Thursday, 5 November 2020

Port Royale 4 ★★★★☆

Port Royale 4 is the latest entry in the long-running series by Kalypso Media. Set in the 17th century Caribbean, this economy and trading simulator sees you fight, negotiate and build to become the most dominant financial power. It’s a title that promises a grand scale, but is it a success, or a royal disappointment? Read on to find out…

As expected, there’s a lot to take in and a big learning curve before you’ll find your stride. In fact, there’s over an hour of tutorials available, which is very useful, but emphasises the commitment you’ll be making when starting this title. Players who have experience with the series or this type of game will have no problem diving in, yet newer players might find the whole experience a little overwhelming. 

This is a largely passive game, so much of your time will be setting up automatic trade routes and managing background tasks to ensure everything’s ticking along as it should. However, to do so involves understanding an almost ludicrous amount of menus. Navigating these is particularly frustrating with a controller, and feels as if the PC version was lazily ported to console without much thought given to the nuances of different control setups. What’s more, this isn’t a game that holds your hand; you’ll have to really have to study which cities specialise in certain products to ensure you make the most profitable business model, and this requires plenty of number crunching. If the idea of having a calculator next to you while you’re gaming is enticing, this could very well be the game for you. 

Of course I’m being facetious (although not entirely), and if you give the game time, it’s hugely satisfying when it all comes together. You can pick between a campaign playthrough, with fixed missions, or a freeplay sandbox mode. Both offer plenty of enjoyment, but we’d recommend newer players start with the campaign, as the prescriptive objectives help you to get a feel for how the mechanics of the game work. Once you get the hang of everything, it’s so much fun to build and develop the cities you manage with such granularity, it adds a surprisingly big roleplaying element. 

What is slightly more disappointing is the combat. As part of your ‘god hand’ style of management, you can engage rival operations and pirates in turn based naval combat. Yet you’ll have to weigh up the pros and cons, as if things turn south, you’ll have to answer to your commanding viceroy who won’t be best pleased if you’ve provoked another nation unnecessarily. While it sounds fun in principle, it’s noticeably shallower than the rest of the game’s content, something the developers apparently agree with, as they included the option to skip combat via simulated encounters. 

What is less contentious is that Port Royale 4 looks fantastic. Not only are all the ships, islands and cities all crafted in a charming stylised way, but the way you can zoom in from the overview of the Caribbean to close enough to see individual workers is a joy, and makes the entire map feel connected and organic. This is augmented by a lack of loading screens once you’re in game.

To wrap up, Port Royale 4 isn’t a game for everyone; it’s very complicated, very specialised and will therefore have a niche appeal. But for those looking for an in-depth economy and trading simulator, there aren’t many better places to look. From the intricate, granular mechanics to the gorgeous setting, it all comes together to result in one heck of a final product.  Phew, we finished the review without a single pirate pun. ARRRRen’t we great? 

Tom Baker

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