Let’s face it; Port Royale 4 is the closest thing most of us are going to get to a Caribbean getaway any time soon.
I’ll preface this review by saying that Port Royale 4 is the first game in the series I’ve played. I’m not a Port Royale stalwart, so I can’t discuss in depth to how it compares to previous entries. But eight years on since the release of Port Royale 3, it’s safe to say that it’s evolved in multiple ways. Graphically, it looks beautiful, and menus and various gameplay systems have had a complete overhaul. It’s bigger than ever too, and has brand new game mechanics in place. But the heart of the game remains the same as ever: trade produce around the Caribbean and become the supreme power of the seas.
Getting to grips with Port Royale 4 can be daunting, but a lengthy and well-executed series of tutorials teaches you the basics. It’ll take over an hour to sit through them all, but it’s worth doing as you’ll feel much better prepared for the game’s campaign. Each lesson focuses on a particular area, so you can skip over anything you’re already familiar with. And an in-depth guide accessible at any time from the menu lets you refresh your memory whenever you need to.
You can opt to play a free game if you like, building up your trading empire however you see fit. But campaign mode tasks you with various missions. They’re straightforward at first: trade 1,000 items with neighbouring towns, and keep the population of your home town happy. As time progresses though, what Port Royale 4 expects from you gets more and more daunting. There’s a lot of plates to spin at once, so to speak: you’ll have multiple ships to direct, businesses to build at various ports, and half a dozen different tasks to manage, all with deadlines to meet.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed at first, but when you’re successful it’s incredibly rewarding. Even the simple joy of sailing back and forth between trading ports is fun, especially when you’re turning a tidy profit. You’re able to automate trade routes if you wish, setting routes for your convoys to travel, automatically buying and selling the produce you’ve selected. It allows you to focus on other areas, and seeing money roll in by itself is always a welcome boon.
Cash flow is of course important to all elements of Port Royale 4, and if you run out of money you’ll soon find yourself struggling to continue. So strategising every element of gameplay is important: buy produce from towns where it’s abundant, and sell to towns with a shortage. You’ll also have to be mindful not to take on too much too soon; everything costs money, from trading permits and building permits to the upkeep of your fleet. Taking your time and starting off carefully is key.
As mentioned previously, Port Royale 4 is rather nice looking. You’ll not find the detail here that you will in a leading open world adventure, of course, but it’s hard not to be impressed. The ocean waters are sharp and beautiful, and the details as you zoom into islands and towns is impressive, too. But what’s most impressive is just how seamless Port Royale 4 is. You can zoom in to a business you own in a port town, close enough to see the workers milling around, or zoom out to see an overview of multiple islands at once. It’s incredibly smooth to navigate, and considering the sheer scale of the game’s world, it’s something of a technical marvel. Outside of first entering the game, there are very few loading screens, allowing you to hit the ground running with just about any task you want to concentrate on.
The only time you will see a short loading screen while playing Port Royale 4 is when you jump into a naval battle. Sure, you can concentrate on trading goods if you like, but the seas of the Caribbean are teeming with competing nations and pirate ships. Some of them might want a piece of your success. Naval battles can play out automatically if you’d rather put your attention elsewhere, but if you want to get involved, the turn-based combat is exhilarating.
Battles are easy to get to grips with, especially if you’re familiar with turn-based strategy. Up to 10 ships can be involved in a battle, making for tense and exciting combat. Each ship can make a certain number of moves and turns each round, and to truly succeed you’ll need to think carefully. You see, with every attack you can fire cannons from both sides of your ship. But you’ll need to make sure you’re in position to make full use of your firepower. If you’re unable to manoeuvre your ship to perform a second attack, you’re wasting opportunity to inflict damage onto your opponent.
There’s also strategy involved in just how far you damage your opponents. Completely destroy them, and their ships will sink – along with any cargo they may be carrying. But weaken them enough to give you the upper hand, and you may be able to walk away victorious and with a haul of free goods to trade.
There’s a lot of layers to Port Royale 4. Its gameplay is impressively deep, and to truly succeed at it, you need to excel at multitasking and strategising. Like any sim game, it’s not something that just anybody is going to enjoy. But if you are a fan of deep simulation games, there’s a lot to love here. Building up a trading empire isn’t easy but when you crack it, it sure feels good.