I have previously written, on more than one occasion, about games with simple premises or gimmicky attributes, which succeed due to the high quality of their execution. Today I would like to talk about a game with a great, interesting premise that fails due to the low quality of its actual design and execution. Pixel Piracy, a pirate-based RTS RPG with roguelike elements, is a game that was in an abysmal state at launch, but which has come a long way since then; the problem is that it has come nowhere near far enough, and does not seem likely to ever do so.
One of my biggest problems with the game is that its most grievous flaws are not apparent to the player until after a few hours in-game. In fact, Pixel Piracy is almost enjoyable, if a little repetitive, for almost half of its campaign. At that point, however, the small cracks widen into crevices, into which fall all of your hopes of ever completing the game with a positive opinion of it. I have completed the main campaign, and it was no easy task to do so (although the gameplay is easy as cake, the game’s technical problems and repetitive design made progress difficult). Now let me discourage you from doing the same.
While, as I said above, the game’s worst flaws (in design and programming) are not visible on first glance, its baffling visual design will be one of the first things that a player notices. Look at the above screenshots. The one on the left is the game as the developers intend it to be played. The one on the right is how the game looks after I went into the settings and disabled all four of the blurs and filters masking the game’s art.
Sure, the art of Pixel Piracy is nothing to write home about anyway, but it’s most assuredly preferable to the playing-through-a-thick-grody-fog style favored by the developers. As it can be shut off, this visual styling is not a big issue for the game, but it is indicative of the game’s tendency to showcase bad decisions on the part of its creators.
Pixel Piracy‘s Tedious and Flawed Core Gameplay:
On the subject of its actual gameplay, it is hard to express succintly why it is so poor—the overall failure of Pixel Piracy is comprised of its smaller failures across the board. Pixel Piracy tries to be a whole lot of things at once: an RTS game, a ship-building exploration game, a party-based RPG, and a roguelike. But the result is a game that is a very weak example of each and every one of those genres—if I didn’t consider it overly charitable to call it a ‘jack’ of anything, the saying ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ would apply.
First, let’s look at its combat. Whereas I have previously covered how the combat in Double Fine’s Costume Quest fails because it tries too little, Pixel Piracy‘s combat fails because it tries too much. The many facets were not given enough time or planning, and the combat becomes stale and repetitive despite its complex design. Combat forms the basis of the majority of Pixel Piracy‘s gameplay, and in it one glimpses the majority of Pixel Piracy‘s design faults. Quadro Delta has acknowledged taking inspiration from FTL: Faster Than Light, a masterful RTS/roguelike combination, and, like FTL, Pixel Piracy has one ship’s crew navigating a map of nodes and entering into battles with hostile ships.
The biggest difference between these two executions of this idea is that FTL‘s carefully balanced strategic combat has the player weighing options and adjusting to changing combat conditions and challenges, whereas every single solitary battle in Pixel Piracy is devoid of strategy and identical: you wait for the boarding phase, then have all or most of your crew attack the enemy crew en masse. If your crew has more people and/or has higher-leveled characters, you win. If your crew doesn’t, you lose. The battles are quick and without tension, while the immense abundance of resources, items, and experience makes loss improbable and victory unsatisfying.
Second, let’s look at the character progression. Each pirate can be taught skills, leveled for stat increases, equipped with three items, upgraded in any of six optional stats, and renamed. Despite all of this customization, there is no meaningful difference between a boarder with a ranged weapon but no skills and a boarder with a big sword and many combat abilities. Either way, the character will just throw itself at an enemy combatant repeatedly until one or the other is dead. As in all of the most ill-thought-through RPGs, building strength and health makes all of the other stats irrelevant, and almost all of the three or four primary types of weapons are just straight reskins of other weapons, but with higher power.
Take a look at the character stats screen below on the right. I used him as a fisherman throughout my playthrough, and just dumped all of his stat upgrades into intelligence (primarily because the randomly generated description designated him a moron, and I felt like defying it). Besides effortlessly breaking the game’s UI this way (a common theme on the management screens), this emphasis did not put him in any danger of dying (as evidenced by his shrugging survival of the entire campaign with one single point in vitality). The overall impression of these screens is that they are needlessly complex and totally ineffectual. For all the customization, there was very little (if any) functional difference between the two drastically different builds shown below.
Before moving on to Pixel Piracy‘s worst technical issues, I would like to note here the one aspect of the game that seems to have been conceived, fully thought through, and put into the game without harming it: the hunger and morale system. This element actually requires the player to make use of towns while adding the only possible source of tension that a player could feel while exploring. It’s a simple addition that is easy to manage (but punishing to neglect); it adds depth to the player’s experience.
One of the most clear and ridiculous ways that the game showcases its flaws, however, is the way that it substantially breaks itself before its campaign can be completed. Pixel Piracy has very real problems running when there are many objects and effects on-screen at the same time. The nature of the game is such that one must expand their ship, their crew, and their item hoard in order to emerge victorious. I started to notice periodic lag spikes about mid-way through playing, but by the time I was closing in on my final climactic encounter, the game had become unplayable.
It was moving so slowly that I continually thought the game was frozen. I had to reduce the resolution of the game (discussed further below) just to finish it. This issue is compounded by Pixel Piracy‘s woefully misguided waste system, whereby crewmembers defecate unthinkingly all over the ship. Before I decided to drop the resolution, there were times when—after a relatively small amount of feces had accumulated on my deck—I had to stop playing, assign everyone to ship crew and just wait for them to sluggishly clear enough of it into the water for the game to run at a decent speed again.
Pixel Piracy‘s Strange and Flawed Design Decisions:
In line with the waste system mentioned above, I would like to mention some of Pixel Piracy‘s other confusing and poor design choices. One strange design decision is the superficial implementation of ship customization. This was one of the promised attributes of the game which most attracted me. I loved the idea of having a game like FTL but wherein I could change the very layout of my vessel for strategic purposes. Instead, beyond providing additional space for people and objects, there is very little practical difference between a carefully designed warship and a long flat box. In the screenshot below, you can see the back end of my ship, which I designed for storage, feeding, and training; my crew was content to stay clustered near the bow (yes, I’m aware that no one is assigned to training in that particular screenshot).
I still customized my ship, to give it some personality, but overall I found this part of the game merely a further missed opportunity. Every wall type is functionally identical, and even damaged parts are not detrimental, except aesthetically (provided that the ship’s hull health is repaired). And if that wasn’t bad enough, several of the most notable and annoying bugs I encountered were related to ship customization, including everything from waste getting stuck in the walls to items with arbitrary placement criteria becoming unplaceable to a game-breaking bug involving the game permanently failing to recognize my boat’s prow.
Another strange design decision is the crew assignment mechanic, which adds tedium where it ought to add convenience. Allowing the player to sort crewmembers into small teams for different purposes was a smart idea, but making it so certain actions could only be completed by properly sorted crewmembers was not a smart idea.
Regardless of whether or not they know the relevant skills, crewmembers will only train when labeled ‘training,’ only fire cannons when labeled ‘gunners,’ and (most annoyingly) only shovel feces and corpses off the boat when labeled ‘ship crew.’ You could have an entire crew well-versed in cleaning, but want most of them ready for battle and so assigned to the ‘boarders’ group; if you do this, your crew will ignore the boat overflowing with waste up to and including when the amount of waste is so voluminous that it considerably lags the game.
A third strange design decision is the handling of domesticated animals, or ‘pets.’ These quasi-crewmembers level up and learn skills, but must be manually and individually carried into battle in order to be of any use—the result: they are more obnoxious to bring off the ship than any benefit they may provide, and so are never used.
In addition to these, there are a large number of small details that are so shallow, unnecessary, or badly implemented as to become pointless. These include the buried treasure mechanic, the training mechanic, the farming of the animals, and others.
Having not picked up the game since completing the campaign a few months ago, I launched it today to gather screenshots and check in on its status before writing this review. I wanted to be fair in my presentation of the game, and not to mislead readers by reviewing it in a state that it has surpassed. All of my problems with the balance, waste mechanic, battles, character assignments, pets, and character progression were all still present and almost entirely unchanged.
The campaign would still not even load in my computer’s full resolution of 1366×768, and had to be run in 1024×768 just to get it working and to make the lag bearable (hence the resolution of the screenshots in this article). During my ten-minute playthrough in a reduced resolution and with all of the copious visual effects turned off, the game crashed twice. I think it’s safe to say that with the gameplay nearly unchanged and the technical problems present in full-force, that my complaints are all still valid.
It’s not that there is no hope for Pixel Piracy ever improving; another in a long line of bug-fix patches was released yesterday, and the game is definitely not being abandoned any time soon (a future console release has been announced). I am hopeful that most or all of the technical issues with the game will be resolved in future updates. But for my review of this game to change from negative to positive, those technical improvements would have to be accompanied by an overhaul to the combat, character progression, UI, and other systems. And the devs have stated that no further significant changes to the features are coming. Quadro Delta bit off more than they could chew, and have been ineffectually gnawing ever since.