Port Royale 4 Preview – A Trading Empire Reborn

Port Royale has always been a mixed bag of a series. The Caribbean-based series has always tried to delve deep into the trading, often at its own detriment by rarely looking the part and, when it comes to gameplay, being obtrusively slow. Port Royale 4, developed by Gaming Minds Studios (Port Royale 3, Grand Ages: Medieval, Railway Empire) has clearly had some improvements made to it, judging by the beta that I've recently been playing.

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While there have been improvements with Port Royale 4, there are issues. I'm going to start with the first thing you should run up against, the tutorial. The pacing of it, to be precise. The tutorial, ten tutorials to be precise, are interminably slow. You'll be begging for a skip button but one doesn't exist. I just wish it would let me push the buttons because A simple task like clicking a menu takes the game ages at it keeps on with the monologue. Just going through the tutorials took me around an hour.

I completely understand that most people - myself included - would just jump in and play, but the game told me that I should do the tutorials to unlock a special boat, so I did. What a mistake. If only because Gaming Minds have actually made Port Royale 4 the most accessible in the series by far.

When you're playing the game properly, everything is fairly self-explanatory. From the function of simply buying and selling goods, ships or more, to the setting up of trade routes. Even the building of a city is all quite well explained through simple icons on the screen. There are certainly some improvements that need to be made for usability purposes - for example, when building in a town, it would be nice to be able to highlight specific buildings that generate boosts, such as taverns, parks, chapels and hospitals.

If you run into any issues, the information assistant is very useful, though it falls foul of some of the issues that still run through the game - this being the language. Now, Game Minds is a German developer and, understandably, they develop in their native language. All good so far. There are a few minor issues where the English translation is lacking and other areas where there's been no translation performed at all. I assume, with this being in beta, all of that will be found out.

When it comes to gameplay in Port Royale 4, there are also a few minor issues. For example, one of your very first tasks in the campaign is to sell to your nation. The game actually counts items you buy as a sold item. Again, this is a beta so take any issues with the pinch of salt it deserves. So yes, I decided to go the campaign route. Free play or campaign, you're limited to flying under the Spanish flag for now. Britain, France and The Netherlands will be in the full release. You can also fly under a pirate flag too, but I'll save that for the full release.

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Starting off, you'll have a hometown where you will base yourself from, one you can build in and develop, one where you will start your trading empire that also benefits the nation that sent you to the Caribbean. You'll do this first by simply travelling around, buying low and selling high. Can't go wrong with the basics. Once you've done this you'll be tasked with developing your home city and even more because as you meet a town's needs, it increases their trust in you enabling you to eventually apply for building rights far and wide.

Of course, the ultimate aim is to have complete control of a town. To do this you'll need to keep performing tasks that your nations' viceroy keeps setting. As you perform tasks, your fame increases and you can unlock a number of concessions (perks) with your fame points. The concessions enable you to build different types of buildings in your nations' colonies, as well as giving you up to ten captain slots.

It's with these captain slots as well as the ability to create trade routes that the game lets you build a literal empire of your own. Paying for trade rights for more towns, creating trade routes across smaller, or larger distances, then automating them while you control a fleet of your own and take the fight to your nations' enemies is when Port Royale 4 truly gets intense.

Before I talk about this fighting, let me briefly cover the trade routes. Even at this early stage Gaming Minds have put a lot of detail into the system and got it working fantastically. Not only can you set exactly which commodities to buy and sell, but you can also use waypoints as well as the weather system to perfect where your ship will sail, avoiding inclement weather, keeping your ships safe and travel time to a minimum.

Captains that you hire also have a large effect on this. Each captain has a seemingly random set of four skills, though they seem to be based around either trading, war or pirate hunting. Abilities can be as varied as repairing ships after a battle, to letting the convoy under a captain avoid any negative effects of storms and shoals.

Anyway, let's talk about fighting. Port Royale 4 features a turn-based tactical approach to combat, rather than the previous versions real-time combat system. Personally I prefer this as it's considerably more tactical, it allows for more planning in combat and doesn't feature the last games' Benny Hill style chases, where the ships from both sides would simply circle around in a painfully endless cycle.

How this works is simple, the ships take turns and have movement points, to move on the hex-based grid, and manoeuvrability points to change direction. They can attack if one of their broadsides is facing the enemy, each side having an attack per turn. The turn-based approach also allows for the smoother and planned activation of special abilities. These abilities can be anything from repairing a quarter of a ship's health or launching a special attack, to increasing a ships movement or manoeuvrability points. I've noticed very few issues at this stage with the combat.

I'm not going to go into too much else, save it for the review, but there are other aspects of the game I haven't yet covered. In addition to the tasks I've mentioned, there are also other minor events or quests in the game, such as finding a lost relative of a townsperson, or finding some flotsam in the sea and collecting it for yourself. Also, you can buy treasure map pieces that appear as these optional tasks, eventually finding some proper treasure for yourself. There's a wide range of things to do but, again, I've written too much already!

Releasing on the 25th of September, Port Royale 4 is genuinely looking like the best in the series. There's a renewed attention to detail and Gaming Minds Studios have certainly learned from previous outings. It's considerably more user friendly despite the fact that somebody needs to trim down the tutorial with a machete. On an aspect I haven't touched upon, it looks lovely thanks to a vivid, colourful approach. All things considered, this is looking like it will be by far the best entry into the series and it'll be nice to see the finished product in a little over four months, which you can check out and wishlist on Steam right now.

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