Heavy economic simulators are common on PC, but much fewer and further between on console. This is a genre that requires time and focus from players in order to penetrate complex systems and mechanics, and few examples of this kind of game are more opaque than Port Royale 4.
In Port Royale 4 the player takes on the role of a trader in the Caribbean, representing one of the four major European powers in the region — the Spanish, English, French and Dutch. Each of these nations has a campaign that has its own challenges and focus. In the sandbox style that Port Royale 4 offers, there’s a lot of scope for how you actually tackle the game.
With the exception of a few specific sections during these campaigns, the player is free to act however they like within the setting. You can (and almost certainly will) build some form of trading infrastructure to keep your base revenue ticking over, but you may also choose to engage in either piracy or privateering (which are subtly different) in order to bolster your economy, harm the other powers and support your own crown.
You might also search for treasure or be a “doer of good deeds” such as searching for shipwrecked sailors, or tracking down lost relatives. If all of this is conjuring up an image of the classic Sid Meier’s Pirates, then I’m sorry, that’s not quite the same tone as Port Royale 4.
Instead, I really should underline the focus on the trading aspect, which really is the core of Port Royale 4. Everything else is simply a distraction designed to keep the player engaged and add a welcome change of pace to proceedings. Effectively, Port Royale 4 is a very complex Excel spreadsheet sat behind a large, bright and relatively attractive representation of the 17th Century Caribbean.
The problem, of course, with spreadsheets, is that few people know how to use all their features — and that is the biggest problem with Port Royale 4. I’m going to do a bad thing now (from an editor’s perspective) and tell you to bear with me whilst I talk about everything I dislike about Port Royale 4 up front, and you’re going to think I don’t like it... But, I’m also going to ask you now to keep reading, because after all that, I’m going to explain why, in fact, I’ve had a lot fun here.
Firstly, let’s talk about general presentation — using Port Royale 4’s tutorials as an example. The tutorials in this game are dismal. There are loads of them, ranging apparently for five to twenty minutes in length, and each one deals with some aspect of gameplay, from setting up a trade route to engaging in naval combat. There’s a voiceover from a very stereotypical sea-dog named Sam, and it’s clear that the written text is written in pigeon English and that it doesn’t match what Sam’s (dodgy) voiceover is saying.
What’s worse is that the tutorials demonstrate the mechanics of Port Royale 4, but they almost never land the concept or reason for doing it. Finish them and you’ll know how to do things, but you won’t understand how they affect the spreadsheet behind them. This lack of spit and polish is pervasive throughout the game, and I experienced a fair few crashes as I went, as well as odd glitches like the music and sound stopping for maybe two or three hours before jumping back into life again for seemingly no good reason.
If you do get through the tutorials (and I think you should, because you’ll need them as a bare minimum to understand the game) then you’ll likely jump into the Spanish campaign. Here, you’ll quickly realise how ill-prepared you are to play the game. You’ll be given three small trading fleets and a few sparse messages from your Viceroy about what to do, but if you did complete the tutorials, you will set about putting what you’ve learned to use with gusto.
This will involve setting up some trade routes — which is relatively simple — and putting your fleets to work. You’ll then expect to see the cash flowing in, but chances are, it won’t. It won’t, because in all likelihood, you’ll need to fine-tune what your fleets buy and sell to a very low level of detail in order for them to turn a profit, which is something that the tutorial covers poorly at best.
Port Royale 4 does try to help — it does use a handy screen for planning trade routes, and this planning tool shows you what the port you are currently managing produces. It also allows you to buy and sell the 30+ commodities in the game based on priority, amount in port already and so on, enabling that low-level fine-tuning that I mentioned earlier. You can add as few or as many ports as you like to a trade route and doing so has a profound impact on profitability.
Should you get through this “early period” of the first campaign and emerge with an appetite for more (which took me three or four restarts to achieve) then you’ll be faced with the next challenge — building. I won’t go into the technicalities in detail here, but there are two stages to building in Port Royale 4, which are as follows; building businesses (which you can do anywhere) and becoming the town administrator (which allows you to build infrastructure).
Building businesses is simple but expensive — and this is covered well enough in the tutorials. Simply put, if you want to add sugar production to a town and it has the right kind of soil, then you can do so. Taking over the town administration is very different, and requires you to secure fame (which I’ll moan about shortly) and to have already employed a number of people (usually 500) within the town that you wish to administrate.
The challenge with becoming a town administrator is that it is necessary in order for a town to grow beyond a certain point, and it opens up a ton of options — from adding inns to attract workers and houses to house them, to upgrading the existing shipyard to one that is capable of building and order large warships like the Ship of the Line or War Galleon. The explanation for town administration is woeful in the tutorial and you’ll have to work it out based on your own experience (which by this point might be 4-5 hours) and risk the possibility of having to restart.
Seeing as it’s linked to the above, I’ll now talk briefly about fame, but I also want to bring us back to the concept mentioned earlier that all of this is happening inside your first campaign, playing as the Spanish. After the trading and building objectives that our Viceroy gives us, he then asks us to take over the administration of three towns — which is the first time we’re asked to spend our fame. Around the same time, he also tasks us with upgrading the shipyard in Seville to a large one, which requires about 6,000 town occupants and a lot of infrastructure — all of this is time bound, else its game over.
The reason this is linked to fame is twofold — firstly, because fame is hard to earn, and secondly, because unlocking “second tier” buildings like rum distilleries (which the Viceroy asks us to do at this point) and taking over administration of towns both cost fame. In my own game, this basically meant that I had a very limited amount of time to earn enough fame to unlock distilleries and the administration of two towns, whilst also managing about a million golds worth of building projects.
This incredibly clumsy and haphazard approach to setting goals was infuriating during my first ten to fifteen hours of Port Royale 4 was infuriating, because having got past the trade route issues (which were all about me learning the game) I was then faced with a number of seemingly random and often impossible objectives.
Another example of this is when the first enemy privateer appears — an Englishman called John Hawkins. Hawkins is an eleven (out of eleven) strength Captain, with a sizable fleet, which is most certainly more powerful than any combination of fleet and Captain that you can field at this point in the game. You only find this out when you engage him in combat. I did this, and somehow beat him once, only for him to reappear with an even more powerful fleet.
In short, you’ll have no choice but to let Hawkins raid your fleets over and over again, whilst levelling up a lowly Captain (through trading) until they are capable of maintaining at least six command points — enabling them to field six frigates, or five frigates and a War Galleon. These are just examples in the first campaign, but there are many more in the later ones — some of which had me literally launching the controller in fury — which is something I’ve never done with an economic sim before.
But still, as I start to flip this towards the positive, this approach does have one positive effect, which is that by the end of the first campaign in Port Royale 4, you will know one of two things; either how to play the game very well, or that you never want to play it ever again. For me, it was the former, and despite Port Royale 4’s best efforts to put me off, I found myself compelled to stick with it to the very end.
It is the fact that there is so little hand-holding in Port Royale 4 that I think I enjoyed most about it, and as long as you’re prepared to accept that you’ll only be taught the very basics before allowing your entrepreneurial spirit to take over, there’s a really good spreadsheet to manage here. Each campaign features the Caribbean in a different state, with the Spanish strong to begin with and the English, French and Dutch steadily taking over as the years pass.
Some ages have next to no privateering or piracy, whilst by the final campaign, piracy is a constant thorn in the side and profits are much lower because every route needs to be patrolled, or warships must be added to the trade convoys. To give an idea of this, by the end of the Spanish campaign I had essentially unlimited money (more than 10m gold) whilst in each of the later campaigns I only rose over 5m for brief periods of time, before needing to reinvest heavily into one thing or another.
There are other interesting things about Port Royale 4 as well, and there are many systems that I haven’t mentioned. The naval combat, for example, can be automated, or players can tackle their opponents directly by using the turn-based combat mode. I wouldn’t call this mode groundbreaking or “exciting” in any way, but it is a way to turn a tight battle in your favour (where the AI can’t be trusted) or to change the pace a bit. The inclusion of special abilities for certain ships or single-use skills for your Captains spices things up a bit more as well.
Boiling it down, Port Royale 4 is clunky, but the trading, town-building and privateering/piracy elements are each quite well featured in their own right. It really is just the presentational elements and the way in which mechanics and objectives are introduced that is clunky and perhaps a little substandard.
The visuals and sound are fine when working, but as I mentioned earlier the budget for voice acting was clearly low, the text is riddled with bad English and the actual graphics are bright and detailed, but far from breathtaking. None of that really detracts from the game, however, and the key thing — the ability to zoom in and out of the excellent map — works very well.
Controls remain a constant niggle for console players, and the keymapping is, at times, pretty bonkers. I honestly can’t face the idea of trying to explain some of the idiosyncrasies to you, but just trust me when I say that you’ll need to think about what button your pressing and where you need to go next more often than you really should, but in most cases, there’s nothing time-critical that would make this a real problem for your fledgeling trade empire.
Port Royale 4 is a very, very deep economic simulator that gets those bits — the economics and simulation — more or less perfectly right. What it gets wrong is more or less everything in terms of introducing and presenting those things to the player, with the exception of the incredible map. If you’re a fan of this kind of game, there are few better examples (or settings, in my opinion) to go for on console, but if you’re brand new to the genre, you should start with something a bit more gentle — perhaps the similarly sun-drenched Tropico 6, also from Kalypso Media.
Port Royale 4 is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 now.