Ascaron's strategy game Port Royale takes place in one of the most exciting seagoing settings for a game: the pirate-infested Caribbean of the 16th and 17th centuries. At the time, huge Spanish galleons loaded with gold carried enough cannons to keep ordinary pirates at bay, but there were still plenty of less-defended trade ships that were easy prey for dastardly pirates and buccaneers looking to amass a quick fortune. Intermittent wars between colonial nations made this frontier even wilder--well-armed traders would often be pressed into duty as privateers with a license to sink or capture enemy ships. Port Royale sets you loose in the middle of this world to make your way as a trader, privateer, pirate, or some combination of the three. Once you get past Port Royale's steep learning curve, you may find yourself enthralled by the game's promise of profiteering and pirating on the high seas.
Port Royale drops you in the beautiful--and dangerous--waters of the Caribbean to trade peaceably or engage in piracy.
Those who played MicroProse's classic game Pirates! will find many of the same basic elements in Port Royale, including real-time ship-to-ship combat, career advancement, treasure maps, and story-based missions involving the search for lost family members. But developer Ascaron's prior work on Patrician II--the 2001 strategy game based on medieval Hanseatic League sea trade--is reflected in Port Royale's sophisticated trading system, and the new game has a similarly dry, detail-oriented style. Still, the game is much better than Patrician II, not only because of its more refined interface and graphics but also simply because there's now plenty to do when you're not in the mood to design the best sea routes for buying low and selling high.
It can be surprisingly difficult to get started as a rookie pirate or trader in a normal game of Port Royale, but fortunately the game features a tutorial that provides a detailed walk-through of the game's basic elements. There are no variable difficulty settings for the overall game, but the normal game mode does present you with a handful of custom settings that shape the way your career will unfold. The first step is to represent one of four nations--Spain, England, France, or Holland--which will determine your hometown and initial reputation among the major powers. The time period option (available in 30-year increments, from 1570 to 1660) determines what the map will look like; in earlier periods, the Spanish will control more colonies than they will in later periods. Finally, you can adjust a series of options that will make you slightly better suited for pirating or for trading.
Once you've made those decisions, you're ready to start adventuring, though you'll begin with only a single, defenseless ship with an empty hold and a stack of gold coins. With such lowly beginnings, your weekly expenses are minimal, so it's possible to sit around in port to buy and sell as prices dynamically rise and dip or to build a basic business like a tobacco, sugar, or cocoa plantation. But the real way to make your way in the world is to fill the ship up with cannons or with goods and get to sea.
The real-time battles can be played quickly for routine pirating, but you'll need to use tactics for larger fleet engagements.
Hunting the high seas isn't easy, but it can be rewarding. Port Royale features an interesting and simple real-time combat system that lets you capture and commandeer enemy ships, and, by recruiting additional crew members, you'll be able to increase the size of your fleet surprisingly quickly. And pirates aren't just general targets--some infamous pirates have prices on their heads that you can collect if you successfully capture them, and in other cases, you'll be able to ransom captured privateers to their sponsor nations.
You can also turn to hunting the armed merchant ships flying national colors. These ships are much more lucrative prey because of the free goods you can seize from their holds, though attacking a nation-sponsored ship damages your reputation. After a few more attacks, ports will start refusing you entry, and after many more attacks, you may find yourself the target of military convoys. But once you can afford to buy a letter of marque and become a deputized privateer, then every bad deed against an enemy nation is repaid with a corresponding increase in reputation with your own. Though you'll find that many settlements close their doors to infamous pirates, Port Royale does give you the option to attack anyone and everyone. It's even possible to play the game as a lawless, bloodthirsty pirate, especially once you discover a map to the pirate hideout (which you can capture for your own use), but this is a somewhat limited path fraught with many additional challenges.