King of Seas

King of Seas review

A pirate's life for me.

(Image: © Team17)

Our Verdict

Fun, cartoonish pirating, which makes you feel cheeky rather than evil.

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You want to be a pirate—you're only human, after all—and this game has you covered. Defending yourself from the navy, attacking innocent people for loot, sailing around doing nothing more than looking for trouble… all present and correct. You don't have to be horrible on the high seas, but when it's made as fun as it is here, it's pretty darn tempting.

While there's a story, it's not particularly deep, and could be comfortably summed up in a tweet (including spoilers). The important thing is that you go from member of the nautical monarchy to outlaw pirate with amusing speed, and terrorising strangers is more fun than living a life of luxury could ever have been. Exploring (and blowing up) this world in your ship is immensely satisfying, which is just as well; you never set foot on dry land.

You never really 'set foot' anywhere. Ports are little more than a collection of menus for buying, selling and quest-gathering. Outside of these, the boat is essentially your avatar, controlled with a choice of three levels of camera zoom. The two furthest away give the impression of looking down on, and playing with, your own personal pirate playset.

(Image credit: Team17)

Controls are nice and simple. Speed is dictated by how many of your three sails you have unfurled (as well as wind direction), which means taking a few down for tight turns, which can come in handy during combat. Speaking of which, to begin with, you'll rely on your cannons. Shooting to the left or right of your ship, positioning and awareness of range is important. As is timing; they take a few seconds to reload each time. You can even concentrate on ruining a ship's sails first, thereby severely reducing their speed. Thankfully, though, this is a game with little interest in realism.

There's a huge number of upgrades to find, loot, and buy. Aspects such as hull, crew, and sails will affect attack and defence stats; but after a little while, you'll also start to come across special abilities, most of which are magical. It seems unlikely that real pirates were using flamethrowers and magical beams of energy, or summoning giant tentacles to attack their enemies from the sea, but I bet they would've liked to. In King of Seas, most of these abilities allow you to attack ships from significant distance.

While even upgraded cannons have a surprisingly limited range, most of these abilities—cheerily explained away as magic, if they have any explanation at all—tend to have double the reach or more, and sometimes don't even require aiming. They work on a cooldown longer than that of your cannons, so can't be spammed, but have unlimited uses. Combat therefore becomes a case of chipping away ship health with cannons, while carefully selecting and timing your more powerful attacks in between shots.

(Image credit: Team17)

No matter how or why conflict starts—sometimes I attack merchants and treasure ships for loot, sometimes navy ships spot me and start attacking, once I murdered a load of tourists just because a woman named Karen asked me to—it follows the same general pattern. You'll both do slow nautical doughnuts in an effort to stay out of the other's attack range and angle, attacking at any and every opportunity. This makes your sailing abilities important, and successfully avoiding a barrage of cannonballs very satisfying. Fortunately, enemy ships almost never have any special abilities, so once you have a decent ship with a range of attacks (this might take a few hours), you'll have a significant advantage. Not enough to be invincible, but enough to enjoy a power trip. 

The decision to severely limit enemy use of these extra abilities was a wise one; it keeps player progression meaningful by allowing your ship to become noticeably more powerful and, to be honest, widespread AI use of magic would almost certainly lead to frustratingly regular deaths. If you do want a significant challenge, the highest difficulty offers permadeath; but I play on the recommended mode which even allows you to keep all your cargo upon death, as this staves off frustration. 

You may notice that I so far haven't really touched on what the game actually asks you to do. This is because, to be honest, it's not very good at that bit. After what is essentially an extended tutorial, the story progresses by, generally speaking, sending you to and fro with simple objectives until it hopes you run up against ships of a much higher level than yours. Worse, roughly three quarters of the way through, it introduces the idea of conquering ports. This is a horrible idea for a few reasons.

(Image credit: Team17)

Firstly, attacking the gun emplacements that defend these ports simply isn't very fun. None of your special abilities (at least, none of the ones that I came across in my 15 hours of play) can touch them, even when it would make sense for them to do so. This means that conquering ports involves little more than doing laps of the gun emplacements, slowly chipping away at their health, until either you or they explode.

King of Seas offers a nautical sandbox that panders to my pirate wishes

Secondly, although you can forget about these sequences once you've completed three of them (apart from the penultimate fight), the majority of ports that you discover aren't recorded on your map. I honestly don't know if this is a bug or a feature. This makes finding them more down to chance than planning. It also means that, when a character started to inform me when certain ports were under attack, I always ignored him because I had no idea where they were.

Despite the clear flaws in nudging the player along, I enjoyed almost every minute with the game. Sure, after eight hours or so I started to wish for a better-structured experience that I could dip in and out of, but that doesn't change the fact that this is a really great sandbox to mess around in. The need to largely make your own fun means King of Seas won't appeal to people looking for consistent direction. For my part, I love the fact that I can be as mean or moral a pirate as I like. Especially as nobody remembers any of my naughty behaviour for very long.

(Image credit: Team17)

As well as ships to randomly attack (or be attacked by) there are crates and rafts to pick up, wrecks to loot, fish to catch (eventually), and a trading system that can often be more profitable than piracy. Each port has one item that they produce a lot of, and one that they produce very little of. So for example, one port might pay relatively little for rubies, but you can make a killing by selling them wood. You can become rich by being a capitalist monster should you so wish. 

There are plenty of sidequests to discover, but they very quickly fall into one of a small number of categories (primarily delivery, escort, or search and destroy). While this is disappointing, I never had time to get annoyed by the repetition, as I largely ignored these quests. King of Seas offers a nautical sandbox that panders to my pirate wishes, allowing me to do what I want at the pace I want to do it, and that was the real treasure all along.

The Verdict
King of Seas

Fun, cartoonish pirating, which makes you feel cheeky rather than evil.