Tortuga - A Pirate's Tale Review

January 24, 2023


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Xbox One
Xbox Series

Boat and Blade: Cannonlord

Of all the sins Ubisoft executives have committed, making Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag a one-off game is probably the worst. While the various controversies surrounding the still-unreleased Skull and Bones are bad, and the whole ‘institutional harassment’ thing is worse, the fact that the publisher created and then killed the pirate genre is almost unforgivable. It’s been almost ten years since the definitive swashbuckling game released, and since then, it’s been all quiet on the seven seas as far as the industry is considered. Considering how great the golden age of grog drinking would be for a title, it’s a shame to say the least that there just haven’t many other pirate games since 2013. However, it’s slightly less of a shame now that Tortuga - A Pirate’s Tale is out, because despite a few minor faults, it’s still the one of the best best (and damn near only) sword and cannon games on the market. 

In case it wasn’t obvious from the title, Tortuga - A Pirate’s Tale is a game all about pirates. You play as the newest naval captain in the Caribbean, who, unsurprisingly, wants to find the lost Spanish gold that takes centre stage in almost every piece of pirate media. To do that, you’re tasked with amassing a mid-range fleet of raider ships while battling other boats and trading with the locals until you can gather enough marauders to get rich beyond your wildest dreams. 

The specifics of that task, however, are a smidge more involved than you may think. While the narrative of Tortuga - A Pirate’s Tale is relatively straightforward, and can be played through or not depending on how much you care about a story that’s been done to death ever since the release of Treasure Island, the meat of the game lies in its, well, gameplay, which is eerily similar to the recent Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord, because all that truly differentiates the two titles is the specifics of their combat systems and settings.

Is it just me or are these seas kind of low?

Before you can engage in the gathering of any ill-gotten gains, you first need to build up your party, and maintain it afterwards. This is done by visiting local taverns to recruit new sailors, trading legally acquired goods for the gold necessary to pay your pirates and stocking your ship’s hold with rations and rum. You’re also tasked with taking on various simplistic sidequests, playing politics with the powers of the post-medieval powers that be, and even engaging in non-combat based sabotage of rival factions. 

It’s only after you’ve done at least some of these things things, then, that you can start attacking other ships, which is done with strange Civilization-esque turn based combat. After you’ve hoisted the black flag and cornered your prey, the ships in your fleet deploy, and both you and your foe take turns either sailing around relatively large combat arenas or firing cannons at one another. Once you’ve whittled away at your opponent’s armor enough, you then need to board their vessels, and through a text-based interface, determine how specifically to kill everyone on board. 

Both this, and the non-combat elements of Tortuga - A Pirate’s Tale are strange to be sure, but for the most part, they work well. Unlike in more traditional turn-based combat games, or the 3D Black Flag, there’s a huge emphasis put on you being part of the world you’re plundering. You can take over settlements, recruit other captains to help command your fleet, politics are always at play and you can’t simply go from raiding encounter to raiding encounter unless you want your crew to overthrow you. This all makes for combat that, again for the most part, is interesting and unique, even if at times it can feel a smidge unfair because of the AI ship’s health bars and constantly superior numbers. 

Is this the coast of high barbary?

It should be noted that, for what little this matters, the game can also be a tad annoying because of its audio-visual elements. While Tortuga - A Pirate’s Tale looks good, and it’s far from GPU-intensive, there aren’t a lot of bombastic explosions or bloody swordfights to marvel at. There also aren't, unless somehow we missed them, any sea shanties to listen to while you’re navigating around its giant open world or dozens of settlements, which is strange if not totally experience-ruining.

The reason neither one of these things truly hurt the overall game, then, is because it’s a relatively strong game regardless of whether or not you need to boot up the sea shanty playlist on Spotify while playing. It’s not a title for everyone, and those who don’t enjoy turn-based combat or the logistics behind running a pirate fleet will be more than annoyed while playing. However, if you’re a fan of the aforementioned Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord, or even the more recent Civilization games, and want to experience something akin to those titles but with a swashbuckling twist, you won’t find a better game on the market. That’s probably because Ubisoft executives screwed up and still haven’t released Skull and Bones as they’re too busy doing nasty things with their staff, but that, like the Spanish treasure, is something that’ll be lost to history. Hopefully, however, Tortuga - A Pirate’s Tale won’t be. 

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With its unique take on naval combat and plundering-focused narrative, Tortuga - A Pirate's Tale isn’t the greatest simulation of a swashbuckler's life, but it tries hard and is worth playing for anyone who wants to give their sea legs a solid workout.
Derek Johnson

Somebody once told me the world was going to roll me, and they were right. I love games that let me take good-looking screenshots and ones that make me depressed, so long as the game doesn't overstay its welcome.