First impressions are important in video games, particularly when you’ve got Sea of Thieves waiting patiently on Xbox Game Pass, just a Home button away. Under the Jolly Roger didn’t make a good impression, and continued on that course until finally, belatedly, we managed to find the tiniest of treasures – some enjoyment! – waiting at the end.
Under the Jolly Roger is tutorial-light, shall we say. Unfortunately, it’s not a pirate sim that should be tutorial-light, since it has a hold full of things you can tweak and optimise, from the ship to the crew to you, the captain. It’s got plenty of different ways to play, too, with your view shifting from cities to boat management, seafaring, sea combat, third-person combat and exploration on land. Most importantly, there are actually ways to get enjoyment out of the game and become good at it, but Under the Jolly Roger stubbornly refuses to stick them out front.
What Under the Jolly Roger chooses to do is shuffle you out of its Academy as soon as it possibly can, and watch and point as you splash around in its waters. A note to those starting: leave the resource management for now, it’s not important. Grab some quests from the Academy, and note the red markers on your world map that show you their destination. Now, DON’T travel there manually – set a course via the world map and let the ship take you there automatically. This is how you will be playing 90% of Under the Jolly Roger, so you may as well start now.
Slow down: why wouldn’t you want to manually steer your ship, enjoying the sea breeze in your hair and the drunken shanties of your crew mates? This is a pirate sim, after all: why would you surrender control of the ship you’re given? Aha, Jim-lad, you’ve hit upon the first and most glaring fault of Under the Jolly Roger: it’s not that much fun.
Steering your ship to a destination is dependent on the direction of the winds, which is undeniably correct: that is how sails and wind work. But when you’re eager to get some treasure, explore or – worse – chase after/away from an enemy galleon, then being confined to one direction of travel is beyond irritating. It’s the eternal curse of the simulation: do you bow to realism and compromise on fun? Under the Jolly Roger makes the wrong choice.
It makes better choices in the ship-to-ship combat. These occur while manually steering your ship, or as random encounters when on auto-pilot. The camera zooms in, and you’re in the ‘squint and it’s Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag’ mode. You dance around your opponent, manually firing broadsides of cannonballs, bolas, buckshot and any other ammo that you brought from port, trying to keep your opponent in sight for long enough that your crew automatically fires salvos themselves. These bits are generally engaging and intense, as long as the ship doesn’t get away and force you to chase after them, wind currents and all. They are, hands down, the best parts of Under the Jolly Roger.
But then you have to endure the boarding sections. Once the opposing ship is scuttled, you can get close enough to hop on board and participate in excruciatingly shonky third-person combat. There are attack and defend buttons, and your poorly animated captain will judder about the ship and aim splashy attacks at other poorly animated characters. Stomach these to the end and you have a choice: destroy everything for a boost to your ship’s health; take the resources and crew to the nearest port; or enlist the survivors into your crew. You’ll be tempted to destroy them all for making you go through the previous five minutes.
Congratulations – you likely now have some bounty, which brings the resource management into focus. Dock in a port and you’ll have the ability to trade at varying rates and receive doubloons, enough to make improvements to your ship. These include levelling up your crew, hiring new crew, improving your ship and improving yourself, as well as socketing some magical artefacts into sections of your ship. Your crew can be moved into different sections of the ship, with presence on the sails giving you greater speed, and so forth.
The emphasis on the management stuff will be a surprise to many, and we suspect it will put off more than it attracts. Those arriving from Black Flag and Sea of Thieves will bemoan the number of interfaces, riddled with tiny text, and the proportion of time that’s spent nestled in them. Those that came from Sid Meier’s Pirates will have a bit more experience of this approach, but there can be no denying that it was done with so much more charm twenty years ago.
Under the Jolly Roger is crippled and peg-legged by this complete absence of character. When we think of piracy, through the many lenses of Monkey Island, Pirates of the Caribbean, Black Flag and the rest, we think of shanties, grog, sea creatures, buried treasure, Blackbeards and LeChucks, and tales of adventure. Under the Jolly Roger fumbles all of them. Stumbling into port, you don’t meet anyone, the audio doesn’t rise up with chants, chatter and shanties, and the quests you are given can be distilled into simple ‘go here, kill that’ tasks with barely a story to go with them. While you are controlling your ship, you can’t see anyone on the decks, nor do you see the improvements you have made to its structure: it’s a ghost ship. The world, too, could have been generated by AI: there are no landmarks to uncover, no campaign quests that make you feel like a dread pirate. The one overarching storyline is a diluted Moby Dick, with you determined to down the Kraken who scuttled your last ship.
The presentation doesn’t help. Under the Jolly Roger belies its origins as a mobile game, and is best described as patchy. The ships are fine but the environments are blocky and featureless, contributing to a general lack of soul. The sea creatures are PS1-era, and add a bit of comedy to moments that should be dramatic. Considering how much time you spend in interfaces, they feel optimised to touch-screens or the mouse, with smaller elements and an emphasis on including all the detail on screen at once, rather than breaking it up and showcasing the important stuff.
You probably get the sense that we didn’t enjoy our time under that flipping Jolly Roger. But there is joy to be had, if you root around a bit. Once you find the loop of exploration, combat and returning to port to better outfit your vessel, well, you start to feel a little like the privateers of old. Ship combat is ship-shape and holds its enjoyment until the end, and there’s a fair amount of depth here – if you can be bothered to plumb it.
If you were brought to Under the Jolly Roger on Xbox with the promise of swashbuckling, action, and a hope that it would be ‘Black Flag: The Ship Bits’, then turn sail: this isn’t the game you’re looking for. This is a pirate sim with the emphasis on ‘sim’, and all the resource management, tedious downtime and charmlessness that can come with the genre. It’s an unfriendly game that demands you put in the effort if you want to get to the good stuff, and – if you’re anything like us – you will wonder whether it’s worth the bother.