Skip to main content

Premature Evaluation: Tempest

Naval Hazing

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.

Le Clerc chose to abandon his nation, exploiting the chaos caused by a Protestant uprising in French cities against their own Catholic king to side with the English, hoping for a sizeable reward on which to retire. But, perfidious as ever, England reneged, and left Le Clerc to sullenly continue reaving. He soon died, fighting against the Spanish once more. This story is typical of privateer life - and particularly death - where the boundaries between national allegiances, lawful seizure and criminal theft were porous indeed. Privateers were pirates in all but name and patronage: warring nations commissioned these men to loot hostile nations’ merchant vessels, but, since these loyalties were cheaply bought and quickly forsaken, really only created an endemic piracy problem that quickly got out of hand.

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.

Though they were despicable mercenary arseholes prone to acts of extreme violence - terrorism even, in the sense that they deployed brutality to cow other prey into quick surrender - it’s hard not to feel a tiny bit of sympathy with some of the privateers who turned pirate, casually discarded by the nation states that had originally sponsored them. Captain William Kidd was one such unfortunate - not necessarily likeable, but most certainly unfairly betrayed: by his nation, its navy, its king and his friends. Oh, and his crew. Multiple times.

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.

A Scotsman by birth and later a colonist of (the then very literally named) New York City, Kidd found his sealegs as a pirate crewman. Following a mutiny during which he took control of the vessel, and then was deposed in turn by a former shipmate called Robert Culliford, he set about a lucrative career as a privateer captain, his reaving legitimised by English governors of the Caribbean looking to bolster their naval defences against the French. His career was briefly marred when Culliford, now a seasoned pirate, stole Kidd’s ship while he was on shore at Antigua, but, nonetheless, feited by society and married into money, things seemed to be going as well for Kidd as any privateer. This would not last. A change of New York City’s governor saw an abrupt change in the attitude towards pirates - and Kidd, as a loyal servant of the crown, was tasked with hunting them down. It’s not entirely clear what he felt about such a commission, engineered and funded by powerful members of the British aristocracy, but it’s clearly one he could not refuse even if he had wanted to. It came with a letter of marque - a privateer’s licence to kill, essentially - signed by William III himself, a fact which unexpectedly sowed the seeds of disaster. Vanity, it seems, was Kidd’s fatal flaw, and an appointment from the King made him feel invulnerable. As events almost immediately made clear, he was not.

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.

Upon leaving port with his brand new and very impressive ship, designed in every way to be a hard counter to pirates, he was so emboldened by his royally appointed status, that he failed to salute a Navy yacht. The yacht helpfully fired a shot to remind him of the respect that was due, and Kidd and crew responded by yanking down their kecks and slapping their bums. The Navy was unimpressed, boarded Kidd’s vessel and press-ganged two-thirds of his hand-picked crew into Naval service, ignoring all of Kidd’s indignant protestations about Royal commissions. Kidd was forced to recruit pirates and criminals to make up the shortfall, and then almost immediately lost a third of them to cholera. The Navy once again attempted to purloin crewmembers from him, and Kidd agreed to hand them over the next day, only to set sail during the night - a fact which, unbeknownst to him, prompted accusations of piracy by the Naval officer in question.

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.

To make things worse, Kidd couldn’t find any actual pirates. His surviving crew expected loot and were becoming increasingly restless. They’d nabbed one solitary French vessel, an act of legal privateering under the rules of the commission, which Kidd seems to have been keen to honour. He repeatedly declined to attack ships that might void his arrangement with the Crown, much to his crew’s annoyance. Some deserted, others openly threatened to mutiny, leading to violent confrontations between captain and crew. Kidd actually brained a gunner named William Moore with a heavy bucket after an argument over whether or not to attack a Dutch ship - but was confident that this action would be seen as a necessary act to maintain order on a mission of vital importance to England.

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.

Kidd’s fatal mistake was to capture an Armenian ship called the Quedagh Merchant which had been sailing under protection of the French Crown. The captain, however, was an Englishman. Upon realising this, Kidd vainly tried to persuade his mutinous crew to hand back the ship and its cargo, but they refused. Sensing that they were ready to drop him overboard, he could do little but accept the situation, which, to the folks back home, only confirmed the accusations of piracy against him and prompted an instruction for his immediate capture. Kidd still believed his Royal appointment might see him through; that the Quedagh Merchant’s French passes might be enough to excuse his actions. But things got worse.

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.

Finally, Kidd found himself a pirate ship to chase - the only problem being that it belonged to the one pirate in the entire world who he might least wish to meet. Yes, once again, Kidd’s paths crossed with Robert Culliford - the man who had once mutinied against him and later stolen his ship. Kidd may have been keen for revenge or conciliation - the accounts differ - but in any case, he was denied both when his crew largely abandoned him to join Culliford’s, leaving only 13. His grand pirate-catching ship had fallen into disrepair, too, having never proven to be especially water-tight, and Kidd was now forced to burn her and travel instead on the captured Quedagh Merchant, now redubbed the Adventure Prize. But he was forced to abandon that as well when he finally heard he was a wanted pirate, deciding instead to travel incognito on a much smaller vessel while he figured out how to clear his name. An offer of clemency came from the governor of New York City - the same one who had helped organise Kidd’s anti-piracy exploits - but it was a ruse. Kidd was imprisoned on arrival.

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.

His trial, which took place a year later back in England, was something of a farce. Kidd refused to name the gentry who had funded his expedition, believing that they would be grateful and use their influence to come to his aid. They did not. The papers that established the French protection of the Quedagh Merchant mysteriously disappeared and were not mentioned at his trial, while former shipmates were only too happy to testify against him in exchange for pardon for their own piracy, sometimes in contradiction to their previous testimony. Now in desperation, Kidd claimed (possibly truthfully) to have stashed a sizeable amount of treasure at a location only known to him, which he would be happy to pass on in exchange for his life - and this still fuels the mythology of buried pirate treasure to this day. The offer was declined. Kidd was hung in 1701. And then hung again when the rope broke on the first attempt. A grim fate made worse by the irony that, of all those subsequently mythologised as the most infamous pirates of the Golden Age, Kidd least wanted to be one.

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.

Read this next