Q: What do little pirates want to be when they grow up? A: A carrrrrrgh salesman. No, this is not a good joke, but it's a silly one, and Pirates of Black Cove uses such gags to make a charming first impression. But peg leg puns can get a game only so far, and your grins turn to groans when you discover how simple, easy, and boring this action/strategy hybrid is. On the ground, you select all of your units at once and click on an enemy until it dies. And that's all. At sea, you circle your vessel around other ships and shoot them until they die. And that's all. In addition to their cargo of rum and surplus eye patches, these pirates carry with them an inordinate number of bugs, ranging from the pace-killing (error windows) to the game-stopping (crashes to desktop). Pirates of Black Cove is strategy gaming's class clown, masking its deep-seated problems with campy quips and a boisterous attitude.
Pirates of Black Cove's colorful vibe is apparent right off the bat. You select one of a few different heroes and set off to defeat the mean ol' pirates of the game's title by uniting the three factions of the Caribbean isles. Along the way, you meet a voodoo priestess, a gap-toothed witch, a fraidy-cat governor, and other delightfully exaggerated caricatures. They are all voiced with campy glee, emitting plenty of "arrrrrrs" and raspy chuckles. The visuals and soundtrack nicely complement the silliness. The light dances brightly across the ocean, and steel drums give your travels a fun island atmosphere--though the few repeated tunes can get old in time. The lightness of being continues amid the waves, where you sail about collecting bottles containing awful-in-the-good-way pirate jokes. Jokes like this: "Two pirates on a ship. One says Yarrrrrgh! The other says, I was just thinking the same thing, matey!" The game tells you there are 1,000 of these jokes to collect. What it doesn't tell you is that there are only a limited number of them repeated over and over again.
Pirates of Black Cove is full of character. It's just not full of fun. The three swashbuckling factions send you off on various missions, most of which involve sailing the sea and firing your cannons at enemy ships, or cruising to various isles and engaging meanies on land. Either way, what seems at first like simple fun turns sour when you realize just how easy and glitchy both aspects of the game are. Take, for example, the typical land mission. Such missions take the guise of a real-time strategy game. You recruit different types of units back at the faction bases--swordsmen, marksmen, and so on--and then assign them to a hero unit. You begin with one such hero (the player character) but eventually add three more to the roster. What starts as a small crowd of units eventually becomes a large one. But whether you're in the game's first hour or the 10th, battle is always the same: select all of your units and click on enemies until they die. It doesn't matter which units you recruit back at base. It doesn't matter whether you activate a hero unit's special power. To win, you select all of your swaggering swashbucklers and click.
If you want to really steamroll the opposition, recruit a unit that throws a stink bomb, which paralyzes your foes (and friendlies, for that matter). It's like having a win button; you aren't likely to lose a single unit, or even take much damage, with one of these guys on your side. Given how simple this "strategizing" is, you'd at least expect the basics to be solid. Lower your expectations. Even the basics of an RTS aren't realized here. The pathfinding is a disaster. Units get caught up on rocks, have trouble navigating around turns, and sometimes run around in circles. Meanwhile, friendly and enemy units alike can clip directly into various objects, including ones that you are meant to attack, like cannons. When your scowling rivals wander into the geometry like this, you can't click on them. This sloppy defect may not have been so bad if you could rely on your buccaneers to fend for themselves. But much of the time, they just stand around, refusing to engage unless you give them the direct order. You might overlook this shoddiness given how easy it is to win, though there's no escaping the frequent boredom. Extended stretches of nothing can occur between battles as you lead your meandering pirates around. One mission involves directing the rum-guzzling crowd from one side of an island to the other, and then back again, without any action at all. It's five minutes' worth of clicking on land. And waiting.
Seafaring also brings about its fair share of nothing. You can quicktravel back to pirate bases, but getting to mission objectives involves sailing your ship across oceanic expanses with little to break up the monotony. There are battles out here, but they suffer from the same problem that infiltrates the ground missions: they are much too easy. It's nice that you can improve your ships with new equipment (Sail faster! Do more damage!) or buy new boats, but it doesn't take much to stay alive: just circle around the bad guy, pressing the Q and E keys to fire your cannons until the ship is sunk. There is at least some visual interest as your cannonballs tear through sails and you set your enemy's hull aflame. There are some noteworthy attempts at mission variety too. You set free a whale so large you expect Jonah to come leaping out of its mouth; do battle with a kraken (or more specifically, its waving tentacles); and capture vessels by shooting crew members out of your man-catapult. None of these activities are challenging, however--particularly if you equip the mortar cannon. But at least this superpowerful weapon brings these boring battles to a quicker end.
The seafaring suffers from sloppy execution, too. AI and pathfinding are again a problem. Enemy ships can't always figure out how to navigate reefs or even how to get around each other. And so they ram into shore over and over again, or perhaps clip halfway into it. This issue can be downright hysterical in escort missions involving multiple ships banging against each other and getting caught between landmasses. It's not so hysterical if the ship you're escorting can't move into proper position so that you can continue the mission. But none of these issues are as frustrating as the bugs infesting the game at large. These include crashes to desktop; missing texture errors that require you to close the error window before you can return to the game; the game getting stuck in widescreen mode as if a cutscene were about to occur--but not responding to your commands; and the entire game slowing everything to a crawl except your mouse pointer.
Perhaps some gameplay depth could have helped veil the basic problems. You collect objects like octopus eyes and sea plants while sailing around. At a faction base, you can have these combined into items that make you turn invisible, or make your ship go faster, among other effects. The problem? You don't need that stuff: the action is far too easy for any of it to be useful. Not that "easy" is necessarily a dirty word when "entertainment" also comes along for the ride. But Pirates of Black Cove betrays its kooky character with mind-numbing action and too many bugs for a game with so little to it. Even if you absolutely must know how much it costs a pirate to get his ears pierced, you should chart a course away from this game.