This is Portabliss, a column about downloadable games that can be played on the go.Scurvy Scallywags (subtitle: In the Voyage to Discover the Ultimate Sea Shanty), and it's a match-three puzzle game with light RPG elements and plenty of pirate humor. It's only 99 cents in the App Store right now, and that's probably all of the inspiration you need to go and download it, right matey?
Oh all right, ye lousy landlubbers, I can put an X on yer treasure maps for ye. Scallywags is a bit of pirate-infused joy. It's a simple game with mechanics that don't always light the cannon fuse, but it's got enough charm, depth, and solid fun to justify the very cheap cost of admission.
Plus, there are real sea shanties included. Match-three, where you are presented with a grid of tiles, and can switch them around to make matches of three, four, or five of a kind, is a touchscreen standby at this point. The genre began back in the 1980s, but got big in the early 2000s with PopCap's Bejeweled, and then was most famously combined with RPG elements in the great Puzzle Quest. Puzzle Craft is probably my favorite of late – it's not technically a match-three game, but it does a great job of combining an interesting and long metagame with a very satisfying core puzzle mechanic.
Scallywags follows this tradition, though it has only the barest of RPG and combat elements attached to the basic tile-dragging. The idea is that you're a pirate (or at least you're performing in a show about pirates), and your goal is to travel the Caribbean and clear out various stages of enemies, all while trying to find all of the verses of the ultimate sea shanty. Each stage consists of a match-three game, where you need to match swords and gold to earn attack power and cash, which you can then use to upgrade your ship, your piratical power-ups and your uniform, carrying you on to the next stage and beyond.
The combat is the most interesting addition here. Your pirate plays as a tile on the board, and you can swap him or her around with any of the pieces. Enemies also take up a tile, and the trick is that whenever you match a piece, tiles will come in from the direction that you moved to match. In Bejeweled, for example, new pieces always come from above, but in Scallywags, if you swipe up to make a match, the new pieces will come up from the bottom instead. If you swipe left, they'll come in from the left, and so on.
This makes the game about positioning as well. Enemies will slowly move across the board towards your pirate, and if you haven't stacked up enough attack power to defeat them yet, you can make a few smart moves and slide your fellow all the way down the board, or make the enemies slide away from you.
Your pirate levels up as you go, and if he dies, you lose all of those levels (though you get to keep your gold and any upgrades you've purchased). That means your moves tend to be very strategic, especially when your pirate is low on life, rather than just about collecting more gold or more power. Overall, Scurvy Scallywags is about maintaining the delicate balance of keeping your pirate out of harm's way on the board, while also trying to collect the resources you need to finish quests or move on.
Unfortunately, there are a few holes in the sail. All of the pieces on your board that aren't quest items, swords, or gold are just trash items, and while you can match them all you want (even nailing down four or five of a kind matches), they give you no real reward. It's too bad the game couldn't make those moves worth something – that feels like a missed opportunity.
Also, leveling your pirate is unclear. Every time you level, you can put points into Power, Gold, or a number of other stats, which presumably will award you with some associated benefit. But your stats all start at 100% for some reason, and only get better from there. It's never really explained just what your stats do, or why 136% Power is better than 124% Power, for example. The system seems to work, whatever the math is, so it's not a big concern, but it's confusing and means that the deeper complexities of the game will likely be lost on more casual players.
Those issues aside, Scallywags is great fun, and the pirate theme makes it even more charming. When you match your pirate with a treasure chest, a three-wheel slot machine comes up with rewards for you, and that's almost always a smile-inducer. Finding a shanty page is great as well: A pirate band sings the shanty out for you, and it's a great opportunity to bring out your best hook hand and shout an "Arrr" or two. The music and the "pirates on stage" setting allows for plenty of goofy accents and jokes, too.
Scurvy Scallywags isn't Ron Gilbert's best game, but you can tell it was fun to make, and the puzzle mechanics are good enough to keep you coming back for more.
This review is based on an iTunes download of Scurvy Scallywags, provided by Beep Games.
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