by Marko Susimetsä
reviewed on PC
When men were made of iron and ships were made of wood
Captain Mark Wolfwood ran barefooted from the main cabin onto the deck and stepped onto the weather-rail. He swung himself up into the shrouds and ran up the ratlines way up onto the main top, choosing the way of the futtock-shrouds, as only a true man of the sea could, instead of the easier way of the lubber-hole that cut through the bottom of the top by the mast.
Once up, he cast an eye on the horizon. They were travelling close-hauled on the larboard tack and the wind tickled his toe hairs and made his eyes water as he studied the Kingdom xebec ahead.
Soon, the booty she carried would be his.
Tempest is an open-world action RPG that lets you take the role of a captain and roam the seas around several island nations, finding your fortune and alliances wherever you can. Developed by Lion’s Shade and published by HeroCraft, the game makes no claims of historical accuracy or realistic representation of sea battles, but focusses on fast action and (mostly) fun gameplay that you can enjoy either as a single-player or as an online cooperative or competitive multiplayer.
Who am I? How did I get here?
The game spends no time trying to explain the setting. You are cast into a world that resembles the early 18th century Caribbean insofar as the technology level is concerned, but the many islands are inhabited by factions differentiated seemingly only by their flags and names. The graphics are pretty, overall, even if not stupendously so, and you look forward to your new life as a pirate, even though you know very little of where you are and what you are supposed to do in the grand scheme of things. Early missions have you hunting down old friends to add them to your crew, but there’s no explanation of how these friends got lost in the first place. Oh, and it turns out that there are magical artefacts in the world. And demons. And humongous sea monsters!
The tutorial shows you some of the gameplay basics in a fashion that feels mostly confusing - such as telling you to move cargo between ships, but not explaining how (dragging and dropping didn’t work and it took me a while to see that the cargo items were listed and clickable at the bottom of the screen) or to move crew from the gun deck to the main deck and to the rigging (dragging and dropping works here, but it took a while to realise that I had to move my mouse sideways to choose how many of the sailors I wanted to move around). Best not even mention the city and town menus. In the end, I had to explore the game a bit by myself and then play the tutorial through again to get some sense of what I was doing.
Once you begin to get the hang of the UI, you can more easily enjoy the game, though some things will still remain unclear (e.g. the meaning of the three power bars in the lower left corner of the screen). You can explore the islands in a map view by dragging your mouse to desired destinations, creating a path that your ship will follow. Warnings will appear when you are nearby other ships, friendly or unfriendly, but it seems to remain your decision whether you want to engage or not (no attack is forced upon you) - not sure if this is just because the starting ship is relatively fast or if this is a design choice. Battles accrue you some experience points that you can use to train your crew or your captain. The developers point out that you do not need to use the map view and can, in fact, travel between the islands by using the sailing view only. This may be, but the lack of any navigational tools, even a compass, makes this pretty impossible. Once you approach a port of some sort, you can enter it by clicking on the symbol or by pressing the Spacebar when you are close and then sailing in the rest of the way.
Once in a port, you can buy and sell your cargo, hire new sailors of varying ability levels, pick up missions and buy new ships (you can only sail one at a time), upgrades to sails, cannons and hull. The menus and storefronts remain confusing even after some hours of gameplay, though, and I dearly wish that the developers will revamp them at some point.
The many hazards of an unknown world
You begin to think that things make sense until you get a mission to sink five Kingdom ships, but the mission giver neglects to tell you which national flag belongs to the Kingdom. And there’s no way to find out but by attacking various ships and using your telescope to identify their nationality as they come at you (Kingdom flag has a blue crown on it, by the way). That is if you happen to have a telescope. If you don’t, you better just attack everyone and hope for the best. By the way, there is a screen showing your relationships with each faction, but that screen also only shows the flags, not the names or any other information, of the factions.
You are likewise out of luck if you happen to approach the wrong kind of harbour. At one point, I hoped to get my ship fixed and chose a port with a castle-like icon. When I exited the map view, I popped in underneath tall castle walls, surrounded by guard towers that all started firing at me with no explanation. My relationship with the faction was positive, I had visited their cities and towns, but - for some reason - this one port just smashed my ship into smithereens before I could do anything and I respawned at my previous stop sans some of my cargo and money (the punishment for dying), cursing the fact that there’s no way to save your game.
Fast action, pretty graphics, pirates!, sail ships!
Bad lead-in/tutorial and UI, occasionally mystifying gameplay design.