’s a top down game where you steer your vessel around the world, stopping at ports, trading goods, searching for treasure and fighting with any one that gets in your way. It’s also procedurally generated so that no two layouts are ever the same. It’s pretty much 49 squares on the map where each grid is mixed and matched on first load to set the world, then ships, wrecks and pickups dotted at random as you play. You control your ship by pointing in the direction you want to go and raising the sails to catch the wind. With three levels of raised sails you can control the speed, and heading with or into the wind affects the overall nautical speed. In a neat touch for the exploration, you can only see what’s in the screen around you and the map isn’t even revealed until you purchase them for the region you’re in. It gives it a real feel of discovery and brings a bit of trepidation as you never know what you’re about to stumble in to.
With three different factions in the realm – pirates, merchants and the navy – there’s an amount of caution needed if you don’t want to continually be in combat. The navy will attack pirates on sight, whilst the merchants will happily allow you to dock at their ports as long as you’re not plundering their ships right in front of them. Scuttling them in the middle of the ocean is alright though. Get into a fight and there are a few ways to approach it. Every vessel has a number of cannons that can be loaded with different shot to target hulls, sails or crew, and the idea being that depleting each of them gives a benefit: slowing their speed, reducing their ability to return fire, or just flat out sinking them. There are also crew abilities that harness voodoo magic which are basically special attacks that go from becoming ethereal and immune to cannon fire, to conjuring sea monsters to attack on your behalf. It’s a decent blend of options and when you couple them with navigating the ship and judging range and impact, it becomes quite tactical.
Success in combat earns XP, as does picking up castaways (which replenishes your crew), fishing, finding treasure or looting wrecks. The levelling up is important for improving the global command skills like damage inflicted, resistance to magic and sailing speeds; though it doesn’t start earning points to invest until you hit level 10 for some reason. Ships on the other hand can have parts swapped in and out to make them better. In the beginning there’s only a Sloop to get you around, which is fine for playing more as a merchant, yet it can’t stand up to anything with a bit of firepower. Once you can buy other vessels it’s tempting to go for something like a Frigate that packs more of a punch, but it’s worth considering what you need to do. A Galleon is a powerhouse though a bit unwieldy, whilst a Brig is nippier and has a bigger hold so might be worth using for scooping up trade worthy items. Any ship parts acquired can be applied to each vessel and they mostly give buffs to attack, defence or magic, and if they’re not used they can be stored for putting somewhere else, or sold to the ship merchants for cold hard cash.
King of Seas makes sure there’s lots of gold needed throughout, and it does it in spades with a global market. Whether you choose to sink ships and steal their cargo, or run errands for the local faces, it’s likely you’ll still end up getting involved in the trading elements. Every port has a market to buy and sell goods with, and each one has in demand and surplus items so you know what you can buy cheap and sell high on. Leveraging that will earn cash faster, though flooding somewhere with too much of one type will cause the price to plummet. It’s one of the more tangible instances of in game economies that I’ve seen, even if it’s limited to only a few types of goods. Selling unwanted ship upgrades is still the quickest way of making money though, and the rarer the level, the more you’ll get. As the story progresses it unlocks new features, and when it comes time to start taking over and managing the ports, that’s when the money really comes in to play. Upgrading is expensive so knowing how to maximise a return is crucial.
With the efficiently told story and the cutesy graphics you’d be forgiven for thinking that King of Seas is like a leisurely row around a lake. It’s not, and whilst a challenge is good, this is where it all feels unbalanced. Even playing on the lowest difficulty, which means you don’t have to salvage your gear after getting blasted out of the water, it can be a slog. Partly it’s getting used to the pace of naval combat, but mainly I think it’s because some of the elements just don’t work together. In isolation the idea of taking down sails and crew on an opponent to then smash the hull is great, but it feels pointless. Damaging sails slightly slows them down, the rest appears to have no impact so you might as well just head for sinking them straight away. Likewise with levelling up, you want to grow in experience to take on new challenges, which is encouraged through the mission structure, yet it’s redundant because every other ship in the world gets spawned to match your level, or beat it. Why bother grinding to get those levels up if it’s not giving an advantage? Even if you hit the right levels it’s no guarantee of making an easier job. There’s also the hit detection (or it might be the damage calculation). Plenty of times I’ve seen attacks fail to make a dent on a lower ranked enemy, though they are able to sink me with two shots. It gets worse when you have to take on multiple ships and don’t have much in the way of targeting.
Where combat should be a game of cat and mouse and strategic positioning to get the right shot off, it often results in you just hightailing it for open water and dropping explosive barrels in your wake hoping the AI will run in to it. I mean, the AI loves running into you and damaging your hull at every given opportunity, though mainly when you’ve just spawned after repairing in a port. The friendly AI really is a bit dumb at times and that really starts to grate as things get more hectic and you get punished just for being in the vicinity of your allies kicking off because they feel like a ruck. When King of Seas layers on the port management (even if it is “lite”), having to continually head back to captured ports to defend them gets a bit tedious, and with the risk of getting taken out easily sometimes it’s not worth the bother. Might as well just leave them to fend for themselves and not recapture them as even when you’re a higher level you can find yourself not doing any damage. It’s a shame that as the game progresses it decides that what you’ve looted and learned is not worth anything, leaving you wondering if you really are a legendary pirate.
With some lovely touches and a unique style, King of Seas started with a lot of promise, but it’s hard to shake the feeling it needs some balancing. Ship upgrades and special abilities are mostly based on the luck of loot drops, and the levelling system really sticks the knife in after you’ve made a lot of effort to get better, only to rank everything else on the ocean up to the same level. Firing off 24 cannons at once should be an impressive, impactful feat, and it can be… but not reliably so. It hurts when you broadside an enemy frigate and see absolutely no damage land, but they can drop you to the depths within seconds. However, the spirit of adventure and exploration is there and it does convey it really well. It’s in the touches like seeing the sun glinting of the crests of waves, or mysterious carvings in rocks coming into view, or even stumbling across the bustling town of Tortuga. It’s infused with humour, colourful characters and interesting, if repetitive, side quests, that unfortunately aren’t enough to make you forget getting your ass handed to you for the vast majority of the game.
A PS4 review copy of King of Seas was provided by 3D Clouds PR team, and the game will available from 25th May on PS4, PC, Xbox One and Switch for around £20.