Each week, with his beard smouldering and black flag aflutter, Marsh Davies prowls the oceans of Early Access for plunder, slo(o)ping back to port with any stories he can find. This week he’s been further debasing the reputation of pirates on the low-fantasy high-seas of Tempest, a game of naval combat and light ship management.
Blackbeard might not have had a lot going for him personally, but at least history has remembered him as a total shitwad who achieved some measure of boldly amoral success. My captaincy is less piratical than parasitical. I am an aquatic tick, getting fat on the misfortune of others that I am too incompetent to actually engineer myself. I am the worst pirate.
Things start as they continue, with the game dropping me into immediate maritime calamity. Two other pirates have marked me as the easy prey I am and, rather than demand my surrender and boarding me – actions which are unavailable in this game – they are determined to pound me into driftwood and scoop up whatever valuables remain floating on the surface. A hallmark of the game in its current unfinished state is that it tells you how to do things just after the point at which they would have actually been useful, if at all, and so I spend some alarming seconds being pounded with cannon before realising my own arsenal fires automatically, so long as I keep an enemy ship within the arcing sightlines that bloom across the waves on either side of my ship.
As I gather from a later tip, you can select three stances for your cannon crews which change the accuracy and speed at which they fire inversely. The firing arc is segmented by distance, indicating boundaries at which your accuracy drops by a large percentage, and displays a brighter inner arc that expands to fill the space, indicating (I think) the time required for your crew to aim before unleashing a volley.
Handling the ship is more intuitive, and feels great, the ship listing and creaking as you force it to turn, a captain’s wheel spinning wildly in the bottom right of the screen. Though it’s not clear to me if the wind or waves have any effect on you at all. If they do, it is subtle indeed, and these absences mean the game doesn’t quite capture the skill or strategy of naval manoeuvring. Instead, you just creak around and around your foe, punching holes through each other until one of you sinks. There are other hints that this is not a strict physical simulation: my ship remains largely unharmed when, in an effort to avoid an enemy’s fire, I plough straight into a sandbar. The game’s accuracy does extend to omitting a reverse button, however, and so I am forced to slowly turn my ship until I can drag it back into open water.
Somehow, I survive this encounter and the sunken husks of my enemies reveal glowing beams: treasures which can be collected as easily as scooting over them. Having filled my coffers, I hit the VICTORY button which takes me to an overworld map. This is hand drawn but nonetheless remains largely concealed by the Fog of My Ignorance which probably raises some interesting metaphysical questions about the nature of authorship and reality being abstracted through this navigation interface, but also my competency as a captain, having apparently left port without adequate charts.
In any case, I can drag a marker to indicate where I want to sail. A harbour seems like a good choice, and it’s here that the game introduces its ship management features. Note: by “introduce” I do not mean “explain”. Clicking one button takes me to a beautiful cutaway of my vessel, complete with crewmembers engaged in variously useful activities like hanging off rigging and loading cannon. I can drag individual crewmembers from my ship and drop them inside some sort of training bucket at the cost of XP, from which they don’t seem to ever emerge. Are they in training? When will they come back? Have they been trained? Are they still working members of my crew? Sometimes you’ll drop a man in there, and he’ll disappear, but the guy who was sitting next to him will level up. Has he eaten him and consumed his power?
To the left of the ship cutaway is a list… of things. At the top is my Efficiency rating, which at one stage reaches 103% (62/60). Unfortunately, as listed directly below that, my Efficiency is also 0% (46/0). Thank Neptune that my Efficiency rating, as listed below that is 110% (66/60)! Phew! One of these Efficiency ratings has some circles next to it, into which you can put certain men’s faces. These men appear to be skilled named characters who offer you buffs. To the right of my ship (an area which is off-screen but can be reached, sometimes, by dragging the background right to left) is a tavern. There’s a guy sitting on a stool. Can I hire him? I drag him to my ship but he zips back to the barstool the second I release the mouse-button – which is probably a wise choice given my skills as captain. Later, in a tavern on another island, there are two gentlemen on the stools, and I discover that although I can’t drag either of them to my ship, I can drag one of them to sit on a stool upstairs. Except, instead of moving there, he merely duplicates himself, to sit both upstairs and downstairs, which I suppose is a remarkably efficient way to maximise shore-leave. Somehow this costs me money. Dragging him to another stool further to the right costs even more money and a number changes below him. I have literally no idea what this means.
Being docked gives me the opportunity to sell cargo and buy supplies – which I sorely need. Cannon shot is expended at a crazy rate, and after buying replacements, it looks like the battle cost me more than I made from looted goods. I also have to repair the ship, which puts me down to single figures, though at least I can customise her for free. Unfortunately, the options are fairly limited at present and I don’t like the way the figurehead clips through the bowsprit, or the fact that the motifs you can apply to the sails run off the edge of the canvas, so I stick to the vanilla options. This is, in any case, more fitting for a captain of my complete lack of perceptible flare.
Heading out, I’m encouraged to head to an island to search for another man whose face I can probably put in a circle. As I set off, random battles offer themselves to me, which I can ignore without cost if I wish. I do not wish, although I later wish I had wished. I’m up against three ships, all larger than my own, and though I take two down, the third sinks me. But, no matter: I appear back at port with a seaworthy vessel, albeit with a vastly reduced hull-integrity and less money. I spend what little I have left repairing my ship to 30%, and set out again, repeatedly declining the random battles that pop up seemingly every second. My man’s face isn’t to be collected at my destination and so I voyage on, this time trying to autoresolve a battle rather than simply dismiss it. I lose that too.
Now I can no longer afford to repair my ship, and so I have to scoot about, resolutely fleeing from every possible conflict. Fortunately, a mid-ocean mission-marker pops up, proving to be the very man I was searching for. A third man has been captured by pirates, he tells me, and it’s clear that this is something that can only be resolved by combat. I don’t fancy my chances, and it turns out the feeling is mutual: the battle proves impossible, not least because I rapidly run out of anything to fire at my foe. Quickly annihilated, I find myself in the position of being bankrupt with no way to repair my ship, nor buy any ammunition that would allow me to win the random battles that would get me money. At least my crew seems inexplicably incapable of mutiny.
What to do? Unfortunately, it turns out it’s currently impossible to start again: you are permitted but one profile and it can’t be deleted in-game. Uh. After some trawling (of the internet, rather than the ocean), I discover you can sometimes share in victories between AI factions by lending them your support. Ah hah! Perhaps, I think, my support can be more of the moral than the actual kind.
I wobble about the ocean hoping for such opportunities to auto-resolve. Nothing goes my way, but luckily I can’t die, it seems, nor ever go into the red: I hold onto my one gold coin through many futile battles. Eventually I have the option to lend my assistance to the defence or assault of a sea fort – a battle I can’t autoresolve. I choose to defend, finding myself in dangerous range a couple of pirate galleons. Luckily, they are more interested in sailing pointlessly into a mighty barrage of cannon from the fort, while I slip off round the other side of the island and wait for the inevitable. Victory! I slink back and hoover up the gold.
This I do another few times with a growing sense of shame – but no other battle seems to be winnable, either by direct control or by auto-resolving. At one point I am forced into an encounter with several pirate ships and a sea monster which I am too panicked to properly identify. Narrowly avoiding being smashed apart as it leaps out of the water at me, I make a beeline for the horizon: even the mandatory battles allow you to escape when you put enough distance between you and the enemy – and so I do. No one will ever get close enough to me to know what colour beard I have. I imagine Robert Louis Stevenson shaking his head in disappointment.
However, along with a persisting sense of shame, I now have a lot of XP to spend training my men and loads of dosh with which to repair and replenish my ship. And, with my ship at full strength I can finally complete the mission quest, turning the troublesome pirate ships to splinters and retrieving my coveted third man-face. After hauling him back to port, I find he won’t go in the third circle, but will go in the first of three other circles that now sit next to one of my other efficiency ratings, which has somehow now dropped to 66% despite my ship being better armed and better trained. I also unlock upgrades, or I think I do – it’s sometimes hard to tell. It seems I can use better cannon and more accurate pistols now, and I’ve found and bought a spyglass that says it should give me information on ships before attacking them, though this never happens.
Different harbours hold different goods and, although there doesn’t seem to be a supply-demand economy at work, it does give me a glimpse of potential purchases, like entirely new ships, new weapons and artefacts that promise significant buffs. The sums involved are huge, however, and I can’t imagine grinding random encounters to reach those amounts. Story missions seem even less profitable: I’m soon sent to retrieve a sailor who’s been held to ransom upon terms I am given no option to decline, and, as you might expect, that isn’t a big monetary win for me. Another set of story missions seem to imply my ship is haunted by a rope-fetishist. Mysterious, but in no way lucrative.
I do assist in a few more battles, usually half-heartedly taking the side of the defenders, waiting for them to do the heavy lifting, then hoovering up the flotsam. It isn’t a noble profession, but it is a guaranteed income. But as lowly a seadog as I am, I can’t say I particularly admire the seamanship of my AI counterparts, hostile or friendly – they frequently plough into one another, or into rocks, or get stuck inside towns.
All this being said, and although my voyage so far has largely been one of humiliation and disaster, I see a lot to like in Tempest. The art impresses me, not from the perspective of fidelity, but because I admire the tricks it uses to disguise just how low-poly some of its assets are: the overall effect, with its fantasy touches, vast monuments and thrashing rain, is coherent and evocative. Manoeuvring the ship feels good, too, and that goes a long way – though I’d wish for more tactical options at my disposal early on than simply hoping to put more cannon balls into my enemy than he does me. Rotating round and round enemies until one of you dies is not as engaging as it might be – and without wind or wave simulation to complicate this, I don’t know what the devs might do to create opportunities for player-skill to direct and influence battle. Speed boosts? Handbrake-turns? The ability to upgrade your ship and level up its crew appeals – but, clearly, these systems are not yet comprehensible to me. And yet, I still really rather like it: perhaps because I see a lot of my problems with it dissolving as development progresses, but mostly because I find my abject failure to be strangely charming. I feel like my captaincy, through sheer ineptitude, has achieved at least some sort of infamy, and isn’t that ultimately what any pirate wants?
Tempest is available from Steam for £9. I played the version with the Build ID 878547 on 11/12/2015.