There aren’t many more fruitful potential settings for videogames than the Caribbean in the age of piracy. It has multiple competing factions, swords, guns, tension between aristocratic hierarchy and rugged individualism, definite violence, potential sex, funny accents, drinking jokes, and even the blurring of race and gender boundaries, all of which are core conceits in game settings. The problem is that the pirate genre is dominated by a single title, the classic Sid Meier’s Pirates, which has overshadowed virtually everything else for two decades, across multiple platforms.
The new Pirates Of Black Cove never tries to get out from under that shadow—if anything, as a lighthearted action/adventure game, it seems to be delighted with the shade, thank you very much. But its biggest problem is that it doesn’t ever do anything to justify its existence.
The game is split into two primary modes: sailing and walking. The former takes place on a slightly fictionalized map of the Caribbean, with collectibles to pick and ships to fight. Sea battles are simple affairs. The only goal is to maneuver into place to fire cannons—no boarding, sword-fighting, or strategy involved. The land battles are slightly more complex—you recruit squads of different kinds of pirates (cannoneers, pistoliers, or scallywags with swords) and use them to explore and fight in traditional real-time-strategy styles. Although the modes have different graphics and gameplay style, they’re unified by the frustrating slow speed of travel from one point to another.
Pirates Of Black Cove is redeemed to some extent by a charming presentation that suggests it knows it’s a trifle, and its willingness to be a trifle with some relaxing, catchy music. But even that doesn’t work so well when it comes to the plot: The dialogue aims for funny, but rarely rises above cute, and that cuteness occasionally gets in the way of clarity. A set of launch-day bugs that cause crashes or make critical missions impossible doesn’t help matters, either. And the fairly linear plot isn’t supported by characterization; the story consists almost entirely of rumors of generic treasure that your character easily verifies. As with most of Pirates Of Black Cove, it’s not actively bad, just remarkably inessential.