She's got Kat class and she's got Kat style...
When it comes to the available selection of video games, pirate fans have really gotten bent over ye olde keg o' rum, haven't we? When you consider the genre's inherent flavor, heraldry, violence and general Ne'er Do-Well Quotient, you'd think we'd be so awash in buttloads of buccaneering that the law of averages would yield quite a few decent titles...and you'd be wrong.
Oh, we've had a few lucky breaks: Psygnosis' arcadish Shipwreckers! was accessible and fun, but it was kinda goofy. The excellent Monkey Island series had gameplay, atmosphere and style to burn, but it was also really goofy, being a comedy game and all. The less said about many of the PC offerings in the interim, the better.
Alas, decent pirate-themed games are still the exception rather than the rule. But Westwood's Pirates: The Legend of Black Kat eases some of the pain, me mateys, yaaarrrr.
In this hybrid land-sea action game, players take on the role of pirate-for-the-people hottie Katarina de Leon, a redheaded swashbuckling beauty who has followed in the footsteps of her mother (once a pirate herself). Seems that the Unreasonably Evil Captain Hawke (tm) and his band of Crimson Guard sea-droogies have been systematically muscling the local islands one by one, and Katrina has devoted her life to working up a one-woman resistance operation.
Okay, so you're playing a "good guy" (gal, actually), which perhaps takes away part of the ideological fun of a pirate game. Still, Black Kat makes up for it with a well-realized, free-roaming world and some intuitive ship combat that rides the line between age-of-sail authenticity and good old-fashioned, bone-headed arcade gameplay.
Commanding the ship The Wind Dancer (which can be continually resupplied and upgraded throughout the course of the game from a lowly single-cannon sub-frigate wave cutter to a buffed-up baddass galleon), Katrina's Caribbean Dayrunner is just packed. Within one more-or-less seamless game engine, Katrina has much to do in this game, including exploring secret islands on foot, battling enemy vessels at sea, discovering buried treasure, fighting foes with blades, ranged weapons and explosives, and running major as well as minor quests.
Legend of Black Kat is a busy little game control-wise, as every PS2 controller button and stick is used, with only the R1/R2 shoulders being redundant (cycling up/down through inventory). The L2 shoulder has a context-sensitive function, such as that used for digging up buried treasure when it is nearby, thanks to Katrina's Dual Shock Swashbuckling Spider-Sense. The rumbling feature will clue you in when buried booty is nearby, so after you clean out the local defenses, you can dig that stuff up. It's a really cool way of making the player feel his/her explorations and efforts actually amount to something - although it would have been cooler still in terms of replay if the caches in question were relocated from save to save. Oh well.
While Katrina's melee combat-control options are limited - a generic attack button, a shoulder-button block and jumps thrown in at the proper times - her sweeps and thrusts chain together nicely into an almost balletic flow that makes even your ham fisted button-mashing look like something out of a well-choreographed stage presentation. The true stuff of your combat skills is made of the judicious use of throwing knives, 'mini-keg' grenades and certain magical items, and knowing precisely when and how to use these implements to your advantage.
It's become an unofficial requirement that games today offer not only good gameplay, but immersion in a complete, cohesive world. Legend of Black Kat's best aspect by far is the world itself; if you can see it, you can probably get to it and explore it/dig it up/kill it. The place is alive with great little touches and details, too. Witness the rich, Caribbean sunsets, the footprints and boot-slide marks Katrina leaves as she races along a beach or down a slope, the groups of wandering, oversized mutant crabs that click and crawl about, the shadows of clouds as they move across the sky, and the mast-bashing, sail-shredding damage you can see as both the enemy vessels and yours get blown to bits.
As with a Zelda game, most everything you see and hear has a function and is interrelated in some way to the rest of the world. For example, if you're engaged in a sea-land battle with a fortress on shore which you then defeat, you'll be able to seize that fortress for your own use...or to find a treasure chest in the wreckage when you finally make landfall.
The sea combat is half the game, and it's fulfilling yet simple at the same time. Analog stick control allows you to both manipulate the camera and maneuver the ship (happily, the wind is always going your way), while the shoulder buttons cycle through inventory and weapon types. You can zoom way out and above to get a parrot's-eye view of your vessel (and if the angle and 'time of day' are right, get a nice glimpse of sunken wrecks through the shallower, crystal-clear waters, a nice touch), while the directional buttons offer up instant first-person views fore, aft, port and starboard.
While some special weapons can be found to allow forward firing, most of your cannons are side-mounted, so a little basic naval strategy is in order. After a little practice, you can use the zoomed-out view to get your bearings, line up an attack run parallel to an enemy vessel's path, switch instantly to a portside view in order to crank off broadside attacks, and then flip to an aft hull view to watch the enemy burning and going down as your peel off to starboard in a long circle. It's an elegant system, even when your first-person combat view is cluttered with your own sagging masts as The Wind Dancer takes on damage.
Sea combat is also surprisingly swift and brutal, so you'll often be using up onboard materials to repair damage on the fly. Either that, or you can pull into captured fortresses to spend your seized pirate booty to buy larger craft, more guns, and specialized ammo types such as sail-ripping Chain Shot, hull-burning Fire Pots, or (my personal favorite) crew-gagging Stink Pots that temporarily stun the enemy's deck hands with a flaming aromatic mixture of sulfur, Roquefort cheese, unwashed socks and VHS copies of Godzilla. Probably.
While the game's main story mode isn't entirely linear, there's definitely a main, fuzzy-logic progression you'll probably make through the Five Seas replete with different island chains/environments. Exploring every last nook and cranny of every single island is not necessary, but the curious and tenacious will find their efforts rewarded with additional ill-gotten goods, major quests and minor side quests. Indeed, I would be remiss in my duties to my fellow gamers if I did not mention the flower-fetching junket for a scantily-clad, vain and possibly lesbian mermaid. And of course, the no-goodnick Captain Hawke must eventually be dealt with, along with a host of living and (un)dead foes.
What's the catch, then? Truth is, it may be that Black Kat's world is simply a little too big, a roomy universe not quite filled with enough active challenges for some impatient gamers. I personally found the game's smooth mechanics, yo-ho storyline and smooth production values to be more than enough to carry me, although some gamers may find they're doing the same cycles of exploration, combat and upgrading again and again (I suspect these people simply aren't exploring very efficiently).
For those gamers who simply want to blow stuff up, Pirates offers a one- or two-player sea combat mode that gets right to the good stuff, offering new battle maps for instant violence without the need for culling together a fortune and buying upgrades one by one. It definitely has the feeling of an "also-ran" mode, but it's a good one. And for you super-obsessive types, there's a Scrapbook opened by progress through the game, offering game-concept artwork (which in a shocking reversal of the natural order is actually good artwork, that one might actually want to look at, as opposed to the lame-ass stick-figure scribbling usually packed into games as a 'bonus' feature).
Any way you slice it, Pirates: The Legend of Black Kat offers a freewheeling world, fuzzy-but-attractive graphics, overall elegant production values and a main character you can root for, making it one of the best things to happen to the pirate genre in a long time.