Taking the golden age of piracy about as seriously as Punch & Judy takes unhappy marriages, this laid-back blend of roleplaying and strategy won’t exactly educate you in the ways of naval warfare. It will, however, have you convinced that spiked cannonballs are physically plausible, and pirates spent as much time building war factories and storming around at the head of armies as they did sinking ships.
Pirates of Black Cove is light and fluffy without being either mindless or cute. Its two main aspects are ship-to-ship combat, which plays out more like a slow-moving shoot ‘em up than Master & Commander stuff, and some frankly quite shonky land battles in the vein of a basic real-time strategy game. In neither case is the game especially tactical - there’s even instant repair pickups for your boat, and few challenges can’t be beaten by simply coming back to them later with more units or a better boat. In between the fighting, you’ll be busy spending your booty on upgrades for both elements - new boats and boat weapons/defences, and new buildings and unit types to reinforce your pirate army. Most of all, however, you'll be craving faster ships - getting around the map at the start of the game is glacially slow. Remember to save often, otherwise you'll find yourself repeating long trips in the event the game suffers one of its all-too-regular crashes.
Despite the appearance of a free-form world - specifically a big old ocean peppered by towns and strongholds - you’re fairly chained to a fixed quest progression line. You could just cruise around blowing up imperial ships and grabbing their loot, but it gets old fast and most of the interesting upgrades don’t show up until you’ve passed particular milestones.
So, quest by quest it is, praying that the game’s smattering of bugs don’t sink your ambitions. It’s being patched regularly, however - a major one is due within hours of writing this, in fact - so all being well it should be shipshape very soon.
The real problem is the land battles, which suffer from a clunky interface, slow and boring progress and unengaging click’n’watch combat carried out by characters who’ve apparently escaped from 1999. It’s not disastrous by any means - it’s just a bit of a drag, and doesn’t really keep pace with the general air of cheer or the arcadey immediacy of the naval combat.
The game’s real hook is the upgrades, gathered by looting and scouring in the vein of an action RPG like Diablo. Gold’s the mainstay, of course, but you’ll also be nosing at secret coves in the hope of finding blueprints that get you closer to a new (and hopefully faster) ship or parts of mythical creatures to brew into health-restoring grog or assorted combat buffs. The game’s designed in such a way that you’ll get your hands on everything eventually, but the lure of popping back into the nearest friendly town to see what you can afford now is a constant and satisfying one.
Pirates of Black Cove takes arguably a bit too much on - roleplaying, strategy, management, shooting - then tries to squeeze it into a highly accessible skin. It finds itself a comfortable place between the inventive and the familiar, but never quite becomes the light-heated delight it aims to be. It’s very much onto the right idea, at least - it’s just lacking that critical extra bit of polish.