After an eight year hiatus, the beloved Port Royale series is finally just a few months away from release. Port Royale 4, the latest installment in the long-running trading, economics, and piracy sim, is currently running a closed beta for the press, and any customers that pre-ordered.
I’ve now put roughly eight hours into the beta, spread across the first campaign mission and the free play mode. While it’s certainly rough around the edges (as expected from a beta), Port Royale 4 is largely shaping up to be a fun return to form for the series.
Much like the previous games in the franchise, you are a budding merchant tasked with managing a trade empire at the height of the colonialization of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. France, England, Spain, and the Netherlands are busy carving up the New World, and you are one of the countless merchants hungry for a piece of that highly lucrative pie.
Spain is the only playable nation in the beta build I played, and there is only a portion of the campaign implemented so far. Either way, you start your expedition in the lush Caribbean Sea by choosing from one of several playable character classes. There are four of them so far, each of which comes with two perks, balanced out by one disadvantage that can help dictate your playstyle.
One of my personal favorites is a shrewd merchant lady that starts with a trade agreement in every town, and can freely trade between rival nations during wartime. On the flip side, non-economic buildings are more expensive to build as her.
Seeing as how Port Royale is a franchise all about trade between the growing port towns of the Caribbean, most of your time in the game will consist of buying, selling, and shipping goods. There are close to two dozen commodities in the game, divided into four rough categories.
You have your basic necessities like grain, vegetables, wood, etc. Demanded commodities are things like fresh meat, tobacco, precious metals, ale, and so on. Crafting components are the items that are needed to create more complex luxuries, like cotton to make fine clothing. Finally, you have luxury items, including the aforementioned fine clothing, furniture, pastries and sweets, and more.
Each town generally has three to seven goods that they produce themselves. Obviously, this means that the produced items are cheaper in those towns, allowing you to buy low and sell high when you move on to the next town.
There is a route system to help you automate your trade empire as it expands. This allows you to send convoys along designated routes, stopping off at ports to buy and sell commodities based on the demands of the local populations.
The route system UI (as with many parts of Port Royale 4‘s UI in general) is a bit on the clunky side. After fiddling around with it for a while I discovered the most efficient way to tell my convoys to buy cheap commodities in the towns that produce them, then sell them at a markup in the towns that demand said items.
The biggest problem with the route UI is that it doesn’t tell you what items are in highest demand in the towns you are adding to the route, just which commodities that town produces themselves. It doesn’t help that many of the buttons and settings in the UI don’t have any tooltips, making it hard to determine what all the behaviors mean.
The interface is okay at giving your convoys basic instructions, but I’ve yet to figure out the intricacies that allow for greater micromanagement.
Of course, sometimes the AI just bugs out. I noticed one of my routes was hemorrhaging money. After doing some digging, I realized that the convoy loaded up thousands of barrels of goods and then just drove along the route a few times without selling any of them. This obviously meant I was paying all the operating costs to keep the ships afloat without pulling in any money.
You can earn money in other ways, most notably by setting up your own production chains in towns. After trading with a town for a while, they’ll allow you to buy a building permit. This lets you construct production buildings in the town, though what you can build will be limited by what the climate of that region allows.
You can also produce more complicated goods if your town has the right resources. If the town already produces grain, then you can get a liquor license from your nation’s Viceroy and start building some breweries to make beer.
If you’ve invested significantly into a town, you can even petition to become the town’s administrator. This gives you complete and total control over what the town produces, and allows you to construct residential blocks, markets, taverns, hospitals, churches, and all the other buildings a town needs to attract immigrants, and keep your population happy and healthy.
Of course, Port Royale 4 also lets you make your money in more illicit ways. Should you so choose, you can always hoist the Jolly Roger and raid helpless merchant convoys. This comes with a hit to your fame, but in wartime you can always avoid this with a handy letter of marque.
I haven’t indulged much in the game’s piracy mechanics, mainly because the combat system is just so boring in its current state. Port Royale 4 went with turn-based battles this time around, which has caused a bit of controversy among the fanbase. Personally, I’m fine with turn-based battles. In Port Royale 4, however, they are really, really boring.
Most of this can be attributed to the complete lack of sound during combat. Many of the game’s sound effects in general have yet to be implemented, but it’s most apparent during combat. The lack of sound, combined with the generally pretty weak animations, do more to deter me from engaging in piracy than any hit to my reputation.
The combat also just isn’t particularly well explained. I get that ships have movement points and turning points to perform maneuvers, and I understand the principles behind setting up a broadside, but some aspects of the combat just have me scratching my head. Sometimes you can shoot at a ship from several hexes away, but other times I can’t. Why is this? What, exactly, are the rules here?
There is no denying that Port Royale 4 has a lot of kinks to work out before release, but I’m overall fairly optimistic. The beta has received several patches since I started playing, the latest of which addressed some bugs and unclear mission design that I was originally planning to bring up in this preview.
With tweaks to the combat system and some UI adjustments, I can see Port Royale 4 becoming a pretty solid trade sim by the time it releases.
If you’d like to exploit the western hemisphere for fun and profit yourself, Port Royale 4 releases on Windows PC (via Steam), Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One September 25th, 2020. If you want to play it sooner, you can get into the beta yourself by preordering from the Kalypso Media store.
Port Royale 4 was previewed on Windows PC using a preview copy provided by Kalypso Media. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.