Swashbucklers: Blue vs. Grey Review
Abraham Grey is one character that has a ton of potential in the video game world. Half cowboy, half pirate and with a split personality - his inner voice talks to him as a kind of tutorial - the concept behind Grey's character is fantastic. However, at no point do the developers build on this potential, and the poor gameplay very nearly erases any semblance of entertainment in Swashbucklers: Blue vs. Grey. Oddly enough, this title is set in the Civil War, and you control a character that takes great pleasure in attacking and sinking enemy ships. Your only goal is to nab the booty and level up, all the while exploring both the land and sea. Obviously, this is another solid foundation for a game, but for whatever reason, Akella fails to fine-tune any one aspect of this production. The control is slow and clunky, the character advancement system is a good idea but extremely watered down and rudimentary at best, and the overall adventure is boring and bland. But they deserve credit for the idea...we think.
Over the past few years, we've come to expect very little from budget titles when it comes to the graphics department. This makes sense, considering the fact the teams involved usually don't have the resources to provide us with cutting edge visuals, but we almost wonder if the budget price is just an excuse. You know, "oh well, this isn't going to cost much and we don't have a lot of money, so let's phone it in." We hate to say that, but when we get the inconsistent - albeit colorful - graphical palette we find in Swashbucklers, we can come to no other conclusion. Character design is minimal, animations are somewhat smooth but definitely lacking in intricacy, and overall detail is kinda ho-hum. The good news is that there aren't any glaring errors to get in a twist over, and for what it is, the land and sea elements aren't too bad. But too much of it looks like something out of a very vibrant book or map - you never get any real feeling of dimension, for whatever reason - and you never feel as if you're part of the action. We're not asking for "cutting edge," and this is a quaint way of depicting a game, but it's just not polished enough.
The sound is surprisingly good. We say "surprisingly" simply because the rest of the game falls within the poor-mediocre range, but somehow, some way, the developers managed to institute a fitting and even stirring set of soundtracks. No, there aren't enough of them and they do get tiresome too quickly, but they enhance the atmosphere exactly the way they should; those synthesized orchestral tracks somehow combine the Wild West and Pirates of the Caribbean. It's no easy feat, so kudos for that. Unfortunately, the rest of the sound is just plain atrocious. They decided to go with the bizarre style of "voice acting" that doesn't actually include voices (think Okami or Chulip), where the characters speak in muffled mumbles and grunts. It worked well in Okami, but here, it's just a comical mess. The effects are generic and never intense enough, as the player will find most battles severely lacking in the "boom" and "bang" department. This is an issue. Swashbucklers: Blue vs. Grey is all about cannons, guns, sword swipes, and - theoretically - the sounds of the sea, so we should anticipate some hard-hitting sound effects. They should be a highlight! But sadly, they're not; only the soundtrack is. Weird.
Once again, we find a game with a great premise that simply can't deliver the goods. Here's the idea- you control Captain Grey, and you can wander around towns in a quasi-top-down format, where you simply interact with an icon to go inside a building or store. You can purchase items and equipment, upgrade your skills via gaining experience from combat, and accept new missions and quests at the Governor's home. Out on the high seas, your ship has three different speeds (ranging from Stop to Full Speed), and you can target and attack other ships. Once you do, you must maneuver into place to land a few cannon shots, and once the enemy craft is damaged enough, you have the option to board it and finish things off. There, you will go into hand-to-hand combat with either a melee weapon (sword, machete, etc.) or a firearm (revolver, rifle, etc.). You must have them in your inventory and equipped - similar to the format found in Resident Evil titles - and as you progress, you will be rewarded with money, which you can use to buy more stuff. Heck, you can even upgrade your ship or buy a new one, provided you've got enough cash. The story isn't really a focus at all, but it does exist.
That's the gist of it. Now, based on what you've just read, wouldn't you say this sounds like a wonderfully unique and engaging game? Wouldn't you just assume there'd be at least some fun to be had? We were really looking forward to taking to the water and getting into a battle, just because of all this potential staring us right in the face. And at first, despite the lame controls, we were having some fun out there, carefully positioning our ship, firing away at the cannons, and then boarding and kicking some ass for a while. But then, we did it again...and again...and again...and again, to the point where we started to ask ourselves, "uh...is this it?" Tragically, yes, that's all there is, and nothing really changes throughout the game. Things get harder, sure, but the basic idea never changes and conquering the opposition relies on simple timing and button presses, neither of which is all that difficult. If only there was a little something more; if only we didn't move through the exact same three sections when assaulting an enemy ship, and if only the gameplay didn't boil down into a "rinse-and-repeat" session. They threw in a semi-entertaining one-on-one duel mechanic, but it doesn't do much to alleviate the inherent repetition.
When moving around and fighting, you will experience more than a few issues. Grey can't move when firing any ranged weapons, so if you choose to sit still and blast away, you'll be open to attack from all sides. And we have no idea who the brains were behind this, but many times, it takes a whole hail of bullets to bring down an enemy, while a few simple sword slashes will have the exact same effect. What's the deal with that? Just because the game takes place during the Civil War, this somehow alters the damage effect of a bullet fired from a gun? We're also relatively convinced that we could've had a more accessible control layout for sailing, because using the directional pad to change the speed is extraordinarily annoying...why couldn't we simply adjust speed with one button, like the accelerator of a car? We understand the purpose behind the control approach, here- obviously, it's more realistic to have full sail, half-sail, etc. But we're talking about a pirate/cowboy in the midst of a Civil War, sacking ships and running rampant throughout a war-torn country. We're not really clinging to anything all that simulated or accurate, now are we? At the very least, one could wrap their heads around the controls, as unorthodox as they may be.
Swashbucklers: Blue vs. Grey is a budget title that's not really even worth the $20 price tag. It released on November 20, right at the time when some of the best games of the year hit store shelves, and that makes it even more difficult to recommend. The sea and hand-to-hand combat isn't terrible, but it's almost always slow and uninteresting, which means we're left with exploration and upgrading. Adding to the skills of Captain Grey or tossing a few nifty weapons onto your ship for naval battle can be a fun way to pass the time, but that's about it. We suppose the boxing aspect - you can box to gain money and reputation - is an appreciated diversion, but it's still a brief one. We just don't see how anyone would be able to struggle through the tedium and repetitiveness of the often poorly controlled combat; this is supposed to be the game's bread and butter. At its core, this title tries to be an original action/RPG, but the action elements are poorly implemented and the RPG elements aren't anywhere near deep enough to have any significant impact. Basically, they tried to blend several genres without stopping to refine the elements of any of them.
That being the case, no one element is good and the final product is a mish-mash of half-realized concepts and ideas. It's too bad, really.
12/15/2007 Ben Dutka