Where has the week gone? I distinctly remember starting to play Pirates Outlaws last Saturday, and now it’s the following Saturday. That’s the thing about Pirates Outlaws. It’s absolutely able to latch onto you like a Kraken’s tentacle and drag you into its depths for four-hour evenings.
But while Pirates Outlaws is a barnacle on your free time, it’s not doing much that’s new. It doesn’t progress the subgenre of deckbuilding roguelikes like Slay the Spire did when it came out, or even innovate in increments like Monster Train or Roguebook. Pirates Outlaws is resolutely familiar. It’s a ‘This Is Deckbuilders’ Spotify playlist, but it absolutely gets away with it.
The largest reason for that is how ridiculously, stupendously generous it is. It’s overwhelming. When you first start Pirates Outlaws, that fact is laid out plainly. There are 935 cards to collect, proudly stamped on the top-left of the screen. There are six separate Slay-the-Spire-style maps to explore, when that game had just one. And there are countless characters to play, each with their own wildly different mechanics and whole new decks.
One character, the Curse Captain, plays mostly with curses in their deck – cards that otherwise would have been at best useless, at worst punishing, in any other deck. The Bear Tamer arrives avec bear, and that bear can be spurred on, tamed, or goaded into a defensive pose, as if you had a second player with you. These characters aren’t superfluous or echoes of each other. Pirates Outlaws plays utterly differently through the kaleidoscopic lenses of its characters.
That’s what we mean by generous. Pirates Outlaws has a completely full cargo hold. And you don’t have access to them all at once: you unlock them all progressively after each run, and – we should add – you are unlocking cards for that 935-strong library too. Every action you make seems to have dozens of reactions. We got addicted to unlocking stuff.
The presentation is simple but effective too. Oh, the menus are glorious – there’s no simple there. But the game itself is oriented towards clarity and simple characters made out of only a few colour-blocks. There were occasions that we wanted more – pretty much everyone is some variant of a pirate, which is a tad limiting, and there’s barely a single animation shared between them – but, seen in its entirety, Pirates Outlaws is rather dashing.
It’s when the gameplay gets going, though, that the cynics start boarding the ship. Because it really is pilfering from all the best games. You move, island by island, through a vertically presented map, and those islands represent different encounters. There are shops to buy cards and make upgrades; taverns to replenish health and remove cards; events to make choices and potentially damage or bolster your chances; and, of course, skirmishes to take part in, with card-rewards for emerging unscathed.
These battles are oh-so-familiar, but with a few important differences. You line up on the left and up to three enemies line up on the right. The enemies helpfully offer-up what they’re going to be doing on their turn, so you are anticipating and making plans. Those plans include attacking, adding armour to protect against their hits, applying buffs and debuffs, and hopefully creating synergies that mean you are endlessly drawing cards or applying stacks of ‘injuries’ – Pirates Outlaws equivalent of poison. It’s all stuff we have done in the games we’ve already mentioned and can’t be bothered to type again.
There are a few notable exceptions. For one, the cannonballs, the ‘mana’ of Pirates Outlaws, do not automatically replenish. To pay for cards, you need to have cannonballs in your hand. If you don’t have cannonballs, your turn is a dead rubber. You may not be able to do anything at all. To even this out, the game employs melee cards and skills that have no cost at all, so there is a counter-balance.
Any armour you accumulate is persistent. There’s no Slay the Spire-style resetting of defences turn after turn. And buffs – and debuffs – are single channel, which means that if you have one effect applied to you, you can easily remove it if you just apply a different one.
If we were to convert those four changes into a football-score, it would be a score draw. It’s a solid 2-2.
There’s something refreshing and fear-free about a persistent pool of armour. Suddenly, getting armour on a turn when the enemy isn’t attacking is fine – you just stock up. It’s a bugbear of Slay the Spire, and here it is skilfully sidestepped. And we will always take free cards. Playing an entire hand without spending a single cannonball is always fun.
We’re less enamoured with the other mid-battle innovations. Having to have cannonballs in your hand to cast ‘spells’ is a change that threatens to completely upturn Pirates Outlaws. Encountering a boss, only to have a handful of cannonballs, or a hand without cannonballs, makes you want to push Pirates Outlaws onto the gangplank. You’re constantly balancing your deckbuilding so that there is a healthy proportion of cannonballs, and that’s not always possible. Fifty percent of the time, our run failed because the ‘mix’ of our deck wasn’t right. And we didn’t feel like that was our fault. You can’t say no to any rewards in Pirates Outlaws, so you can quickly be the owner of a cannonball-free deck.
The single channel for debuffs means that a best-laid plan could be wiped out in a single blow. Got stacks of ‘weakness’ on an enemy, with a deck that makes weakness even more debilitating? Well, sucks to be you, because all an enemy needs to do is apply a single stack of ‘rage’ on themselves, and your entire stack is gone. Suddenly, doubling-down on a single keyword is a terrible strategy. When armour stacks freely but buffs don’t, it feels like an odd mismatch of philosophies.
We haven’t even mentioned our biggest bugbear, the bugbear to beat all bugbears, which accounted for our other 50% of failures. Every time you move to an island, you lose AP, which is effectively your fuel. Get to 0 and the run is over. To regain fuel, you must have accumulated one-hundred gold and made it to a tavern, which is an extra plate to spin when Pirates Outlaws really didn’t need any more plates.
You will fail in Pirates Outlaws. We are unashamed to say that we have three of its fifty-odd achievements and only completed one run. One. But that’s after twenty-or-so hours of play. Yet, instead of feeling bruised, we feel encouraged. There’s just so much more for us to unlock – we haven’t even mentioned the Relics, which are the key to dominating with a deck – and more to achieve, too.
Through a curious alchemy, we feel compelled to keep playing. There are so many holes in the hull – from a wonky approach to mana, all the way to an unnecessary fuel system – yet they don’t manage to sink the experience. Pirates Outlaws stays afloat thanks to the sheer amount to do, the joy of constantly unlocking trinket after trinket, and the regurgitated pleasure of a well-made Slay the Spire.
If you’re the type to be suckered in by a deckbuilder then be warned: Pirates Outlaws is so covered in suckers that it may as well be an octopus. Be prepared to be in its grip for a few months.
You can buy Pirates Outlaws from the Xbox Store