Mix the Wild West with the high seas and you get Swashbucklers: Blue vs. Grey, an action adventure game about pirates during the Civil War. However, the gameplay isn't as innovative as this offbeat premise, considering that Russian developer TM Studios has just duplicated Sid Meier's take on buccaneering from his Pirates! Games, right down to the arcade minigames. There isn't any amusement to be found in the derivative, go-through-the-motions gameplay that mimics a vastly superior predecessor. Ancient production values boast nonstop loading screens and outdated graphics, all of which nicely hammers home the bottom-drawer philosophy behind this second-rate rip-off.
Nevertheless, there are enough interesting aspects to the story to make you wish that Swashbucklers had been more ambitious with its gameplay. You take the role of Abraham Gray, a pirate plying his trade in the Caribbean and along the southeastern seaboard of the United States during the Civil War. Dropping the usual 16th-17th century piratical escapades for a more modern era is a great idea, especially given how the game dresses up the period with cowboy touches. Gray dresses more like a Texas Ranger than a buccaneer from Havana, what with his beat-up cowboy hat and twirling six-guns. City ports look like refugees from an old oat opera as well, with dirt streets, sheriffs' offices, and saloons. Another nifty touch is Gray's mental state. He's a schizophrenic who hears voices, which comes in handy when this hallucinatory alter ego provides tips on how to play the game. Not much is made of this during play, although the concept is at least an interesting way to handle the pop-up instructions provided during game tutorials.
Depressingly, that's about it for the positives. For starters, everything about Swashbucklers screams bargain bin. The PS2 version's visuals are dated across the board, although they at least look comparatively better to other games on this system than the PC version does compared with similar games on that platform. However, graphical elements of the game are often repeated, which means that every port features the same dirt streets and the same sheriff's department. Every section of the game needs to be loaded, too, despite the dated look and content. Most loads are nearly instantaneous, but they still break up the flow with continual screen fade-outs and transition screens. A comic-book vibe to the visual flair makes the archaic stuff a bit more tolerable, but you're still playing a game that looks as if it came out five years ago. Furthermore, the interface is a bit clunky, although at least its big "designed for a TV set" style is more at home here than it is in the PC edition of the game.
Audio is an even bigger advertisement for yesteryear. Presumably to avoid the costs involved with recording dialogue and then translating it for different markets, characters in Swashbucklers grunt conversations like angry, drunken versions of the adults in Peanuts cartoons. Unfortunately, this half-baked attempt at simlish doesn't work here, given that you're trying to make sense of a storyline, not groove on the cutesiness of virtual dolls expressing emotions without uttering any intelligible words. You can't get much out of this grunting, either, because it all sounds like a cross between a snore and a belch. Thankfully, there are captions for all of this snorted dialogue, so you can ignore these annoying noises and just read your way through conversations while listening to the pretty good Wild West-style musical score.
It's a pity that you can't similarly disregard the gameplay. This is a clone of Pirates! in every imaginable way, but without the depth and sense of fun that permeated that 2005 remake. Character development has some role-playing game aspects, although they're pretty rudimentary. You level up fairly quickly, but can apply the points gained to only three skills: fencing, shooting, and defense. Perks that provide special melee attacks, defense bonuses, and the like can also be chosen, which gives you at least a little more freedom to build a character. Regardless, there isn't enough choice here to let you really customize Gray. The arcade-style combat is equally straightforward on both terra firma and on the high seas.
Gamepad controls are much more fluid than the mouse-and-keyboard interface in the PC version of Swashbucklers, so you're better able to handle the fast-paced combat on the console. However, there isn't much depth to battles here regardless of the control method used. Gray is an expert swordsman with the skill to slash gangs of opponents to ribbons, and the vessels at his command are able to rip off cannon fire at Gatling-gun speeds. It's only when dueling enemy captains at the conclusion of boarding sequences that you're required to do any thinking, and this really just requires you to pace yourself by taking breathers every now and again or blocking nonstop as you run out of energy.
Quests are generally pretty basic delivery runs where you drop off supplies, hand over prisoners, sink vessels, and so on. There is little interaction with non-player characters, and no need to fuss around with loading ships or dumping off cargo. Consequently, with the many Fed Ex quests you simply land in a port, talk to someone to accept a job, sail to another port, and talk to someone about taking your delivery. Wash, rinse, repeat. You can make cash on the side by auctioning off captured vessels, or by running goods from one port to another and doing the old buy-low, sell-high thing. But there isn't any strategy here because the auctions are conducted automatically, and the prices for cargo remain static even when you're buying up tons of stock. You know you've got a pretty simplified market system when it doesn't even recognize basic supply and demand.
Earning money from ship-selling and trading isn't really necessary, either, given that you can make just about all of the cash that you want by taking on all comers in the boxing minigame on offer in various ports' bars. This is a bare-fisted version of the captain duel described above that is incredibly easy to win. All you have to do is pound away for a few rounds and occasionally pepper your opponent with a roundhouse special attack to walk away with as much as a thousand bucks.
If you're looking to recreate the Pirates! experience, just replay that fantastic game. Don't bother with this dull copy unless you've got a fetish for mentally ill buccaneers.