Under the Jolly Roger
Developed By: Lion’s Shade
Published By: HeroCraft
Category: Adventure, Action, Role-Playing, Pirate Sim
Release Date: 09.03.20
Today’s game, Under the Jolly Roger for the Nintendo Switch, was originally released a few years ago on Mobile and PC under the title Tempest. I’m not really sure why the name was changed, but I have to say it’s definitely an upgrade. Tempest is just kind of generic; it doesn’t really indicate anything about pirates or tell players anything about the game. Under the Jolly Roger really sells the pirate angle and just plains hits the ear with an air of mystique. It’s nice. The game itself is something of a rockier experience, however; I held off reviewing it because of a promised patch, but I still encountered a few bugs and a couple of crashes.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the game’s stability that drags it down. The tutorial is fairly shallow; it teaches you the basic controls for moving your ship and fighting during combat, but it doesn’t really explain many of the other aspects of the game. For instance, when you accept a quest that takes you to a town, a marker on the town’s icon lets you know that’s the place to go, and the game’s tutorial actually tells you that. When you accept a quest that takes you to a certain place in the ocean, a red token is placed in the sea that lets you know where to go. But the game doesn’t tell you that that’s what those tokens are, or that if you haven’t uncovered the area of the map where the token is located, you won’t see a token at all. This was especially disconcerting to me as the first quest I accepted that had a seaborne token was outside of my explored area. I came upon the red marker with no idea what it was, or how to interact with it.
The gameplay itself is fairly simple but can be very satisfying. It reminds me of a very simplified take on the ship-based portions of Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag. Moving around the ocean can be done either manually from a third-person mode, or via the world map. Manually sailing isn’t a particularly satisfying experience; the ships feel sluggish and slow, especially if the wind isn’t blowing the right direction, and random encounters are a mixed bag. Running into an enemy ship and engaging in combat is pretty fun, but if you come across a sea monster? You’re probably just going to die pointlessly, especially early on in the game. When I was just moving around, I tended to prefer using the world map and skipping some of the fat. You can still encounter ships if you use the world map, you just get a timer prompt which lets you decide what to do. I found it far more convenient and enjoyable to go this route.
Ship-to-ship combat is a cool combination of auto-firing cannon broadsides and manually triggered volleys and special abilities. Your ship has a targeting area that appears whenever you enter combat; if you keep the enemy in the target area, the accuracy of your shot steadily grows. When you’re hit maximum accuracy for the range of the enemy, your cannons will automatically fire. You can also trigger a volley whenever you’d like, but once you fire, you have to wait for your crew to reload the cannons before you can shoot again. There are different ammo types for players to manage, including bombs, fire cannonballs, buckshot for taking out enemy crew members, bolos for destroying enemy masts, and just good old-fashioned regular cannonballs, if you like to be boring. You can restock your ammo in ports and by looting it from enemy ships.
Combat isn’t just about lining ships up against each other and shooting it out in a test of endurance. You can prepare your ship with advantages by equipping different types of equipment. You can change the material and quality of your hull to increase your armor or health points, you can equip new cannons and assorted weaponry to increase the power of your attacks, and you can equip better sails for more speed or maneuverability. Each ship also has a number of slots to equip magical artifacts, which let you do things like launch fireballs or deploy magic shields to block incoming fire.
Some weapons can cause status effects like deck fires that slow your ship and/or your attack speed or reduce your accuracy. You can give yourself an advantage by hiring crew members, and spending ability scroll resources to promote them. You can assign your crew members to any of the ship’s three areas. Assigning them below decks increases the efficiency of your cannons; these crewmen will let you shoot farther, faster, and more accurately. Placing sailors in the sails increases your speed. Putting men on the decks increases the size of the boarding party you can use when you board an enemy ship.
Boarding enemy ships is a fun idea, but it absolutely does not live up to my prior comparison to ACIV. Controlling your captain is stiff, frequently unresponsive, and not nearly as tactical or fun as ship-based combat. Pretty much all you can do is jump and swing a sword, and those actions are plagued by slow animation and enemies that seem to have a much swifter attack motion. Some missions let you explore areas on the shore with largely the same mechanics, but with the added ability to call in a volley of cannonballs. It adds some depth to the melee combat, but it still doesn’t make it fun.
When you’re done with all the fighting and pillaging – temporarily, or course, because there’s always more pillaging that needs doing – you can loot your plunder and head off to port where you can make repairs to your ship, hire new crewmen, sell your goods, and find new quests to chase. You can take quests from any of the game’s many factions, and completing these quests will increase your standing within a faction, allowing you to take more rewarding quests. If your standing within a faction falls too far, though, you may lose access to that faction’s best quests, so it’s best not to take quests that target one faction too much.
Graphically, Under the Jolly Roger looks like an upscale mobile game from like five years ago. It’s hard to hold that against it, seeing as that’s what it is, but the game’s visuals still don’t really impress. The Switch is capable of looking a lot better than this, but in fairness the ships look really cool. The backgrounds aren’t especially detailed, and your captain and opponents in the melee components look just barely too good to be from the PS2. The music is fine for the atmosphere, but not especially memorable in itself.
You’ll notice I didn’t say much about the game’s story. It has one, a sort of generic magical pirate quest about gathering a scattered crew and hunting down the kraken that destroyed your original ship, but it’s not very compelling and doesn’t feature any strong characters to make it memorable in any way. This isn’t a game you play for the rich narrative or strong graphics; this is a game you play because you want the full pillaging and plundering pirate experience, and it mostly gives you that, as long as you only stick with the ship-based portions. Under the Jolly Roger is a fun naval combat pirate sim, but falls short in most other areas.
Buy Under the Jolly Roger
Digital – $19.99
Follow Lion’s Shade
*A game code was provided for review purposes.