Pirate101 is KingsIsle Studios’ latest MMO, the companion game to their inaugural title, Wizard101. Players get to engage in pirate-y goodness in lands that may be familiar to veterans of W101. Yet Pirate101 also brings a host of new features that give it its own unique ‘flavor’. While geared to a family-friendly audience, there is a lot to like about Pirate101 for adults. It’s definitely not just a “kids’ game” and true MMO fanatics will be missing out if they choose to skip this one.
We’ve spent several weeks playing Pirate101 in order to get ready for this review. So let’s be getting’ started, mateys. Hold onto yer hats!
Aesthetically speaking, Pirate101 is a feast for the eyes. It’s bright and vibrant with just enough dark edges to please just about anybody. Because of its setting, P101 gets to bring in a lot of fun visual effects like squawking parrots, smoking ships, splashing water, clanking swords and more. In addition, KingsIsle is known for its amazing spell effects and those are similarly brought to bear in this game. There are just not enough good things to be said about a gigantic floating skull rising menacingly over your enemy.
While not as detailed as some MMOs, Pirate101 does very well for what it sets out to do: Create a pirate-y environment that is fun to explore and be within. It’s not meant to be a ‘realistic’ game from the standpoint that every crack in a leather belt shows or every blade of grass is seen. But what is done is done well.
Sound in Pirate101 is also done extremely well. Quest givers and companions are voiced and the voices are terrific. It’s blatantly apparent that the actors who gave sound to the game’s characters had a lot of fun with all the “yarrs” and “mateys” and “buckos” and other pirate-esque words. Obviously these folks practiced a lot on Talk Like a Pirate Day!
The world’s sounds are terrific too. When the wind blows, it actually (*gasps*) sounds like the wind. Water splashes. Swords CLANG! Canons BOOM! Fires crackle. Yardarms creak. In short, the sound effects department did a bang up job making Pirate101 feel like a pirate game. I know, seems like a no brainer but, as we all have undoubtedly experienced, not every game maker hits the mark. KingsIsle has.
Another nice aesthetic touch is the familiarity of the game’s look and feel for those who have played Wizard101. After all, the two games are tied together lore-wise and players of both will immediately feel at home. There are even times when worlds collide. For instance, in the final stages of the game as it currently stands, pirates are sent off to disrupt a wedding ceremony in MooShu. Entering the zone is as familiar as can be for those who spent hours questing in Wizard101. But improvements, aesthetic improvements, have been made that give the P101 version its own unique look.
Gameplay is where Pirate101 really shines. I won’t blow smoke and say that it’s for everyone. It’s not. But for those who enjoy strategic turn-based gameplay, Pirate101 is an incredibly deep experience and very well done.
I will admit that when I first started playing Pirate101, I was less than enamored of the grid-based combat system. The turn-based part wasn’t a bother. After all, that’s what Wizard101 utilizes, albeit in a different way, so it was nothing new. What bothered me initially was the “messiness” of the massive numbers of players and companions and obstacles and enemies all jumbled together in a chaotic battle. KingsIsle heard their players and has made improvements to the disheveled way that multiplayer battles turn out which is a good thing. As for me, over time and with lots of practice, I’ve come to an understanding, if not an affection, for the system. Add in learning new skills and having to make more strategic choices in battle and it becomes easy to want to adapt to the system.
I still stand by my point, however, that the combat is difficult for kids, particularly the younger ones, who play Pirate 101. For most, that much micromanagement is overwhelming. Which skills? Which companions? Which enemy to attack? It’s a lot for an adult unaccustomed to playing in such a way and it’s much too much for many kids.
That said, combat is fun to watch. The skills are good damage producers and the effects, as with Wizard101’s, are fun to behold. More interestingly at high levels is the fact that players and their companions will get additional chances to hit, block, gain a second attack, hit for a critical strike and more. Swordplay actually becomes a battle of multiple attacks, blocks and hits as it would in a real sword fight.
Companions are very useful. During the game, various companions will be recruited via quests and/or purchased in the Crown Shop. Companions in Pirate101 aren’t the namby pamby ones that can be summoned by players in Wizard101 either. They are all effective and brutal fighters with a wide array of skills at their (actually, the player’s) disposal. As players progress through the levels, companions also level through quest chains. Leveling them up not only gives additional skills for battle but also gives great new looks.
Pets aren’t any slouches in the battle department either. While they are not directly under a player’s control, they can still deal goodly amounts of damage and gain statistical chances for blocked or second or critical hits. There is a wide variety in the pet department that, again, can be purchased from in-game vendors, the Crown Shop or earned through questing.
Ship combat is a lot of fun and is a nice break from the swordplay that land combat embodies. Ships level as players do not changing them so much as making better equipment available for players to modify stats with. Players can also purchase bigger and stronger ships, again utilizing in-game currency, the Crown Shop or through quests (such as the first ship earned).
Combat on ships goes down in one or two ways depending on how a player chooses to play out the battle. Player and AI-controlled ships can engage one another and only fire cannons and special attacks at each other until one is sunk or players can choose to board the enemy ship to engage in sword battles against the crew. Generally speaking, I liked the "sea" combat the best since going adventuring in the "high skies" was my way of taking a break from swordplay.
Loot is generally earned via questing. At the end of every battle, players are told to open the treasure chests scattered around the room and can find gold or items inside.
All in all, the gameplay in Pirate101 is a lot of fun once a player gets used to it. Starting P101, players with little or no experience in turn based strategy games need to give the combat system a chance to grow on them in order to appreciate the stunning amount of detail and finesse involved in each and every battle from the earliest levels on up. Parents who are watching kids play need to help them out at the beginning to make sure that they don’t get frustrated. Once those hurdles are overcome, I guarantee: You’ll be addicted.
Pirate101 breathes a breath of fresh air into the sometimes tired and stale MMO space. Unlike most MMOs, even other turn-based MMOs, Pirate101’s combat brings a level of complexity that is unlike that found in any other game I’ve played. Deceptively simple for an adult to take part in, combat in P101 gives new meaning to strategic game play for those who like to micromanage things. Whether it’s choosing the right combination of companions or selecting the appropriate attacks for each or even deciding which enemy to attack, Pirate101 gives advanced players a lot of things to think about. But it’s also simple enough for most kids to pick up.
That one aspect alone would be enough to earn high marks for Pirate101, but that’s not where the innovation stops. Ship to ship combat is equally as fun and engaging and gives a whole different level of complexity to players. Rather than be saddled with a single combat style, players can choose to fight on land or sea so that things stay fresh.
I can’t say the same for questing, however, as it’s very standard “kill 10 rats” fare. It’s not boring by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s nothing new. Leveling is the same. In fact, I’d warrant that leveling in Pirate101 (as in Wizard101) is about the steepest mountain I’ve ever climbed. It adds a whole new meaning to 'slow'.
On release, Pirate 101 was a highly polished game. That didn’t mean then and doesn’t mean now that P101 is 100% bug-free. Nobody is so naïve as to believe that, right? During my time in the game, I ran into bugs as most players would also admit. But what sets KingsIsle apart from the rest of the crowd is the simple fact that constant updates have been and are being applied to the game client. Nearly every time I logged into the game, an update of one sort or another was patched into my game. Some are larger than others, of course, but the bottom line is that the team is always working to make Pirate 101 a smooth bug-free environment in which to play. Because of that, encountered (and reported bugs) are rarely seen for long.
If I have learned one thing about KingsIsle in my years covering Wizard101 and now Pirate101 it’s this: They do what they do and they do it to last a long time. Look at Wizard101: The game is four years old and is still going strong with not just one full world added this year, but two.
During a short developer tour recently, I was told that the team already has the next couple of chapters in the Pirate101 story planned. That’s commitment and that’s fully what players can expect from KI. If players are willing to hold out for further chapters and if the game continues to grow as it has been, Pirate101 has a good future ahead of it. Only time will tell if players can get past the fairly high combat learning curve to become vested members.
What I find so refreshing about the Pirate101 community is its openness and friendliness. Granted, not all players have the ability for open chat due to the restrictions placed on accounts by parents but there is never a lack of a helpful attitude even among those who don’t have broad chat abilities. The “canned” chat that players do have allows them to communicate that friendliness. Those who do have open talking are similarly companionable. There is never a lack of players willing to lend a hand in a difficult battle or to help out in an instanced boss fight.
Honestly, the Pirate101 community is one of the nicest MMO communities I’ve ever been a part of. Maybe it’s the goofiness of being pirates and Yarr-ing and Arrgghh-ing all over the place or maybe it’s just the nicest group of players on the planet. Either way, it’s aces.
This section is very difficult to write mainly due to the misunderstanding that many people have that Pirate101 is a ‘free to play’ game. Yes, there are aspects of P101 that are free to play, a trial if you wish, but portions of the game are locked to F2Pers as are certain features. But the game was never intended to be a fully free to play title. Pirate101 is definitely a subscription game and is a good value even if purchased on the most “expensive” monthly option (as opposed to yearly) at $9.95. A yearly ‘membership’ can be purchased for about $60. That’s a great deal and it opens all game worlds and features to subscribers.
The flipside of the value coin is the Pirate101 Crown Shop. Crowns are, site advertising to the contrary, not cheap. Sure you get a lot of Crowns for a relatively low price but most of the things that can be purchased with them are not inexpensive. Those 60,000 Crowns for $80 go very fast when spending at a rate of about 5-10k per purchase. Of course there are less expensive things but you get my drift.
This also brings me to the Crown Shop, a way for players to gain an advantage over anyone who doesn’t use it whether they are paying or free to play members. I find the notion of real world cash being spent to gain the upper hand on others worrisome. It’s not so much the prices as much as it is that an advantage is given to players willing to say “Shut up and take my money!” I suppose that, if and until PvP is included in Pirate101, it’s rather a moot point since purchasing Crown Shop items is not required to enjoy the game.
I will clarify this, however, by saying that powerful items equal to much of what is in the Crown Shop can be earned in game through questing and vendor purchases with in-game gold. It's a very nice touch that KingsIsle has made these things available to non-Crown users. It will take a lot of questing and hard work but it can be done. The gold purchase items may not be as "flashy" as those purchased in the Crown Shop (this is only speculation on my part), but the power is there.
The bottom line is that I find the value department mixed bag of value and expense. Still, I have given P101 a pretty high score since purchasing Crown Shop items is not required and the monthly membership is very low for a game of its breadth.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in Pirate101. As an early proponent of Pirates over Ninjas, it strikes a chord within my blackened Jack Sparrow-like heart. I love the music. I love the environment. I love being able to talk like a pirate each and every day. Now that I have found my way through the combat system, I am a fan, pure and simple. Anyone who has a bent for strategic game play and goofy pirate jokes will adore this game. Do yourself a favor and try it out, me hearties!
Have you played Pirate101? Let us know what you think in the comments.
How did we get here? Check out our Review in Progress articles: