Reviewed: May 15, 2002
Released: December 31, 2001
For kids, dreaming of being a pirate ranks right up there with being a cowboy, astronaut, or fireman. With such as wondrous genre enhanced by literature and movies I have always been surprised at the lack of pirate-themed adventure games. Granted, there have been several attempts over the years such as Pirates Gold and RedJack: Revenge of the Brethren, but aside from the popular Monkey Island series from LucasArts, none of these games has really found their niche.
I was quite excited when my review copy of Pirates: The Legend of Black Kat arrived. Not only was I looking forward to playing a pirate game, this was my first adventure game for the Xbox, unless you consider Munch’s Oddysee to be an adventure. Legend of Black Kat dazzled me from the opening menu to the final cliffhanger movie nearly 22 hours later.
The sheer scope of this game is breathtaking. The world of Pirates is massive and includes more than five unique chains of islands, each with their own climate, native inhabitants, bosses and puzzles. You get to explore these fantastic locations through a typical third-person interface, but perhaps some of the best action takes place on the high seas.
As you travel between the various islands you will get to engage in ship-to-ship combat with a variety of pirate vessels. You will also get to bombard enemy towers along the shore and seize enemy forts that have been taken over by the evil pirate, Hawke.
The story that accompanies the adventure is pretty standard stuff as far as pirate adventures go. Our sexy heroine, Black Kat has just found her father murdered in his own home. In his dying letter to his daughter he tells her that her mother was one of the most infamous pirates in history. Katarina takes to the seas on an epic quest to avenge her father and learn more about her mother.
You are eased into the action through some nice tutorials that are linked with the regular gameplay. As you explore and battle your way across the islands, tips will pop-up giving you insightful information on how to play the game. This is great for those of you who don’t have the time or desire to read the manual.
Over the course of the adventure you will engage in several quests that will take you to many exciting island chains where you will battle pirates, abominable snowmen, wolves, skeletons, apes, and many other creatures. Each location has a theme that dictates the climate, scenery, and creatures encountered.
The Voodoo Isles is a steamy jungle environment with headhunters and pygmies, poison darts, and bad mojo magic. The Winter Isles resemble large floating icebergs with Nordic pirates that resemble Vikings, giant snow beasts, and deadly wolf packs. The spooky Haunted Isles are desolate landmasses filled with tombstones, skeletons, and shrieking Valkyrie. Just when the gameplay starts to get repetitive the scenery changes and breathes new life into this title.
Pirates looks and play a lot like any conventional third-person adventure game. The left stick moves Kat while the right stick gives you full rotation and zoom control over the camera. The camera system is totally manual. Constantly tweaking the camera seemed like hard work at first until I realized that I was never fighting the computer for control. The camera would stay where I put it, and I soon learned the optimum angles and zooms for ship and ground combat.
The game will only adjust the angle if you get yourself into a position that cannot be tracked. Objects that would block your view like trees or rocks will become transparent when you walk behind them. The shipboard views are excellent. In addition to the normal third-person camera you also have the option to look out from the deck in first-person using the D-Pad. This is almost mandatory when you are running parallel to the shore and firing on towers and enemy forts.
The main adventure consists of several quests and sub-quests. These are opened up one by one as you explore the world, meet new people, and unlock even more locations. When you start the game you only have one island to explore. You will soon find Chart Stones and maps that open up new islands within the chain or completely new chains.
The status screen keeps an itemized lists of all your goals, quests, personal and ship statistics, and item count. A typical quest might be to locate five Orchids for the Mermaid on Ape Island, or collect the five magic stars for Neptune. Many of these quests take the entire game to complete, as the items are scattered about the entire world.
And what would a pirate game be without buried treasure. There are hundreds of treasure chests scattered about the islands, many of them buried. This is where one of the coolest features of the game comes into play. When Kat gets close to a buried treasure chest she says something like “I smell gold”. Then you slowly move around the area as your controller vibrates. The more intense the vibration, the closer you are. When you are finally on top of the chest a shovel icon will appear and you can dig up your prize.
Other chests aren’t so hard to find but do require special keys to open. These keys are made available throughout the game as you defeat island bosses. Since many of these chests are found early on in the game you will be traveling back to previously explored islands to get the treasure after you have found the correct key.
A good example is the Skeleton Key that you get near the very end of the game. Once you claim this key you will need to go back to almost all of the island chains to unlock the Bone Chests, which contain other important quest items. While this may sound boring, there is always a fresh batch of pirates to stand in your way.
This leads to one of my few complaints about Pirates. While I don’t mind spawning enemies in a game such as this I do get upset when they spawn too frequently. Enemies seem to repopulate if you cross some imaginary line that is usually only a few yards from their original location. This means you can inadvertently spawn new enemies by simply retreating. A better solution would have been to repopulate the island only after you have left and returned.
Like any good adventure game you have to have collectibles. In this case, you are collecting seashells. Each shell you collect unlocks one of over 200 images in the Scrapbook section of the main menu. This scrapbook features some amazing conceptual artwork and renderings from the game, but it may not serve as enough incentive to locate some of the trickier shells hidden around the world.
Along the way you will acquire an interesting arsenal of weapons and magical Tiki’s that allow you to cast powerful magical spells. Your main weapon is your sword that can be upgraded several times during the game. As you fight, your attack meter charges up and when it is filled you can unleash a power attack. This results in a time freeze, as the camera pans around in the now-typical Matrix effect and you unleash a flurry of combo attacks and any magical attacks the blade is capable of.
While most of the action takes place on land you will get to take part in many shipboard battles. When you arrive at each new island chain the first order of business is to capture the fort. To do this you must inflict enough damage on the fort to force the enemy pirates to retreat. It also helps to destroy any enemy cannon towers in the process. Even when you take over the fort the towers are still under enemy control and must be destroyed.
Once you have taken over a fort you can restock and repair your ship. There are also several upgrades you can perform along the way that increase the size, durability, and firepower of your vessel. Your first ship only has a single cannon on either side, but your final Galleon has 32 cannons that deliver devastation firepower.
As you engage in combat your cannon attack meter will charge just like your sword meter. When it is filled you can launch a power attack that shoots flaming cannonballs doing massive damage. You will also locate many magical statues you can attach to the bow of your ship to deliver extra damage. There is nothing more impressive than attaching Neptune’s Trident and launching a power attack. Huge columns of lightning streak from the sky into your ship and out through the cannons destroying all but the strongest of ships.
It is important to maintain your ship’s health, which is comprised of two components; lumber and fabric. Lumber repairs hull damage and keeps you from sinking. Fabric repairs the sails and lets you keep moving. The integrity of your sails dictates your speed and how fast your boost meter fills up. Learning when and how much to use the wind boost is critical in some of the final battles.
The Legend of Black Kat looks great. You can really tell this was a labor of love for the designers. There is so much detail put into the characters and the levels that you can almost smell the salt air. With all of the water-based games coming out recently it seems that developers are using water as a measuring stick of graphical power. The water in Pirates looks great, but physically, it is not as accurate as a game such as Blood Wake.
At times the water is almost too transparent, yet it still manages to accurately reflect the sky and the landmasses. You will often see dolphins or whales swimming under the surface and even the occasional spout of water as a whale surfaces. If you zoom complete out you will start to see some repetitiveness in the texturing.
Once on land, things are close to perfection. Trees, rocks, ice, snow, sand, lava, are colorful and realistically detailed. Katarina herself is simply beautiful with detailed pirate clothing and wispy hair that flutters in the breeze. Her animation is fluid whether she is doing a midair somersault or a triple-slice combo attack. Typical of most leading ladies these days, Kat comes complete with her own set of “personal floatation devices” – handy if her boat sinks and even more handy for selling this game to the teen male demographic.
Special effects include excellent lighting, reflections, explosions, and some of the most creative magical attacks I’ve seen in awhile. Use the Ice Tiki and giant hail rains from the sky encasing the enemy in ice. When launching power attacks, either in hand-to-hand or ship combat you get a really cool Matrix effect that freeze the camera and focuses on the fatal blow or cannonball then swirls around in 360 degrees.
I had the opportunity to compare the Xbox version to the PS2 version and the Xbox definitely excels in the graphics department. The textures are sharper and more detailed and the shadows are definitely better. On the PS2 Kat casts a simple black circle beneath her feet, whereas on the Xbox she casts a perfect physical shadow relative to the light source. The water is also better on the Xbox. The PS2 uses a reflection map giving you less transparent water and unrealistic reflections.
You can expect some jerky frame rates on some of the larger islands, especially when you are out in the open (which is most of the time) and quickly rotating the camera. This happens with or without enemies on the screen, so I can only assume the program is driving the graphic’s engine to the limit. There is no fogging and textures on the horizon seem just as detailed as the ones in front of you.
The soundtrack in Pirates is exceptional and features typical pirate music that ranges from cheerful tavern music to huge orchestra pieces that heighten the emotion during combat.
The speech is well scripted and acted out equally as well by some professional voice talent. Katarina has an extremely sexy accent while her partners in pirating all have stereotypical “Arrrg...Aye, matey” accents. Even the villainous Hawke has the prim and proper accent of a well-bred high society killer.
Sound effects are amazing from the booming cannonballs to the whistling birds and chattering parrots that beckon you to save your game. You can hear the wind blowing and the waves crashing into the rocks as you walk along the beach. Headhunters speak their mumbo jumbo and pygmies chatter in high-pitched voices.
All of this is presented in a well-mixed Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. There is nothing creepier than running from a Valkyrie as she is preparing to shriek only to hear her in your rear speakers. The mix is so good that I could often detect the direction of approaching skeletons or the location of a save parrot simply by standing still and listening. The Dolby mix also nudges this version slightly ahead of the PS2 version that only offers a DTS 4.0 mix.
The great thing about Pirates is you can finish the game without completing the game. You aren’t required to complete every quest, locate every chest or shell, or even explore all the islands. My journey took me about 22 hours, and I did find all the treasure but missed about 20 shells. There are plenty of save locations in just about every island chain, so you shouldn’t have to repeat much if you die in combat.
I was disappointed that you only had 4 available slots to save your game despite my empty Xbox hard drive. It was also annoying that whenever you die the game would automatically return to the main menu and you would have to click through menus and save games to reload. A “reload last save” feature would have been nice.
I was surprised to find a Ship Battle mode that allows up to four swashbucklers to battle it out for supremacy of the seas. While it is a nice diversion it definitely feels tacked on to a primarily solo adventure game, and it won’t win any awards for party game of the year. You’ll probably try it a few times then get back to the adventure at hand.
Pirates: The Legend of Black Kat is a great adventure game and one of only a few currently available for the Xbox. The excellent story, great graphics, inspiring music, and authentic pirate dialect will totally immerse you in this game. The lengthy and sometimes repetitive gameplay is broken up with a variety of quests, exotic locales, and new faces, as you travel the world in search of fame, fortune, revenge, and even love. This is one adventure you can't skip, so don't miss the boat.