STAFF REVIEW of Port Royale 4 (Xbox One)

Sunday, October 11, 2020.
by Adam Dileva

Port Royale 4 Box art I’ll get this out of the way first; I’ve never played a Port Royale game before, so needless to say I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I started its inaugural voyage on Xbox One with Port Royale 4. A completely unique and interesting game, Port Royale 4, and the previous entries in the series, has never been on console before, and sometimes a PC port to console isn’t always as smooth as it could be. Some games have a problem transitioning from the standard keyboard and mouse controls and mapping those to a controller with limited inputs. I’m happy to report that this isn’t the case with Port Royale 4, as the control scheme works well, is logical and eventually becomes second nature with a little practice.

I initially expected Port Royale 4 to be a game about sailing the open seas, swashbuckling and full of pirates, and while it has those elements, it’s much more focused on the sailing and the trading aspect of the times more than anything else. Once I accepted this and learned its intricacies, I started to enjoy my time with it much more, trying to amass my wealth to epic proportions and become a prosperous trading city hub.

Taking place during the 17th century, you’ll choose from one of the colonial powers of France, Spain, England or Netherlands as they try and compete for control over the seas and lands of the Caribbean. While there’s no story or narrative in the traditional sense, you’re simply tasked with amassing a wealth and fulfilling certain objectives your Viceroy appoints to you. Each faction has its own strengths, weaknesses and playstyles, so make sure to try out each one to see what you prefer, but be aware you’re unable to change your faction once a decision has been made.

Once you choose your faction you’ll then select the character you want, essentially a class. Do you want to be a Merchant that focuses on trading alone, a Buccaneer, an Explorer or maybe be a ruthless Pirate and plunder what you can? You'll get to choose your own flag, though there’s only a handful of options for icon and colors which was a bit of a letdown. You’re also unable to edit how your character looks as well, though this doesn’t really matter in the long run since you don’t really have any interactions with other players or characters in any meaningful way. There’s no stats for your chosen character, but they too have different playstyles; for example, I wanted to focus on trading, so the Merchant was an obvious choice, as they don’t require a costly trade license at each city.

Before delving right into the Campaign or Free Play, I highly suggest going through the dozen or so tutorial missions. These are broken up into bite-sized pieces, each one teaching you a small portion of Port Royale 4’s unique gameplay which you then piece all together for the whole experience. The collection of tutorials will take you a little under and hour, but they are well done and I was able to start my adventure and trading quite smoothly from that point on. There’s also a guide that can be referenced at any time should you need, though it’s a lot of information to sift through so make sure you pay attention and take it in.

While the Campaign has four separate chapters you can play, one for each of the factions, I actually quite preferred to play the Free Play mode much more, as it wasn’t as strict on objectives and winning guidelines. Regardless of which mode you play, they all begin the same, with you in your hometown free to start sailing and trading wherever you wish in the hopes of supreme wealth and prosperity. You’ll have a Viceroy who will send you objectives every so often, guiding you, and if you fulfil these you’re rewarded with bonuses and skill points that can be used in different ways.

The bulk of your time with Port Royale 4 will revolve around its trading mechanics. Here you need to focus on your city’s prosperity by trading goods from one city to another. Every city produces some sort of commodity, be it grain, fruit, metal or many more items. Earning money is simple enough, as you buy items that are being produced for a low price, sail to another city that has those in demand and sell them for a higher cost; rinse and repeat. With dozens of different cities to sail to, you can create a complex trade route once you get a handle of how to do so.

The menu for determining what you should buy and sell is simple enough to understand with bar graphs and prices for every commodity a city has or needs. If a city has an abundance of an item they will sell it for cheap, and if another is completely of out of that product, they’ll buy for much higher to meet demand. You can sell any commodity anywhere, but it’s figuring out the best places to do so for the most profit that will net you the most gains in the long term.

At first I was simply sailing from one city to another, checking prices, then checking the other cities to see where the most profit would come from. This become quite tedious and time consuming, and even though I did a tutorial on trade routes, once I started using them it was a complete game changer and really excited me more to play.

Instead of manually checking each city, sailing there and figuring out what to purchase and sell, you can setup automated trade routes, designating what to buy and sell automatically and even have it sail from city to city for you. This automates much of the tedious work and you can set individual fleets on different or multiple routes. These routes can be as small or complex as you want. Do you find two cities that have corresponding wants and needs, or sail to dozens of cities at a time to offload what you can where you can?

Creating the routes is simple enough, choosing what cities you want to visit, but to really optimize it you’ll also need to factor in your sail paths. The Caribbean houses a stormy sea and there are winds that blow in certain directions. Sail with the wind and you’ll gain precious time and trade even quicker, sail into the wind and it’ll take you twice as long. You can customize these paths and it’s quite satisfying to see your money start to skyrocket once you have a few good trade routes setup properly. Some may feel that this automates the game too much and almost plays itself in a way, but there’s always some tweaking you can do to make it more profitable or efficient. Yes, with some great trade routes setup you can sit back and start to earn money without doing anything, but your Viceroy will give you other tasks now and then as well. When the money really starts to flow it feels very rewarding, but when your routes are costing you instead it can be a hard hole to dig out of.

While sailing and trading is where you’ll spend the bulk of your time in Port Royale 4, there’s a whole city building aspect as well that needs to be maintained. As you complete objectives for your Viceroy you’ll gain access to new buildings, ships and more. There are a few dozen buildings that can be erected in the hex grid of your city, each having their own use. Some are simply production nodes, others help your production, some are residential housing, churches and more that will be needed to balance and fulfil your citizen’s satisfactions. My problem that I learned the hard way was trying to expand much too quickly, so when I placed a dozen buildings at once, all of a sudden the demand for materials spiked, so I started hemorrhaging money very quickly; lesson learned.

What would a ship-based game be without naval battles though? These too are included in Port Royale 4, though are drastically different if you’ve played the previous entries. Naval battles are now turn based and are played on a hex grid with numerous ships. Every ship has a certain amount of action points that can be used to maneuver, attack or use your special tactic ability during their turn. Different ship types have their own abilities and each will have a captain of your choosing, which also have their own skills and bonuses. These battles are quite strategic, and even though you may be outnumbered by a pack of pirates, you can survive and win if you’re strategic. While I tended to focus much more on the trading aspect, having naval battles was a must for a game like this where pirates became famous.

Visually Port Royale 4 is very bright and colorful, fitting of the Caribbean in the century. Able to zoom all the way out to cloud level or all the way into nearly on your ship’s deck, there’s the odd slowdown but nothing game breaking. As for the audio, it’s there but nothing memorable. Zooming in allows you to hear your ship cutting across the waves or the torrential rain sailing through a storm. The soundtrack is simple ambient music in the background, so I ended up playing my own Spotify playlist (full of sea shanties of course).

I really wasn’t sure what to expect with Port Royale 4 being a newcomer to the series, but came away with an appreciation for the simulation and management aspects of its gameplay. While it may seem a little steep being fully priced the same as a ‘AAA’ game, there’s plenty of value within if you’re a fan of these strategic and management type games. It’s very overwhelming to get the hang of initially with the slew of menus, but once you setup some trade routes and figure out how to best trade, you’ll soon be the new conqueror of the Caribbean.

Overall: 8.0 / 10
Gameplay: 9.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 7.0 / 10


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