Shiver me timbers and adjust me commodity prices!
When you think of the crystal blue Caribbean sea during the Age of Sail, surely you imagine it being filled with the sound of cannon-fire, stained with the blood of pirates and hiding vast riches of buried treasure. Well, that’s a part of it, but there was also residential zoning to be considered balance sheets to be done and tax forms to be filled! Yarr! Port Royale 4 tries to involve in the broader economics of this exciting time and place to create a more well-rounded simulation of being a merchant or privateer. But is this ambitious marriage of finance and swashbuckling really fun?
Learning the ropes of Port Royal 4 is made a lot easier by the addition of some tutorials but as I scanned my eyes over the estimated run time of each of these tutorials and found they cumulatively clocked in at upwards of an hour, I was a little intimidated.
Thankfully, there is a hefty bit of automation available to make trading more manageable. Not only can you set up trade routes for your convoys of schooners and brigandines to follow and tell them exactly what to buy and sell along the way, you can even let them use their own best judgement on what amounts to buy and sell. This is a huge relief, as though setting up my routes required a bit of fiddling, they didn’t require any more micromanagement to get keep them ferrying goods for a solid profit.
However, this illustrates perhaps the biggest problem with Port Royal 4. It’s not really about pivotal decisions but a series of gentle tweaks. Most of your time is spent watching your money roll in from lucrative trade routes and periodically purchasing some new ships or buying up some businesses.
It becomes a bit like a seaborne game of Railroad Tycoon, except instead of tricky moments where you decide whether to take a plunge and build an expensive railroad halfway across the map to undermine your opponent’s corporation, Port Royale 4 just has you continuously expanding with very little big risk/reward decisions.
One thing that’s definitely very unique and awesome about Port Royale 4 is the graphical interface. You can zoom out so far you can see a massive panorama of the entire Caribbean and then zoom in so far you can see the little people scurrying between different buildings in the port towns. Cleverly, this also acts as a shortcut for changing the speed of the game. When you zoom in, time slows down so you can focus on the niceties of loading and unloading your ships or developing your businesses in a port. When you zoom out, time passes by much quicker as you get an overview of your convoys zipping between ports. It’s a neat mechanic that makes the gameplay smoother as it showcases how much work has gone into making the landscape seamless at whatever zoom level.
When zooming in to port level, you can also get a hexagonal view of the various buildings there. There’s a reasonably complex set of systems determining the economy of each port. If you build a fruit farm, for example, that can possibly create an abundance, lowering the price of that good, allowing you to get it cheaply and sell it elsewhere with an improved profit margin.
However, building messy, noisy farms and workshops near residential areas can cause discontent amongst the populace, leading to problems like lower population growth and fewer people being available to work. Unhappiness can be mitigated by making sure your trade routes supply towns with a healthy variety of luxury goods. Of course, building anything at all requires gaining favour with the viceroy first, and then you’ll need to make sure adequate buildings supplies are shipped to construct the buildings in the first place. Those who thirst for complexity in their economic simulations are likely to be satisfied with Port Royale 4!
From time to time, you’ll be called upon by your chosen nation’s viceroy to go out pirate hunting to defend the realm! This is accomplished via a hexagonal grid where the ships of the various naval belligerents can move and attack. Each ship gets a certain number of manoeuvre points depending on how agile they are and the skills of the ship’s captain. This effects how many hexes ships can move and how swiftly they can turn to bring their cannons to bear. Ships can fire from their port and starboard side each round so it takes a bit of planning and forethought to fire off both broadsides before the end of each ship’s turn.
The better your captains are, the more special skills they can gain – these range from being able to repair some damage rapidly to spreading fire over a section of ocean, causing heavy damage to foes trying to flank your ships.
It’s also handy to be able to mitigate a ship’s battered hull or less powerful array of cannon by filling it with cutlass-wielding sailors and boarding an enemy vessel, taking them out of commission and seizing their goods at the end of battle if your crew strength is great enough.
Though the combat in Port Royale 4 isn’t exactly X-Com in terms of being exciting and dramatic, it’s a functional naval battle simulation.
Playing the first campaign through, I did notice I’d frequently go many hours without any battles occurring. Despite sea-bourne battles being such a major selling point of a game in this setting, they can often be few and far between, and there’s often little need to engage in them. Even if your ships get waylaid by pirates, you can just surrender your cargo and be on your way with only a modest loss of profit before the trading cycle begins anew.
There is the option of donning a black flag yourself, which allows you to rob convoys of your patron nation, but this can risk you losing fame, which are required to gain concessions from your viceroy. Concessions are used to get licenses to build new businesses, hire more captains and other global bonuses. Since legal trading is so incredibly lucrative, there’s no real reason to take the enormous risk of losing fame by committing acts of piracy. Though there’s the option of playing a pirate or a merchant, the balance feels overwhelmingly skewed towards the former.
Overall, the experience of Port Royale 4 ends up feeling stretched a little thin. Though there are riches to be made, treasures to be found and pirates to defeat, the whole experience lacks the tension of being in constant competition with an equally powerful rival. Since you’re not in symmetrical opposition to anyone, it’s not a great grand strategy, and it’s not a particularly in-depth turn-based combat strategy either. Instead of feeling like a cunning pirate king or merchant tycoon, you often end up feeling like you’re in a rather aimless sandbox with a list of fiddly errands to do. There are moments of swashbuckling fun and I laud how ambitious Port Royale 4 is in the scope of its simulation, but the buried treasure of a truly great piratical game is still a few leagues away.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One; Publisher: Kalypso Media; Developer: Gaming Minds; Players: 1; Released: September 25th, 2020;
Full Disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Port Royale 4 given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher