Port Royale 4 Review | Traders of the Caribbean

I am not great at strategy simulators. There I said it. The last one I really sunk a good few hours into was Settlers Online, and while diving in blind worked out fine for me back then, I cannot the same for my head first approach to Port Royale 4. If you do not want to sit there during your first campaign looking like a high schooler on test day not knowing why the geometry they studied the night before wasn't appearing on their Spanish midterm, I would highly recommend that you sit through the game's roughly hour-long tutorials as they are crucial to understanding the basics of the game. Don't make the same mistake I did and think that just because they're tucked away in their own menu and not mandatory at the start of a new game that you can simply skip them. With that cautionary note out of the way, let's dive into my full thoughts on Port Royale 4.

Port Royale 4, from Gaming Mind Studios, is the latest entry in the trading sim series that first started in 2002 and is a sequel to Port Royale 3: Pirates and Merchants, which came out in 2012. Port Royale 4 has two main game modes: campaign and free play. I'll mostly be talking about the campaign here but everything I say about gameplay and mechanics covers both modes. In fact, the only two differences I know from the two modes is that Spain is a required starting point for the campaign and that not finishing tasks on time in the campaign can lead to an end game screen. Free play has neither of those restrictions. Other than that, the way you explore the game's sizable map and trade with its numerous colonies to gain fame across the Caribbean is entirely up to you.

Gameplay consists of managing convoys and commodities as well as constructing necessary buildings for the production of goods or additional living space. You can play the game by either micromanaging each step and doing it manually or automating it via trade routes. I started out by micromanaging everything, cycling through each convoy at my disposal, and buying and selling commodities as I saw fit. This offered the most "gameplay" because maintaining town happiness and doing tasks from the Viceroy requires your constant attention. However, as I said already, having gone in without doing the tutorials, this soon led to me getting overwhelmed with tasks and ending with -7,000 gold in the bank. In subsequent playthroughs, as I started to get a better grip on setting up trade routes, I was able to ensure a steady income using only 2 vessels, which freed me up to use my remaining ships to handle tasks and complete objectives. The automation also doesn't require your undivided attention so it's a great game to have in the background while you're doing something else. For example, theoretically, I could be writing this review on one screen while monitoring the progress of some businesses in Bluefields on another.

Traveling the high seas isn't all smooth sailing, however. Setting up trade routes requires some forethought, like taking the wind currents into account when designing your convoy's path. Carelessly sending your ships out can result in them getting swept into storms which will require extensive repairs and put damaged ships out of commission for long periods of time. Then there are the pirates of the Caribbean to look out for. When sending a ship out, there is always a chance that it will be attacked which will start a board-game-like combat sequence. These naval battles can either be handled directly by you or automated to have the NPC Captain make all the tough choices. Either way, both storms, and pirates require you to keep an eye on your convoys, and making the smart decisions early on will ensure you aren't leaving your ships open for failure. And if you personally feel an urge to become a pirate and terrorize the Caribbean yourself, that option is also available, though doing so without proper authorization will have consequences. Of course, there are many other management tools at your disposal, and because this is more of an overview I'm not going into the nitty-gritty on how each system works. Just know that there are important decisions to be made right from the character selection screen. (P.S. I'd highly recommend playing as The Merchant for your first campaign.)

One small detail in Port Royale 4 gameplay that I want to give a special mention to was dynamic speed scaling. That isn't the real term for it but that is what I'll be using to refer to the speed of the game world being tied to your camera height. This means that if you're floating high above the map the world speed will have a multiplier to make convoys rush by while moving the camera lower towards the ground will slowly scale the speed down. This ensures that you won't ever be all the way zoomed in and trying to manage duties while everything is moving at 3x speed or that you have to wait for ages for ships to get from one colony to another when you're zoomed out. In other games in the genre (that I've played) this speed management is usually somewhere in the menu or tied to a button on the controller, but here it's automated for player ease. If you are someone who likes to control your game speed directly though, that option is also available.

When it comes to visuals and sound, Port Royale 4 is a bit of a mixed bag. From a distance, the visuals aren't too bad, but zooming in and moving the camera across the landscape shows some really blurry textures. If you zoom all the way in and don't move the camera you can notice a surprising amount of detail in the colonies with vibrant buildings and NPCs walking here and there. (Although I have observed some funny glitches where townsfolk walk on air at the edge of towns.) In some instances when I was zoomed in all the way, moving the camera showed a bit of ghosting on landscapes such as mountains and waterfalls. The fact of the matter is that you're rarely ever going to be in that close proximity to the towns on a regular basis to notice anything, and at the height that you usually hover at to manage your convoys, the only visual complaint you may have is that expanses of trees often blend together into a detailless sea of green. But I did notice this often enough to consider it worth mentioning.

On the audio side, things do fare better. Voice acting is minimal and while a bit cheesy, fits the tone of the game overall, and the music is pleasantly cinematic, adding the right amount of flare to inspire high seas hijinks. The real sound highlight for me though is the sound design. Just like the dynamic speed scaling, sound design is also impacted by how close or far you are from the map. When you're far above the action, with ships sailing at godspeed, the only sound you'll hear is music and menu sound effects. But moving closer to a town will slowly introduce diegetic sound into the mix. Birds chirping and the hustle and bustle of a port become louder when you approach a town and the dense jungle surrounding it. Small sound queues signaling a convoy docking at a port or departing towards a new waypoint are welcome additions that help keep you on task.

The big question at the end of the day is whether I would recommend Port Royale 4 or not and the answer is muddled much like the game's visuals upon closer inspection. I enjoyed figuring out Port Royale 4 and its various systems and mechanics and by my third campaign run, I was determined to set up and optimize trade routes and amass heaps of gold the likes of which few men in this side of the Caribbean had seen at the time. And having seen two game over screens prior I was able to appreciate the success of my latter playthroughs even more. However, once I did establish those trade routes and set up construction sites in various towns, I found that I didn't need to do much active playing. Other than checking in on the status of some buildings and glancing across the map to spot any new randomly generated tasks, I could easily have this game playing in the background while I watched a movie or binged a show. For me, this didn't take away from my enjoyment of the game. If anything, it made it easier for me to sink more hours into it. And since the automated processes in the game actually make it more welcoming to new players, I can't really fault the developers for adding them in either. However, undeniably, some players will find the gameplay too slow or boring. If,  after all I've said, you find yourself hesitant, I'd maybe check out some gameplay videos and consider waiting for a sale if you're still unsure. If everything I described is right up your ally, then you can pick up Port Royale 4 now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC. A review code on the Xbox One was provided by the publisher. If you want to play the game on PC, click here to use our affiliate link and support the website.

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