Swashbucklers: Blue vs. Grey ReviewJason Venter
I love games about pirates. I also love games about the Civil War. If you give me a well-executed title that prominently features either of those two things, I will flash a radiant smile and love you for a lifetime. Swashbucklers: Blue vs. Grey, a recent release from Atari, mixes those two elements thoroughly. You'd probably expect me to love it to pieces, and I certainly had high hopes when I started playing. Then, at every turn, the game figuratively spat in my face. It will do the same to you, too, if you give it the chance.
Probably the best part of the game is the opening cinematic. It gives an excellent summary of a situation that found southern merchants, thieves, soldiers and scoundrels uniting under one flag to fight a common enemy oppressing them from the north. Or something like that. Whatever your thoughts on the Civil War, you can pretty much agree that there were two main sides and there were a lot of bloody battles across prairies and hills, through valleys and forests. There also were battles at sea, lesser known and now the surprising focus of Swashbucklers.
As the game opens properly, you're a gruff looking fellow in a tavern listening to your inner voice (known in other games as the 'tutorial'). This little running joke is destined to follow you around your first hour or so of play, explaining the basic ropes of a game that needs far too much explanation. After all, gameplay mostly amounts to accessing a few menus, mashing an 'attack' button while in battle or steering a slow ship around so you can shoot your cannons while at sea. Why is so much time spent explaining how to do those few simple things? Well... because they aren't so simple.
For whatever reason, the interface is botched at every point of play. I'm guessing this game is a port of a PC version, because that's the only thing I can think of that would explain some of the horrible design decisions. For example, let's say you head into a store to buy or sell some merchandise. The menu is divided in half with one side visually representing the store's wares while the other lets you scan your inventory. Until much later in the game, you can hardly hold anything.
Now, the problem as you shop is that it's difficult to tell what any item is the first time you encounter it. You have to highlight it with a cursor, then press the 'X' button a few times to get to a description. If you decide you really want to buy the item, you press the 'Triangle' button to pick it up. Then you have to drag it down to your inventory, where you then must rotate it with the 'L' and 'R' buttons so it fits within your cramped little grid. The whole system is a pointless waste of time. You'd think everything would at least look good if you have to screw around so much, but that's not true; here and elsewhere, the game's visuals are so simple that you'd swear they were first-generation PS2 fare.
Menus for equipping items don't go much better. You'll press 'Select' to pull up the screen, then you can press 'L' and 'R' to switch between pages. Each time, there's a short wait while everything loads. That's one of the game's other big issues: there are load delays everywhere. Their abundance is nothing short of bewildering. Just walking around a town prompts three or four load screens, maybe more if you're backtracking (as you often will need to do). Conversations are the same way. It gets to the point that every time you press a button, you'll expect things to slow for at least a second so one asset or another can fall into place.
As for conversations, they're really quite bad. Half the time, they're just text where the grizzled Civil War characters are saying “holy cow” and other such things (which is probably supposed to be funny, but just comes across as stupid). The other half of the time, you'll hear vague grunting and groaning noises that are supposed to approximate dialog. That sort of thing was okay in the N64 days, but it stopped being cute a long time ago. Now it just feels sloppy and lazy, especially since you probably just sat through a load time for the privilege of hearing it! Worse, sometimes the dialog will be letting you know about your next mission objective. The text disappears so quickly that you won't even have time to read it all before it's gone. Then you have to bring up the menu and wait through some loading delays just to read what you might have missed. Argh!
Interface and audio aren't the game's only shortcomings, either. Aside from a lush, detailed world map that serves as the project's visual highlight, everything else is ugly and redundant. You'll fight mostly the same few soldiers across a small variety of locations. Animations are absurd, too. There's over-the-top gore when you kill anyone, which apparently is supposed to make you ignore moments where enemy soldiers leap into the air for a jumping attack, then practically belly flop into your sword. It all happens in slow motion, too, sort of like “The Matrix” only not even remotely cool. From the battles to any story sequences, expect to see all manner of accidental stupidity (including men chugging alcohol while bandannas cover their mouths, of all things).
What does Swashbucklers do properly in the midst of all this craziness, then? Well... not much. It does at least have limited RPG elements so that you can customize your character, and you can enjoy the fun of trading goods and battling enemy ships (if you can stand how slowly those events go). There is also a unique combat system when you are fighting a boss, compared to the more standard brawling that goes down elsewhere. However, these bright spots are so tarnished by everything else the game does wrong that they hardly matter in the grand scheme of things.
With Swashbucklers: Blue vs. Grey, there's way too much to talk about and almost none of it is good. Poor audio and sound assail you at every turn, awful menus break things up enough that you can't even enjoy the few highlights and load times come in at the rear to make sure that you have to wait a long time to experience every high and low. Even if you adore pirate games and the concept that drives this one, do not play it. Let's suppose for a moment that you're one of those insane people that makes it a point to purchase the absolute worst games on every system. If that's you, this gem absolutely belongs in your collection. Otherwise, avoid it like you would a mug full of pirate spittle.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.