Fancy captaining a crew of villainous pirates and sailing the seven seas on a quest for booty? Feel like storming other ships and plundering their supplies or commandeering their vessel? How about taking the remains of their ships to custom build your very own scourge of the seas? If the answer to any of these questions is "Yes" then you may be in the right place! From the creators of Terraria comes open world pirating simulator Pixel Piracy, a retro-styled open-world seafaring and plundering title that looks like it has the potential to be engaging, funny and incredibly content rich.
The goal of Pixel Piracy is to defeat four legendary pirates who are currently wreaking havoc across the oceans. To do so, you must assemble and train a crew of willing and able men and women, build a mighty ship and master the art of battle. In order to achieve any of the above, you will need money, and as you're not exactly gainfully employed, you may have to partake in a spot of thievery to do so - all in the interest of the greater good of course.
Your voyage begins by creating a simple pixellated character who will serve as your pirate captain. The game asks simple questions to fill in the background of this landlubber and determine the difficulty of the coming adventures. These difficulty and scenario settings can alter things like the speed the morale and hunger of your crew deteriorates, or how likely it is that different items will appear. The map is randomly generated, spawning islands which may contain tribesmen or castaways, as well as treasure to dig up and creatures to kill or capture. Enemy pirate ships are common and there are a small number of inhabited islands where you can buy supplies or build a crew.
Unemployed pirates tend to hang out at taverns on inhabited islands. Here you can buy and sell compadres in order to build your crew to your specifications. The real crux of Pixel Piracy is man management. You must keep your crew fed and paid to avoid mutiny and you'll want to equip your pirates with the best possible skills to allow them to work together to keep everyone happy. There's a lot to do here and it isn't particularly well explained in-game, but it's also fairly easy to figure out. The sheer number of items and upgrades are likely to hook collectors and certainly provide enough temptation to go back and explore the world further. Each pirate can be trained in a number of attributes and skills with the former determining their stats such as damage and health and the latter providing specific skills which can be used in and out of battle. The skills system allows crews to become increasingly helpful as they will automatically wander off and engage in those skills if the tools are available.
Cleaners will tidy up your ship, fishermen will top up your food supplies and, allegedly, cannoneers will shoot at enemy ships. We say "allegedly" because we simply could not get this to work, which was particularly frustrating when trying to take on the legendary pirate ships, which would have been easier to defeat with the additional damage from cannonballs. When in battle, our gunners tended to simply hang out on deck and could not be convinced to load or shoot cannons - though they loved nothing more than to shoot cannonballs into the sea randomly when ported at a friendly island.
Theoretically, the controls for crew commands seem very simple. The main character is moved with the left stick and the right stick is used to point at items or enemies, and ask the crew member to move to that spot or attack. You can control your whole crew, or split them into teams which can be directed as required. Unfortunately, this often doesn't work as expected. In sea battles, crew members refuse to move to the enemy ship or simply walk along the ceiling of the hold when asked to attack an enemy on deck. Once an enemy is defeated, they'll stand in place - inactive - until told to attack the next enemy. Every time there's an attack, the screen judders, which is distracting at best, but downright disruptive at times as it makes it very difficult to designate a new target and adds precious seconds of inactive time for attackers. Occasionally, perfectly happy pirates launch themselves into the ocean and drown or refuse to board the ship so that an encounter can be ended.
Luckily, with the exception of the legendary pirates, most encounters are not that difficult as the enemy AI isn't much better than that of your crew. Whenever things get particularly dicey, you may simply retire back to your own ship where you can hang out until fully healed without fear of the enemy boarding you and luckily, it appears their cannons don't work either, so you should be safe to hang out at range. Once defeated, you can either commandeer the enemy vessel or blow it up for parts, which can be used to customise your own ship. The customisation is easy to use and allows you to build the ship of your dreams, though you will likely mostly use it to add cannons and food or ammunition to the deck.
As one would assume from the title, the graphics are firmly in the retro camp, a bit like someone simply zoomed in on Terraria. Sprites are not integrated with their background, but instead bob about in front of it like weird self aware Shrinky Dinks. It's likely that this was done to define crew members and which teams they are on, but it looks a little strange and didn't hit home with us, unfortunately. The backgrounds are nice enough but uninspiring and very quickly it all starts to look the same. This is also the case with the music unfortunately, which suffers from a repetitiveness and lack of flow that is jarring and quickly annoys (although the inclusion of sea shanties is adorable).
Aside from the issues with AI not following orders or committing suicide, we also had problems with some of the interfaces. Occasionally, shop windows don't load correctly and you'll be stuck staring at a blank screen with item names that don't relate to the store type that you're looking at. Not a bug, but the autosave feature will automatically save over slot one of your six save slots, so be sure to save separately as well if you are going to run multiple captains. The in-game help and tutorial don't cover many areas of the gameplay, which would be fine if the AI then reacted as expected when all the components were in place but unfortunately this isn't always the case, so there's a real possibility that you'll miss out on content due to poor guidance or functionality in game. Most importantly, although each ship or island is randomly generated, they boil down to only a small number of possibilities - "oooh this island has a spider and a bird whereas that other one only had a turtle!" isn't cutting it for variety and we would have expected a little more.
Overall, this is a title that is brimming with unrealised potential. If everything worked as designed, Pixel Piracy's customisation options, management mechanics and randomly generated world would be incredibly engaging and fun. Unfortunately, the problems with the AI turn battles from strategic endeavours to long slogs and there isn't as much to do as it first appears. If you're lucky enough to avoid the bugs, Pixel Piracy will provide a couple of hours of enjoyment while you figure out its intricacies and perfect your crew, though we doubt there's enough variation to keep you hooked beyond your first play through.