“Arrgghh! Hey there mateys! Are ya be ready for some adventurin'? And pillagin'? And spellin'? Yeah, that's right, you heard me swabs – spellin'! Every good buccaneer needs to know how to spell stuff, right? A good vocabulary might come in handy too, you landlubbers! Then come aboard an' we'll take to the high seas and find ourselves our fortunes in loot. Arggghh!”
When I first saw that Pirate Princess was a word puzzle game, the knee jerk reaction was that I was going to hate it. And I tried so hard to hate it – I really did. I've been trying to hate it now for over five addictive hours straight, but I just can't. Damn you Moonpod - I'm not supposed to like these types of games! If you've played any of the “Bookworm” series of games from Pop-Cap, then you'll know roughly what to expect from this game. But Pirate Princess is better than them primarily because it's got pirates in it. It's definitely a Caribbean setting and a strong protagonist that make the game memorable in a sea of mediocre clones of Bookworm.
Young Lucy is driven to the seas from her home town of Miami in search of her father and more broadly an adventure, by the threat of having to attend a finishing school in upstate Florida. It's not long before she is up to her neck in shady deals, combat and conspiracy. The story chugs along, driving the action, as Lucy and her father roam the Caribbean, on a broad quest to restore her fathers former position and stature. Along the way countless battles are fought, mysteries are unravelled and foes are vanquished in a classic swashbuckling tale.
Most of the players' time is spent in the battle screen or the world map screen. As missions are accepted, new ports open up on the world map. Captain Lucy can travel at any time to any port that is available to her. At first this might seem a cool freeform aspect of the gameplay, but after experimenting a bit, I found that there really is not that much point to roaming around aimlessly since there are no graphics for any of the ports that are visited, and all of them offer the same services at pretty much the same price. It's far too easy to tell which port you need to go to next, since a big green arrow points out the next objective in the storyline. The otherwise functional quest log is made redundant because of it.
The battles are the heart and soul of the game and are fairly well implemented. The players' ship is set up on the left hand side of the screen and the enemies will appear on the right. The two ships blast each other with broadsides – the strength of which is determined by the complexity of words created from an allocated pool of letters. Each ship has an attack and defence strength which seems to act like a modifier on the raw value of words created. It's a bit difficult to know why sometimes my shots miss. I know that it has something to do with the defence rating of the target and the attack rating of my ship, but the game does a poor job of explaining this fully, and bundled documentation is scarce and not much of a resource. There are tool tips that pop up from time to time, and these act as a sort of in-game tutorial. It's an easy game to get into, I just wished that I had a better grip on the inner mechanics of the damage system. Suffice it to say that longer words and words containing uncommon letters like “x” and “z” will score bigger hits on your enemies. Players of Scrabble or Boggle will feel right at home.
There are RPG elements that allow various skills to be chosen each time Lucy levels up through combat experience. There aren't too many of these skills and by the end of the game the player will have invested in nearly all of them, so there's not a great amount of choice in terms of character builds, but they do add a nice sense of progression to the game. Some of these abilities allow a combat bonus, an ability to repair damage to the ship mid-battle, or an opportunity to meddle with the opponents letters just as he plans to launch an attack with the word “xylophone”. Again though, the combat bonuses are not explained in detail and playing a defensive de-buff on the AI ships might, for example, turn his rating from a black 15 into a red 15. What does this actually mean?
The fuzziness of the details doesn't really detract that much for my enjoyment of the game, but it does frustrate me slightly. But don't worry about losing a few battles here and there. The system is extremely forgiving. If you are defeated by a foe, you simply lose a handful of gold coins and actually gain experience before sailing away at full health! Often losing to a stronger opponent is a better option than sailing back to port to pay for repairs. I shouldn't be complaining too loudly though. I pumped the difficulty level up to “very hard” just to see how it differed from my “normal” level playthrough and had my brigantine despatched by some lowly sea-dogs in a sloop. They were pounding me with broadsides like they were firing them from machine guns. There's a difficulty level here to suit all players.
Controls are mainly mouse driven, but the option to use the keyboard at the battle screen might be handy for some players that can type with more than 3 fingers. For common folk like myself, it's probably best to stick with the point and click, since even the typers are going to lose some time when they have to come back to the mouse to use powerups anyway.
The sounds and music are excellent and add to a feeling of immersion in the world. The battles sound visceral and fierce, and the music is stirring and energetic in a perfect match for the game. The overall look of the game is a bit lacklustre; although the artwork is fairly attractive, the overall colour scheme is a bit brown and drab, especially considering the setting and theme of the game. At maximum resolution of 1280x960 (with no widescreen support), you're probably better off playing in a window. It looks a bit silly stretched out on a 16:9 ratio monitor.
The biggest compliment I can pay to Pirate Princess is that it's a lot more fun to play than I thought it was going to be. I can see a definite appeal to kids here; as their vocabulary and co-ordination grow, they'll get better at the game – a great incentive! The story and game content is totally suitable for young children too. Perhaps not the best of Moonpod's offerings, but testament to their broad appeal and flexibility in both concept and design.
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