Few game concepts are as timelessly cool as pirates. From the tongue-in-cheek mystery of The Secret of Monkey Island to the open-ocean warfare of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, a pirate’s life is definitely for us. It doesn’t, however, make you a great game by proxy. Slapping the word ‘pirate’ in your title doesn’t automatically grant you a seat at the table of history’s greatest plunderers.
Which brings us to Pirates: All Aboard! At first glance, it looks like it’s selling you something grand and worthy of a true virtual sea dog. With a logo that looks remarkably similar to the one used for Sid Meier’s Pirates (a game it so clearly hopes to aspire to), it appears you’re getting a slice of swashbuckling skullduggery on the high seas. But you’re not. Instead, you're getting something a game with very little 'game' to speak of.
The problem it has is a serious lack of any tangible content. It’s a concept, pure and simple, with no real meat to hang from its bones. If you’ve ever played the likes of Overboard! on PS1, you’ll be instantly familiar with its top-down sailing. Its controls are easy to pick up, at least - you hold down ‘X’ to speed up, and use the left analog stick to steer your ship. There are three types to choose from, ranging from a nippy little schooner to a slower yet more powerful galleon.
You fire your broadsides with either with either ‘R’/’ZR’ or ‘L’/’ZL’ and you can set off a special power-up with a simple click of the same stick. There are seven of these to use for a limited time, which are dotted at random around the oceanic arena. Four are ‘Active’ and buff stats such as speed or the damage dealt by ramming; others are ‘Passive’ and increase your shot range or max health. You can notice a modicum of difference when they're in effect, but everything ultimately boils down to who can sink the other the fastest with cannon fire.
The combat works competently, with the option to board your opponent if you get too close, but there’s no tangible short or long term benefits. There’s no means to level up your ship, no additional systems or mechanics to balance, and very little to keep you playing for long periods of time. With support for up to four-player local multiplayer, there’s certainly fun to be had trading cannon shot, but its a loop dependent on gameplay that’s ultimately inferior to the two-decade old games that clearly inspired it.
You can play multiplayer in a classic Deathmatch style, or go for a Battle Royale-esque Last Man Standing (why they didn’t call it ‘Last Ship Sailing’, we don’t know), but there’s very little to satisfy single-player sailors. There’s no story, no challenges or even a set of objectives to drive you around its map. There is a Practice mode, where you can test its mechanics against AI controlled ships, but it’s just a sandbox that feels like a tech demo rather than something you’d expect to publish on the eShop.
There’s also, rather inexplicably, an Endless mode included as well. Using a proper top-down view and automatic movement, it’s essentially an endless runner where you’ll need to guide a ship through a series of meandering channels, avoiding obstacles and cannon fire as you go. There’s a random selection of map layouts so there’s at least some challenge to be had, but by stripping its gameplay and controls down to a single analog stick feels out of place, like a mode tacked on to make a meager package seem that bit less spartan.
Pirates: All Aboard! could have been something special. The top-down sailing conceit has worked wonders for other games in the past, but it’s not a set of mechanics that can sail to glory on their own. If you’re looking for something to pass the time in local multiplayer, it’s a fun premise for a while, but there’s very little to keep you carving through its unfinished oceans in the long term.