It’s hard to openly encourage people to take an idea and re-purpose it. There’s a dangerous grey area where developers don’t do quite enough reinterpretation. You end up with something that’s akin to cloning. There are famous cases of this, especially on mobile marketplaces. Pirates Outlaws clearly has Slay the Spire in mind, and even though it doesn’t copy much more than the basic premise, it could have definitely learned more from that superior game.
As a pirate captain, your goal is to sail the dangerous seas, stopping at islands, coves, and settlements on the way to fight rivals or spend your loot. Each of these locations is a hub for either a fight against creatures of buccaneers, an event to dig for treasure or explore mysterious forest, or a shop to buy relics and heal up. Every stage has a final island, with a boss just waiting to steal everything you just earned.
There are lots of ways to potentially die on your way to that island. It’s a real grind to get there, and it may take a few runs before you even get to the first boss for the first time. But after battling your way up, killing enemies and gaining more abilities and items to get stronger, that first time you do it can feel super rewarding.
But it will be the last time you feel such accomplishment.
Partially because of the combat. It features the deck building methods of Slay the Spire, but it lacks the same sort of depth. The hand size is capped at five cards, and as that isn’t a problem in and of itself, I always felt like I was a draw away from the play I actually wanted. You have to toss your entire hand every turn, so there is no holding on to a card to wait for a potential combo in future turns. Anything you do has to be drawn into. You have a starting deck of around 10 cards, so you draw through it quickly. But since you can’t edit the deck at will, you really have to just deal with your probabilities until you hit a couple of islands and win some more cards. It’s hard to develop any real strategy until mid-way through a stage.
Card interactions aren’t as robust as Pirates Outlaws’ inspiration either. Knowing how to juggle your limited ammo (see: mana) while attempting to make interesting plays can be thought provoking. Most of the time, it’s just doing some quick math and figuring out how to do more damage than you take. When the odd brilliant play comes along, you feel like Jack Sparrow, outwitting his enemies with guile and gusto.
I often found myself just having to accept taking errant damage from early enemies while feeling like I had no agency in the matter. Part of that is just the nature of card games, of course. But the starting deck for the starting class, the Gunner, seems to lack much room for error. There are other classes, but you’ll play dozens of games as the Gunner before you can ever play them. Unless you’re willing to pay for it.
At the end of each run, on top of the experience you gain towards new cards, you get gold and repute. Both of these currencies can be spent on new chapters to play in, card packs to add to your collection, or heroes. But you don’t get nearly enough on runs to ever reasonably unlock even the cheapest secondary hero. It takes several runs to get comfortable with getting past the first stage consistently, but you’ll only bag just under 100 gold after beating the first boss. You’ll need to do that over ten times to unlock the Swordsman.
These other characters are diverse enough in passive skills, decks, and other metrics that being able to pick and choose between them at will would really help diversify what often feels like limited tactical gameplay. The struggle it takes to stack the necessary amount of gold to buy them – and in some cases, the repute to use them – is such that it discourages the want to stick with the game for the sake of experimentation.
Or you can drop a real world dollar or two for an instant infusion of in-game gold and buy it outright. It’s hard to not feel just a little insulted by how blatantly this game is compelling you to participate in its IAP scheme. All that said, the game is only a one US dollar, and the biggest gold pack will set you back five. You’d have to buy two of them in order to have enough gold to have access to every hero you can spend it on and still won’t be able to unlock them all, as one can only be purchased with real money (another five dollars). You have to love the grind to get a lot out of Pirates Outlaws, because I don’t see any reason to pay $16 dollars for this game when the one it’s riffing on is just a few dollars more on Steam.
It’s a crying shame too, because it looks great. The animations and card effects are weak, but the bold colors of the environments and characters pop. The enemy designs are evocative and interesting, even if they are also just sort of static. The menus are well laid out and easy to read. The cheese in the trap at least looks delicious.
But I can only recommend Pirates Outlaws if you really want to pour a lot of time into it. It’s wickedly unbalanced both in combat and economically, and only the strong willed can survive to see it plunder. The learning curve is relatively low, but moments of true progress seem to only come so few and far between. Caving in and spending more money on the game just to speed up that process is just salty icing on a sour cake.