There really needs to be more pirate games – specifically more good pirate games that make you actually feel like a pirate. There are some out there, but the handful of good ones are few and far between. It’s surprising given that they’re up there with Ninjas, Wizards, and Dinosaurs in terms of popularity.
Pirates Outlaws launched back in 2019 on PC and mobile devices and saw quite a positive reception, with the game expanding and improving in continual updates ever since. Now the game is far beefier than it was at launch, BlitWorks have brought the game to modern consoles to shiver your timbers and swash your buckles.
Is the game a buried treasure, or just plain ol’ scurvy?
Many thanks to BlitWorks for the review code
A PIRATE CARRRRRRD GAME
Unlike most games themed after the one legged, parrot loving, miscreants, Pirates Outlaws is actually a roguelite deckbuilder in the vein of something like Slay the Spire. Whilst that may turn many off due to the sheer volume of clones out there, this game actually offers it’s own unique spin along with a progression system that feels far more rewarding than most games in the genre.
A TREACHEROUS VOYAGE
I’m getting a little ahead of myself at the moment, so it’s time to take a step back to explain just how the game is played. At the start, you’ll find yourself in the shoes of the Gunner pirate; he’s one of many characters to choose from, but the others will be locked at the start. He’s a pretty solid character to choose from and not too difficult to learn, even if progressing far with him can get pretty tough.
The Gunner, as the name implies, specialises in range attacks and automatically reloads one of his three shots at the start of each turn. He also starts off with some useful cards, particularly the ‘Issue Order’ attack that makes the next shot (or two if upgraded) deal double damage. Ranged attacks have the added bonus of allowing you to target any of your foes at will, allowing you target what you perceive to be the biggest threat first. Melee attacks can only hit the target closest to you, so the ability to choose is very liberating. The downside of ranged attacks comes from its reliance on ammo, with attacks taking up between 1-3 shots depending on the card. Given that you need to manual reload with ammo cards, this can make using some of the higher cost attacks pretty challenging – especially earlier in the game when your ammo cards only reload a single shot.
As with most games in the genre, you’ll find yourself working through a randomly generated map. Fights are self explanatory and offer you three rewards at the end (these could be usable cards or special relics that grant useful bonuses); but there are also event spaces which can have positive or negative outcomes, markets that allow you to sell, upgrade, or buy new cards, and taverns where you can heal up and repair your ship.
Oh, did I forget to mention about ship degradation? Sailing the high seas will take its toll on your ship over time, causing it to eventually fall apart unless you repair every so often. Certain spaces will cause heavier damage than others, and repairing it can be pretty expensive too at a whopping 100 coins. It’s easy to forget about at the start, and I’ve had good runs end due to carelessness on my part at failing to keep everything ship-shape. It’s a pretty interesting mechanic that forces you to manage where you go and how much you want to spend during your run.
As such, the key to success (outside of battling well) is deck management, and this is where things can get quite tricky in Pirates Outlaws. With card choices being compulsory after each fight, your deck can get rather bloated and forces you to use the Tavern’s remove function to ensure that you don’t end up filled with useless tat. It’s also vital to upgrade many key cards to increase their effectiveness too, and ensure that you never get a useless hand. The problem is that these darn pirate merchants like to get you for every penny you have, and the cost of doing so will increase with each use at that location leaving you with the decision to wait for the next one, or pay a little more to improve your deck now. It’s stressful to do at first, but the balance between your income and costs requires also feels fair too. Often it can be better to reroll your card picks a couple of times after a fight to get something that adds to your deck, rather than settling for something bad that you’ll eventually want to remove.
If you can make it to the end of each map, you’ll face off against one of the big pirate baddies. They’re way more fierce than normal fights, and each have their own gimmicks. Ed’hog covers himself in spikes that inflict you with the ‘injury’ status effect should you hit him directly. As such, hitting him from afar could prove useful; or you can buff yourself with a positive status effect to replace it. Rather counter-intuitively, only one status effect can be inflicted at a time meaning that it can be rather easily undone. A strange system, but also one that works well within the game. They’re all pretty memorable, and beating them will grant you with some nice booty and progress you to the next map in that area. When all three are cleared, you’ve won!
At least, for now…
After every run, whether successful or not, you’ll take back some loot earned by your pirate points. This consists of extra cards and relics that will be available in future runs to obtain, but will also eventually allow you to unlock new (and harder) maps to challenge, new characters, skins, and even starting upgrades for both your character and your ship. There’s an absolute ton here at your disposal, and most can be earned by simply accumulating your experience. You’ll rarely get gated off and unable to progress because of difficulty, and it’s something I really appreciated. After retiring some roguelites simply because I couldn’t progress further, it’s good that you can keep playing new stuff for plenty of hours regardless.
Whilst the new maps offer a lot of fun with the new enemies and bosses you’ll face, the real highlight are the unlockable characters. There’s swashbuckling sword fighters, ghost pirates, and even a chicken to choose from, and they all offer their own unique abilities and starting decks that all require their own techniques and synergies if you want to master the game.
All in all, there’s so much to the game to keep you busy and it’s all presented in a rather pleasant way. Whilst screenshots and videos don’t do the game much justice, it’s far better when in action. Sure, the animation involved may be minimal, but it’s hard to notice with the great artwork that makes everything look so unique.
Whether it be the fantastic amount of content, the superb gameplay loop, or the great audiovisual presentation, I can’t recommend Pirates Outlaws enough to deckbuilding fans. Despite expecting it to be simply yet another Slay the Spire clone with a pirate coat of paint, I found the game an absolute blast to play and it’s one that I’ll go back to plenty of times in the future.