Yo ho ho and a bottle of sour mash.
Set against the (pseudo-)historical backdrop of the American Civil War in general and the Union Blockade in particular, Swashbucklers: Blue vs. Grey is a conflicted little genre mash-up of a game that almost - almost - works as well as it should. Mechanically, it’s not far off from the balance of mission-based and free-play approaches found in Sid Meier’s Pirates!, and indeed, it takes place in a smaller slice of the same geographical region in that game (albeit 200 years later). It’s a little bit port-hopper, a little bit RPG, a little bit simplistic fighter/brawler… but alas, in the end, it’s a few states short of a Union, or even a Confederacy.
First, the notion of a badass: A gunslinging, morally ambiguous ship captain pirating his way around the Civil War-era Caribbean in his yee-haw cowboy getup, and hears voices in his head which serve as in-game tutorial, is a pretty great concept on paper. You can almost see a half-drunk Harry Turtledove gleefully cracking his knuckles over his keyboard. Abraham Gray—now there is a name for a conflicted Civil War-era protagonist!—spends his time going from port to port as a pirate and trader, engaging in ship-to-ship combat, and often laying some odds on himself in simple arcade-style street brawls, while constantly upping his skills and stats.
I hope you like reading about the exclamative Pirates!, because Swashbucklers is obviously inspired by it. If you’ve played that earlier old seahorse of a game, you’ll recognize a lot in Swashbucklers…at least in theory. As Abraham Gray, you’ll travel throughout the southeastern coastal expanse of the Union and Confederacy as well as various Caribbean Sea ports of call. On land, there are the tried-and-true options of buying and selling cargo (gunpowder, alcohol, steel, sail cloth, cotton and many other materials), visiting shops, upgrading and repairing ships, wagering on fistfights, and picking up new missions.
Cruising around on the sea, you’ll engage other sailing vessels with an arsenal of shipboard weapons, including new-fangled steam-driven ships sailing under a variety of different flags. Rather than being confined to rigid classes of ships with a fixed number of generic guns, you can purchase distinct weapon systems - additional guns, rockets, ‘hot-shot’ cannonballs and gatling guns - and assign them to primary and secondary weapon slots. On the eye-candy port-to-port navigation map, ships move in real-time and slotted weapons can be targeted independently of the ship’s movement. Eligible ships also have slots for steam-engine upgrades, which can give a short-term speed boost in combat - just don’t lean on them too much or they’ll overheat.
If you find your ship lacking in firepower, maneuverability, or cargo space, you can always try to capture a better one at sea. When the opportunity presents itself, you can close the distance and board other vessels, and thence proceed to mow down the waves of opposing deck-hands in a freestyle-brawl mode, with guns and gloriously bloody sword-based melee combat, before finally taking on the opposing captain in a simplified side-scrolling mano-a-mano duel. If the newly acquired vessel isn’t worth turning into your new flagship, you can always send it back State-side, where it will eventually yield funds from continuous shipyard auctions.
In the venerable Sid Meier’s Pirates! (see what I mean?), players were able to give their captain an original name and even assign him one, but only one, broad-strokes specialty skill; Swashbucklers goes deeper in some directions. Abraham Gray is a kinda-sorta RPG-style character. He has both personal and shipboard slot-based inventory limits; he can personally equip weapons; and as he gains experience and ‘levels up’, which happens on a quick and generous basis, he can gain new options and abilities. He can increase power in combat, dodge/escape moves, and gain specialized blade attacks that can take down multiple targets at once.
And yet, despite such arguably greater depth in this and other certain key aspects, Swashbucklers doesn’t always hang together into a cohesive experience. It doesn’t come from any one glaring flaw but rather from a series of unconnected prickly points that make the game an ‘acquired taste’…and a low-calorie one at that.
The streets of various seaside towns are presented in an overhead view that obliges the player to ‘manually’ walk Gray around from one screen full of streets to the next. But one soon wonders why? This seemingly neat, immersive approach really boils down to simply cycling endlessly through each possible location in each port town, each saloon, dock, and store, a tiring routine that could be (and in other games, has been) streamlined by a simple menu system. Without any environmental imperative to the streets themselves, such real-space navigation translates only to dead game time.
Side missions rapidly blur into one fetch quest after another. Players can alternately wing it for a while by running desired cargo from one Caribbean destination to another, but this scheme is extremely limiting. You can find yourself in a situation where you can’t pick up any new delivery runs until you’ve fulfilled a previous one, which definitely takes the bloom off the idea of free destiny.
One example of this kind of trade going especially awry rears its rum-addled head when and if you purposefully (or accidentally!) sell one of the rarer material types to a port other than its original intended destination. Before you can visit a new locale and run goods for this destination, you still have to make good on your original delivery. Good luck finding those goods again. In other words, you can’t just blow it off, especially if something more interesting (or potentially lucrative) distracts your cowboy-piratey attention. What’s next? Punching a time-clock?
The street-boxing mini-game is good for some extra cashflow, and although it is a very simplified 2D fighter affair, it requires some semblance of attention, if not particular skill. If you simply swing away repeatedly, you will find Gray’s punches quickly and ludicrously drained of their power. Like a bit too much of the rest of the game - and far too many of the port environments - it’s just the same thing over and over again without even the modest roster of distractions that keep the admittedly repetitive Pirates! afloat. And since dialogue interactions are presented in text, you’ll wonder why they bothered with the bargain-basement Simlish audio. I suppose it does sound a bit like a voice-hearing Civil-War split-personality well hammered into his own cups.
At best, Swashbucklers might garner your attention on a beer-and-pretzels level. Its presentation leaves a lot to be desired, but even with the current swell of pirate media, there still aren’t so many games catering to the pirate-jonesing. So the genre-mangling approach is interesting for a while. In isolated sessions, it might just barely hold you over until the next real pirate game - Pirates of the Burning Sea - shows its topsails on the horizon.