Limitless sailing and adventure around every corner?
The promise of sailing the high seas pillaging and plundering your way to infamy have been near the top of many gamers lists since Assassin’s Creed Black Flag. While Ubisoft’s Skull & Bones has yet to materialize and Microsofts Sea of Thieves failed to capture the audience another contender has stepped in. Under the Jolly Roger promises limitless sailing with adventure around every corner. So is this a trip you should embark on? Batten down the hatches and let us dive right in.
From the start, Under the Jolly Roger tells you this isn’t going to be any normal pirate game. Your ship is destroyed by the mythical Kraken and it is your purpose to regain your standing and hunt this beast down. This will be achieved by doing all the dirty things pirates do: Trade, pillage, and plunder and forge alliances when needed. On paper, this makes for a great time. The promise of open seas and a living world were quickly washed away like an old sea dog who has given up hope.
The execution is really the downfall for Jolly Roger.
Originally released back in 2016 on the PC and PS4 (as Tempest: Pirate Action RPG) the game doesn’t look to have improved on any of the previous missteps. Navigation which is the majority of the game is as promised. You are able to freely sail around the world and its multiple regions (once unlocked). Unfortunately, this is an exercise in tedium as there is a real lack of excitement or engagement to be had. Instead, you are greeted to endless seas with landscape pop-ins off in the distance. Frequently as you sail between locations you will get indications that pirates, rivals, or merchant ships are around and you can choose to engage. This happens when you utilise the map screen for navigation.
The opposite is also true, you can choose to ignore these outright and are not be penalized either. Yes, you can argue that avoiding battles deprives you of possible recruits, goods, and cheaper repairs. But a counter to that would be the poor mechanics involved with battle draw out engagements and even result in the enemy sailing away if they catch a good wind and retreat. Speaking of wind, as stated earlier, you will spend most of your time at sea. Anyone with the slightest sailing inclination knows that wind at your back is optimal for speed. As a result, you will be chasing a blue indicator around even during a battle to properly manoeuvre your ship. You have the ability to control your sails (albeit zero, half, or full sail) but this mechanic feels off.
Purest could argue that this is indicative of a true sim experience but this ultimately comes off as a novel idea that does nothing to enhance the player’s engagement. The same can be said for the crew. The promise of levelling your crew is fantastic. At times this felt like it dipped its toes into resource management sim. Making sure you have the right number of men staffing your cannons, rigging, etc, should be exhilarating. Instead, you have a static screen with a tiny font (when docked) where you move around figures devoid of any personality or character at all. This feels like a huge missed opportunity to grow with your crew and get to learn who they are. Promised as an open seas RPG the final execution feels devoid of any of the real trappings associated with a title of the genre.
Control-wise, Jolly Roger does fair better.
The actual sailing can be fun if you accept the slow pace. The ship responds well in open water. However, this I suspect will be skipped as map navigation is just faster. The big let down comes in the 3rd person sequences. The trailer was well done and will certainly hook players with its swordplay and combat. The rude awakening came quickly, however, as the characters handle poorly. Everything is stiff and lacking in terms of animations. I applaud them for the inclusion of this as it does add some depth but it is all handled poorly. Boarding enemy ships results in a battle of crews until only one stands. Sid Meier’s Pirates! handled these engagements much better two decades ago. While that title was not without its share of jankiness, it also had a level of wit and charm completely absent here.
Visually the game is no better.
The open sea sections do look decent. The waves churning as your ship rocks back and forth is very nice. The sea beasts look like they were picked up off the cutting room floor of a PS1 title. There was nothing scary or the least bit startling having one emerge and attack you while you battle a rival pirate ship. The previously mentioned 3rd person sections are more of the same. The forts and secret areas you dock at feel lifeless. The flat textures and lack of civil engineering is apparent as the towns even seem to just have buildings randomly placed to fill the flat land. Nothing feels or looks natural as the flat surfaces give an artificial air to everything.
Sound-wise, oh boy what a missed opportunity. The ambient sounds are well done. Listening to the waves crash and the wind blow is handled well. But where are the sea shanties? Where are the local drunkards serenading your ears with tales of adventures past? The action segments are pulled off to a solid degree as the cannons boom and the hull and mast splinter with incoming blows. Again, this feels like a missed chance to really heighten the immersion through the use of sound design.
With all that said, I have enjoyed my time with Under the Jolly Roger. Everything I criticised never stopped me from wanting to return to the sea. The beauty of titles like this rests on its ability for the player to create their own story using what is provided as just a suggested guide. After some frustration at first and accepting it for what it is, JR is ok. The promise of undiscovered lands and adventure will bring players willing to look past its shortcomings, back time and time again. The lack of touch screen input especially in the menus is a minus as is the lack of polish considering its age.
Review code provided
Platform: PC, PlayStation, Nintendo
Release Date: 03/09/2020
No. of Players: 1
Category: RPG, Action
Developer: Lion’s Shade
Download link: eShop