Puzzles Pirates is pretty deceiving when you first look at it. The decade-old game looks closer to what you might have expected from LEGO Universe than it does a strategic, puzzle-based combat game. But as you get more into the basics of the game, you realize that many of the tricks up Puzzle Pirate's sleeve would be awesome if featured in other games. The puzzles are integrated into your experience flawlessly, and the grouping system is wonderful.
In fact, I couldn't stop thinking about why other games don't feature systems like those in Puzzle Pirates. Name me a game that does group combat, ship combat or even crafting based on puzzles! I think that the perceived silliness of puzzles, or the perceived juvenile nature of puzzles, keeps them out of popular developer's minds. It's not as though raiding or other group activities in other games are high art or much more than a very basic puzzle. Stand here, push that. Repeat. Now move. Push that, followed by this. Repeat.
So let's look at how Puzzle Pirates plays, how the community members fare, and what issues I did have with this brilliant puzzler. Click past the cut!
You start out by making a basic pirate character and loading into a newbie area. You also start with your own house (well, a shack) and raggedy clothes. You can easily choose newbie missions and tutorials from an easy-to-follow screen, and within half an hour, you might find yourself aboard a ship, doing your part to bring down enemies. I am familiar with the game, having played it several times over the last decade or so, but I still think that a brand-new player with no prior experience would have an easy time figuring out what to do.
For example, multiplayer ship-to-ship combat is controlled by the captain and helped along by the crew members. Everything about Puzzle Pirates' ship combat feels closer to real chain-of-command vessel-play than anything I have come across. Star Trek Online -- based on the show that featured group-play in everything -- does not even have multiplayer ship action. I will bet that there are no MMOs (Allods?) that feature multiplayer, real-time ship combat.
I joined an NPC ship at first and jumped right onto bilging. In bilging, you simply match up colored bubbles to keep the level of water inside the craft low. If your ship is damaged, or if the bilgers slack off, more water comes in and eventually causes issues. I also tried my hand at sailing, which gives boosts of speed for maneuvering; carpeting, which kept the ship in good condition; and a few other puzzles that are all essential to running your own craft. In a small window I could see the ship moving along, jockeying for a good spot to shoot from, with animations indicating whether we were about to be boarded or not.
If we were boarded, melee combat broke out. Again, the multiplayer puzzles do a wonderful job of creating a sense of real-time actual combat. You simply click on one of the enemies to begin to fight using a Tetris-style puzzle. If you beat your opponent, you can double- or triple-team with one of your shipmates. If your side wins, you split the booty and go on your way.
The always-available mission board is a great way to jump into any type of puzzle you want. I found a new one to try, and within seconds, I was either facing off with an NPC or player or boarding a ship to try it out. I tried quite a few of them and found a pretty good variety in the puzzles. A new player might think that they are all block-dropping puzzles, but one visit to a tavern and to a drinking-games table would change your mind. Three Rings seems to want you to be challenged, but it doesn't make you stray too far from familiar territory. Many of the older puzzles have that familiar feel to them, but it's obvious that in recent times the developers have grown more bold and have invented some pretty nifty new games to play.
Don't get me wrong -- Puzzle Pirates is not just some lobby to play checkers in. This world is open and rich in content. Crafting, which I have not yet experienced, is a job in itself. Players pride themselves on their crafting abilities, and it shows. Entire shops are filled to them brim with custom clothes, items and ships. The housing is pretty nice, on par with the great ones like EverQuest II and Lord of the Rings Online. Of course, it's all drawn in a top-down perspective, but that doesn't hinder its charm.
There is also more roleplay in Puzzle Pirates than I have seen in a game in a long, long time. Something about the whimsical look of the game, or perhaps the pirate setting, brings the YAR out of almost everyone I meet. When I joined a player ship, the captain threatened plank-walking if we did not do our jobs well enough. I simply answered with a "YAR" and went back to bilging. Almost everyone I met was having a good time. Perhaps it is the instant camaraderie you feel when you board a ship, or perhaps the puzzles themselves have a sort of mesmerizing or calming effect on the players. This is not to say that there are no moments of intensity -- there are -- but it simply feels like you are all in this together, much more than in other MMOs. After a while, you simply forget the look of the game and get to work.
What I found in Puzzle Pirates was a game that, despite being able to run on a netbook, was more robust and full of challenge than many games. You can explore, socialize, play games, become a master at a certain puzzle -- whatever you want to do, there is a way to do it. How Three Rings got the design to work this well, I might never know.
Just look at how players become skilled puzzlers and how that translates to actual crew specialties. If we look at Geordi from Star Trek: The Next Generation, we will find someone who has decided to specialize in engineering. He was the best of the best, and he knew exactly what to do. In Puzzle Pirates, you can do the same. I love bilging, but that's not my calling. I think sailing just might be. I picture my little dude climbing the sails, dodging splinters and cannon fire while he stitches the cloth. I can do just that and join a crew in which my preferred expertise fits in with the others. A crew can become a tight-knit bunch of sailors and can act as a unit. In real time.
Still, my one main issue with the game remains the color selection and options for each puzzle. While I was not so worried about color-blind players (there were plenty of puzzles for every type of player), I was worried about staring at the screen for so long. It simply gave me a headache after a while. If we had the option to change the puzzles' looks a bit, or if some of the most popular puzzles would morph somewhat, this might help those long play sessions go more smoothly.
Overall, though, Puzzle Pirates is wonderful. If you have not played it, give it a chance. Load it on your netbook or laptop and try out some of the jobs. I think you might be impressed.
Next week, I will be looking at 2029 Online, a browser-based RTS-ish game that looks pretty nice. We'll see how it goes. My name in game is Beauhind, so join me!
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Each week, Rise and Shiny asks you to download and try a different free-to-play, indie or unusual game, chosen by me, Beau Hindman. I welcome any suggestions for games -- drop me a note in the comments or email! You can also follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Raptr!