Inside Pulse 12

Review: Black Sails (PC)

Black Sails
Genre: Adventure
Developer: Deck 13
Publisher: Deck 13
Release Date: 09/17/15

As I mentioned in my Dropsy review, good, non-horror-themed traditional adventure games are fairly hard to come by in this day and age, but if you’re looking for a horror theme in your adventure game, well, that’s surprisingly not so hard to come by. A fair amount of independent developers like to make use of adventure game concepts to make their own narratively focused horror games, as I’m sure our own Alex Lucard could tell you, and Black Sails is a game that fits neatly into that particular subgenre. The game takes the standard horror concept of the derelict ghost ship, throws in a bit of nineteenth century period concepts, and mixes them into an adventure game framework that focuses more on item usage than anything else. The idea isn’t bad, and after coming off of a rather pleasant adventure game, I was hopeful that Black Sails would continue that trend and give me hope for the genre as a whole. Such was not the case, however; at the best of times, the game is a competent adventure game with its heart in the right place, but at the worst of times, it serves as an example of everything that drove the genre into remission, and more.

On seafaring in the nineteenth century

The plot of Black Sails is one of the first major areas where things kind of fall apart for the game, and this happens pretty much from the get go. Basically, two characters, Lex, a man with a fairly poor attitude and thievery-minded disposition, and Anna, a female reporter whose disposition is mostly controlled by the player, are on another ship which sinks in the beginning of the game. Lex and Anna find their way aboard another ship by sheer chance, which, upon initial investigation, appears to be abandoned. As they further explore the ship, Anna begins to discover that the ship was originally a ship used for smuggling, and that its history is anything but pleasant. This, in turn, introduces flashbacks of sorts to a young girl who was held on the ship, and each part of the narrative slowly fills in the backstory of the ship and the characters on the whole. Conceptually this is fine, but the devil’s in the details, and in this case, said devil is confusing and ineffectual at the best of times. To put it more directly, Black Sails isn’t really something that does well with its narrative, because the story it’s telling just isn’t very good. Anna is a fine enough character, one supposes, but Lex is a wholly uninteresting and generally annoying sidekick, and the story of the ghost ship isn’t very interesting either, honestly. There’s just nothing going on here that really drives you forward, and a lot of the events just happen with no real rhyme or reason. Half of the plot revolves around helping a person you’re given little reason to like, the decision-making events don’t seem to really matter very much, the flashback sequences come out of nowhere, and for a horror-themed game there’s very little here that’s even approaching scary. The plot mostly just “is,” honestly, and that’s rough for a game where the plot is a big part of the experience.

The game’s presentation also doesn’t help it much, as it’s fine at best, and is for the most part below average. The game world looks adequate, but often the environments are very busy and make item hunting a pain to deal with, and even once you’ve turned on the lights in an area many locations are unreasonably dark, which gets old in a hurry. The character models are also noticeably lower quality, and while Anna looks fine, Lex looks very weird and ape-like, and the rest of the models look weird and unpleasant artistically; it’d be one thing to be low-tech, but they’re just unpleasant in design. Aurally, the game’s music and aural effects are generally fine enough, in that they don’t get in the way, are selected well enough, and do what’s expected of them, but they’re also wholly unmemorable and do nothing to really elevate the game through their existence. The voice work, on the other hand, is passable at best and atrocious at worst. Anna, again, sounds fair when speaking, but Lex’s voice actor sounds like he’s never heard what a normal speaking tone sounds like, and the rest of the voice acting alternates between tolerable and poor throughout the game. It’s not intolerable, largely because Anna does the most talking out of anyone in the game and her voice work is largely the best here, but it’s also not good by any means.

On ghost ships and item puzzles

Black Sails is, mechanically speaking, mostly a standard adventure game in the classic sense of the term. You’ll navigate your character around the game world between different areas of the ship, and you’ll generally either be interacting with items in the game world or picking up items in the game world. Everything is done with the mouse, so the game is easy to play and understand, as even if you’re a complete neophyte to the genre, since everything’s simply broken down to point and click, learning the basics is a snap. Clicking on a location moves to that location, while clicking on an interactive object in the game world moves to and interacts with that object. The game doesn’t do anything with more involved puzzle solving, so you won’t have to figure out any complex word puzzles or anything beyond the pale. Rather, the game is based entirely around object puzzles, meaning that you’ll have to find an item and either use it on another item in your inventory or an item in the game world to progress. As such, the game’s pretty simple to figure out, and if you’ve played a game in the genre ever, you’ll be able to drop into it in seconds with no issue.

Black Sails does try to add in a few novelties to make itself stand out from the pack, fortunately. For one thing, Anna and Lex will routinely interact with one another about various things, and their interactions can change the tone of their interactions across the game. You can basically choose for Anna to be a horrible jerk or overly forgiving during most conversations, and doing so more or less dictates how Lex interacts with Anna, so your tone can make the duo interact very well or very poorly overall. Further, there are also various and sundry notes around the game world that you can review for more information on the plot that aren’t mandatory but fill in the plot a bit if you want an idea of how things happened on the ghost ship. Finally, there are also a few minor cases where you can solve a puzzle in more than one fashion, which may potentially consume an object or option that’s useful later on for something else. This doesn’t impact the plot or anything, but it’s something novel to see at least.

On sinking into a shallow grave

Black Sails will take you between four to eight hours to plow through, depending entirely on how good (or bad) you are at figuring out the puzzles in the game. Once it’s done, though, it’s done; outside of a couple of minor choices, there’s no reason to come back to the game once it’s complete, as there’s honestly no real variance in the overall plot. That’s one of the more problematic aspects of the game, honestly; despite the fact that there are several choices you can make, the vast majority don’t really mean a whole lot overall to the whole experience, and only the choice at the end of the game seems to have any real weight to it. Since you can save before it, you can change it as you wish, and outside of that one choice, there’s honestly nothing to bring you back to the game once it’s complete. This, sadly, is often a problem with adventure games, though for the cost (ten dollars), it’d be easy enough to ignore this thing if that was the biggest problems with the game.

Unfortunately, it’s not even close.

For one thing, the mechanics are often frustrating as hell; even with a button that highlights interactive areas in the game world, it can be a pixel hunt to find the specific location you want to click on, especially if two interactive locations are next to one another, and getting the character to move somewhere can be a real pain thanks to the cinematic camera pans, so you might end up having to correct motions multiple times to get yourself positioned right. For another, the item interaction is very much a matter of reading the developer’s mind, whether it be assembling a fishing hook with a nail retrieved from broken boxes so that you can fish up a drill to open a door, or figuring out that you need to store coal in a bedpan so you can heat up a rod that will break a vent so you can go up a flight of stairs. There’s just a lot of “smash items into other items and hope something works” going on here, and that’s not a great situation at any price. Also, for a horror game, there’s nothing terribly scary going on here; aside from a couple random jump scares, there’s nothing here that’s going to pay off the concept in a meaningful way, be it legit scares or tension. It might help if one knows the backstory from the notes in the game world, but between the font choice and sizing of the notes the notes are almost entirely illegible, and this renders the majority of them essentially useless for filling in plot for the player. Of course, the game might be a bit more enjoyable if one takes it in sessions instead of powering through it in one shot, but I wouldn’t know, as after two different instances of the game crashing when trying to get to the save screen I just pushed through it to avoid making up any more lost time.

With some patches to fix the note resolution and crash bugs, Black Sails might be passable as an adventure game experience, but when you can get something like Dropsy for the same price there’s honestly no reason to recommend this game unless you’re desperate for an adventure game on a ghost ship. The plot is uninspired and bland, the visuals are adequate at best and artistically poor at worst, the voice acting is generally not good and the rest of the audio is only okay at the best of times. The mechanics are easy enough to understand, but between the touchy positioning, pixel hunting for specific interaction points and Guide Dang It puzzle solutions, the experience isn’t very enjoyable to play through even with simple controls. Also, since the variable question answers impact very little, the notes are almost impossible to read, and the game crashes often enough to impact play, the game ultimately just ends up being a frustrating experience no matter what you’re looking for. Black Sails might end up being worth a look if the developers deploy some patches to the experience, but even then there are better games in the genre for the same price, and this particular game does nothing to make itself stand out from the pack unless you really love ghost ships. If that’s you, you’ll find this to be worth a look, but for anyone else it’s an easy pass.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Black Sails makes an attempt at being an interesting horror themed adventure game, but poor plot, presentation and mechanics, as well as some technical issues, make the experience really hard to recommend to anyone but the most diehard adventure game or ghost ship story fans out there. The plot is bare bones and is poorly executed, the visuals are generally passable at best and artistically poor at worst, the majority of the audio is adequate but unmemorable, and the voice work is mostly poor outside of the main character, who is only okay. The mechanics are easy to grasp and work with, but positioning your character can be a chore, finding the right click spot can be a headache, and the item puzzles themselves can often be way more obtuse than they should be. There’s also no replay value to speak of, as the dialogue choices offer no real variance to speak of, and between the almost wholly unreadable notes in the game and the crash bugs, this is just a game that’s simply hard to appreciate or recommend. Black Sails might be for you if you’re a diehard adventure game lover or just love ghost ship stories, but for literally everyone else, it’s going to be a tough experience, and you’d be better off with something like Dropsy or City Quest instead. With some patches it might end up being passable, but as it stands now, it’s a frustrating piece, and one that’s simply not worth the asking price in any condition.

  • Alexander Lucard

    So does this mean Echo Night still stands as the best haunted ship game?

  • Mark B.

    Dude, it’s not even close.