Over the last few years I’ve been addicted to a few games which I refuse to delete off my PS4, games which I can put on for a few minutes then find I’ve spent a few hours managing my towns and people. These games are Railway Empire, Tropico 6 (and 5), Avon Colony, and Surviving Mars, a group of resource-management simulation games that put you in control of cities, railway efficiency, and space colonies. This week, for the first time, I’ve expanded my collection to include naval trading via the incredible Port Royale 4.
My first impression when playing Port Royale 4 was, is this Railway Empire but with boats? I then realised that the same developers who were behind the addictive train-based industry simulation are also the people who have developed this game, utilising a lot of the same mechanics in both titles. Gaming Minds Studios is a part of Kalypso Media, a publisher who clearly knows how to make a resource management game in a way that can be complicated and in-depth, yet simple and beginner-friendly (to a point).
So, after spending around 35 hours playing through the first campaign and becoming the greatest merchant in the whole of the Caribbean, what did I think of my first ever Port Royale game? Let’s find out…
First things first, I’ve had a sneaky peek at the reviews for Port Royale 4 on the Steam forums (something I don’t usually do). Why? Because I saw that the game had a ‘mixed’ rating and I couldn’t understand why, so I had to find out. It seems that earlier games in the franchise (Port Royale 1 and 2) were more in-depth and relied more on your ability to manipulate the fluctuations in the market in order to succeed. It also seems those games were much more ‘difficult’ and complicated, maybe not accessible for new gamers who don’t have the time to invest and get the most out of them.
As such, this review is coming from someone who loves Tropico and Railway Empire, hasn’t ever played the previous Port Royale games, and has no problem with games being ‘dumbed down’ in certain aspects in order to allow everyone to enjoy the game. Those who really, really love the original two games may feel disappointed (I’d recommend reading the Steam reviews as those seem to be from people who have played the originals), but from this point on, I’m looking at the game with a fresh set of eyes and no comparison to previous entries.
Port Royale 4 is a game about trading goods in order to amass great wealth and further expand your reign by taking over towns and building structures to both please those who live there and boost your income. You can play as one of four campaigns (once you’ve completed Spain) which give you a different perspective on the events which are happening around you – Spain, England, France, and the Netherlands. If you’ve played Railway Empire then you’ll be accustomed to how the game works in terms of being given set tasks with a deadline and long-term goals for the scenario, you’ll always have something to do.
The game introduces a few new features to the franchise, such as the naval battles, which can be quite difficult as well as cripple your progression if you make a silly mistake as I did. But, before I talk about them, let’s take a closer look at the core aspect of the game – trading…
Your main goal in Port Royale 4 is to grow your efficient trading routes and make a large profit by buying low and selling high. You’ll initially start out with a few ships and will find yourself manually docking the ship into a port, buying goods, then sailing out to another town that is in need of these resources and selling them. The game fluctuates the prices according to how many the town has in stock – so, if it has an abundance of items then you’ll get it cheap yet if it’s scarce then it’ll be expensive, the same is true when selling. Your task is to skim through the towns and discover what they need and how to best distribute the resources so that you make the biggest profit.
Once you’ve made a nice sum of money, it’s time to automate things, set up your own trade routes which you’ve set to buy certain items from one place, deliver to another, pick up more items, then sell them to another city along the way. However, you can also get quite in-depth with this as you’ll be able to map out the trade routes whilst seeing the motion of the ocean, setting ships to sail against the current will result in slower and less efficient transportation than if you go with the flow.
Unless you play as a certain character, you must pay a merchants fee at each dock to obtain a license to buy and sell goods within the town. This means that you’ll initially have to carefully plan out which towns you wish to interact with as you won’t be able to afford to unlock them all, but if you’re playing as a ‘merchant’ then you don’t have to worry about this paywall, making the game a little bit easier and initially more fast-paced. Speaking of characters…
Who are you?
There are four classes you can play as within Port Royale 4, each one offering a few positive and negative trails that define who they are. We have the…
Adventurer. This is a male character who increases the experience of his captains 25% faster and has better control over vessels he’s obtained within combat, but he’s 20% weaker against the enemies boarding his ships.
Merchant: this is a female character who doesn’t require any trade licenses in any town and can trade with everyone – even if you’re at war with that nation, but the combat vessels cost twice as many ‘fame points’ to create.
Buccaneer: This is a male character who can obtain Letters of Marque for 90% off and comes with five fame points at the beginning, but loses twice as many fame points if they resort to piracy.
Pirates: This is a female character who will never get attacked by pirates, starts with a Pirate barque, and only loses 50% fame points for performing piracy, but all buildings are 20% more expensive.
It’s a shame you can’t pick a male or female character for each class but when you think about it, you only actually see your character within this screen. From this point onwards you’re just an invisible God-like entity that watches over the game and issues commands, so your gender doesn’t really matter. You can also design your own flag from a number of template parts, these are shown within the game upon each of your vessels so that you know which belong to you from a glance.
Although the differences between each choice seem quite small, I personally found that experimenting with the different options allows you to find the role you feel most comfortable with. I opted for the merchant as I played through the Spanish campaign as it made things at the beginning much faster and more efficient, but in my second campaign I’ve decided to play as the pirates to see how they handle things without the threat of being attacked by fellow law-breakers.
Although Port Royale 4 is a game about trading goods, it also has a strong emphasis on town building and expanding your cities. There are three stages to each town – merchant, builder and owner. When you first approach a town you can’t do anything so you must buy a merchant licence so you can simply buy and sell goods to them. After you’ve traded a certain amount of things, you can buy a builders license which allows you to build various manufacturing buildings or production farms. Finally, once you have over 500 workers within your constructions, you can apply to take over the town via the Viceroy, giving you full control over the town management and expansion.
Town building isn’t as advanced or hands-on as Tropico 6, for example, but there is still a layer of strategy about it. The town is essentially a grid and you can harvest up to seven resources (based on what raw materials that town can create), putting multiple farms together creates a bigger one with bonus yield and certain buildings will do better if placed near the farms or residential homes. However, if you place houses near to factories or noisy structures then you’ll begin to lose inhabitants and favour with the city.
It’s a simple yet strategic mechanic which is mandatory to understand if you wish to grow the towns and entice more people to come and stay there.
One of the controversial points, based on the Steam forums, is the warehouse and how it works. In Port Royale 4, you can buy one and have it store your goods up to a certain point before reselling back to the town – allowing your ship to get first dibs on the items for trading purposes. This wasn’t how it used to work, apparently. Kalypso Media and Gaming Minds have heard all of your complaints and they posted this update yesterday (1st October): https://blog.kalypsomedia.com/en/port-royale-4-captains-log-update-1-1/ – this outlines how they’re going to change the warehouse and various other mechanics and initial load-outs in order to bring back the more difficult and micromanagement style of the series (as an optional setting).
You sunk my battleship!
One of the new additions to the franchise, so I’ve heard, is the turn-based naval combat. You can construct your own ships at your shipyard, opting for merchant-based vessels or those armed to the teeth with massive cannons. Obviously, the latter are the ones you need to group together and send out if you’re looking for a fight! Before combat begins, the game gives you a friendly warning as to if you’re likely to win or not and if you can allow the CPU to play the battle automatically – it only allows this if you’re guaranteed to win. However, if you’re feeling brave (or stupid), you can take control and command your own ships.
Battles are turn-based but it took me a while to get used to them. Both fleets are placed on a hexagonal grid and you take it in turns to give actions to one of your vessels. So, you’ll get to pick which ship you wish to move and/or attack with, then the CPU will, then it goes back to you and you can once again pick any of your ships – well, any which hasn’t already had an action. It’s kinda like Worms, only if you had to play all your worms one after another in any order you choose and then the other characters unlock.
Combat itself is self-explanatory, you must line up at the side of your foe in order to shoot them with your cannons (as they’re on the side), you can also try to dock their vessels in order to scavenge all their goods if you win, or you can simply blow them to smithereens. However, the enemy can also do the same – this is where I screwed up. I defied the warning that I was too weak and I fought the first enemy in the Spanish campaign with a fleet of weak units. Basically, he boarded all my vessels and boosted his fleet from four ships to eight. My Captain could only command five at a time so the next five attempts at defeating him resulting in his eight overpowering me and then commandeering my most powerful ships for his own use – it was a long and agonising back-and-forth which literally lasted hours whilst I built new ships.
I eventually kicked his ass and wiped the deck with his face, but it was so much harder than it had to be, all because I stupidly ‘gave’ him my ships in the first battle. The battles are by far the most strategic and tactical part of the game, even more so than the town building. I defeated him with yet another set of ships that were underpowered according to the game, but by utilising various abilities and planning ahead, I emerged the victor and became the master merchant of the universe! Well, the Caribbean.
The life of a merchant
Okay, so what are you doing when you’re not fighting off wannabe pirates or setting up automatic trade routes? There’s one thing you won’t be doing – sat on your bum staring at the wall! Just as we saw in Railway Empire, you are given a set of timed requests and goals which you must meet by the given deadline. Thankfully, the amount of time you’re given is a lot more forgiving than in Railway Empire as I often lost that game due to it only giving you a few months to complete a goal.
The things you’re asked to do all revolve around things such as buying a certain number of towns, producing a set amount of a certain resource, increasing the population of a city, and generally boosting your trading efficiency. Although it’s nothing special and it doesn’t really offer anything unique to the game other than indirectly affecting the narration of the campaign you’re playing, it does give you goals to aim for so you’re not unsure of what to do next.
In terms of progression, there’s a ‘skill tree’ which you can use to unlock the ability to create new manufacturing buildings and boost the number of jobseekers within each town. These are unlocked by using points that you gain by appeasing the Viceroy with his tasks and by helping out random people and towns who ask for your support. These are quick tasks that have a set time to complete, tasks such as searching the ocean for a lost boat or delivering a certain amount of an item to a town. Again, these are very simple and mindless but they boost your points so you can unlock new things – they’re all optional.
Play the tutorials
I know everyone has the urge to jump right into the game and bypass the tutorial – I do that all the time unless there are trophies specifically linked to completing them. Port Royale 4 has a trophy for completing these but that’s not why you should do them – they’re very well put together hands-on tutorials which will teach you everything you need to know about your new life as a merchant/pirate. I had an issue with the tutorial within Railway Empire and the devs have clearly taken on board all the criticism they received back then as no stone is left unturned in this game – it’s essential you run through these if you wish to fully understand what you’re doing.
Alternatively, if you are a rebel and skip them, simply push L3 on any screen within the game, it’ll take you to the handy ‘tips’ booklet for that particular screen, explaining what it is and what you can do there. So you’re never without some sort of support.
If you have completed all the campaigns (which will take a long time) or you just want to play a custom game, Freeplay is for you. First, you pick your nation, each offering unique bonuses such as reduced costs of buildings or houses that fit more people, then you pick your character and flag as we did in the campaign. Then you get to customise the game by choosing how many cities your nation starts with, what layout of the nations you wish to use, your hometown, how much money you start with, what tasks you’ll get, what resources you’ll find, if you’ll discover towns, and the overall level of difficulty.
There’s a second set of options (hidden by pushing Triangle) which lets you change the settings for the economy, construction time for vessels, how many pirates, if you can automate trade routes, an indicator showing the ships are filling up, and the level of the naval battles.
Sadly, there’s no multiplayer – I feel this game would be fun to play online against your friends
So, I think that just about sums up the actual gameplay, it’s very addictive and you’ll lose hours upon hours of your time without even realising it! But, one thing I’ve not touched on is, how does the game feel with a controller? After playing Railway Empire, I had no doubts that Gaming Minds Studios could perfectly implement the controller into the game and make everything easy to use.
For the most part, Port Royale 4 works perfectly with the DS4 (I used my NACON controller). The cursor remains in the middle as you move around with the left stick and zoom/rotate with the right. The moment I knew this was the same devs as Railway Empire was when I zoomed in as the camera pans up at the same time, just like in that game. Speaking of, you can zoom right out, to get a great view of the islands surrounded by the beautiful water effects, then seamlessly zoom right in and see the leaves on the trees, hidden statues in the jungles, people walking around the towns, and the gorgeous clear water at the beach as it blends from turquoise to the dark blue ocean.
The best thing about this though is the time manipulation process. You can swipe the touchpad from left to right to speed up time (something I literally just realised you can do), but time also gets faster as you zoom out. So, if you’re watching your ship go from port to port, you can ‘follow’ it by holding L1 and casually watch as it sails the ocean, but if you begin to zoom out, it’ll go faster whilst you’re watching it from your Godly seat in the heavens. It’s a really cool mechanic and works perfectly.
Some of the menus I found a little fiddly to control and it took me a while to realise how to rename my convoy – as on PC you can just click the name but you obviously can’t do that on consoles. I would have loved the option to use keyboard and mouse with the game but I tried both and there’s no native support implimented.
Port Royale 4 looks fantastic. I love how detailed the game gets as you zoom right in. However, there’s one thing missing which I really wish it would add – a photo mode. Or, if the developers don’t want to add this, an option to turn off all HUD elements so that we can capture some beautiful images as the sun sets and rises over the towns. Also, although I like how the camera auto raises as you zoom in, I’d love to be able to adjust the angle myself (which is what I said in my Railway Empire review) as it sometimes defaults to you looking over the top of your town rather than at the people walking around the street. Basically, I’m nosey and I like watching my people – I do it all the time in Tropico 6.
In terms of the PS4 Pro and actual technical specs – I have no idea. My fan is making more noise than other games, so it’s certainly using the excess power of the Pro but I couldn’t tell you the resolution – it looks nice and clean on my 4K 55″ TV though, with little to no jaggies or blurry images. The game also has HDR (which is why the images in this review may look a little washed out), making the beautiful blue sea and glowing orange sunsets look even more impressive.
My only complaint, one which I can almost guarantee will be rectified with some upcoming DLC, is the map. I get that this is the ‘story’ of traders within the Caribbean in the 17th century, but all four campaigns (and the Freeplay mode) is played on the same map. Sure, you can adjust how many cities you own and the placement of the various nations when you play Freeplay, but ultimately the map is the same every single time. Maybe, considering the structure isn’t that important, the developers could possibly create a random seed-based creation tool to make random maps, or even let us draw our own like in the old Worms games?
On a positive note, in the latest live stream, the presenter said that it takes around 30 minutes to travel from one end of the map to the other if you’re zoomed right in and going at 1x speed – that’s a big map!
I’d also love to see some fantasy ships like maybe a ghost ship or something? Although, I was asking for the Hogwarts train and Thomas the Tank Engine in Railway Empire for years and never got it…
If you like resource management games that will eat hours of your life, check out Port Royale 4. The thorough tutorials and hints teach you everything you need to know about becoming a merchant and efficiently making a profit, easing you in gradually regardless of your skill level. The naval battles and late-game can get a bit tricky and challenging but by the time you reach those you should have had hours of experience under your belt. I personally loved playing this game and can’t wait to complete the other three campaigns, if you enjoyed Railway Empire or have an interest in games such as Tropico 6, you really should pick up this game.
Although I’ve heard some things are more simplistic than previously, the developers are actively listening and adjusting the game, bringing back features and bumping up the difficulty for those who wish to push themselves. Keep an eye on the Kalypso Media Twitter account and Blog for more info.
Port Royale 4£49.99
- - Very addictive
- - Visually the game looks stunning, especially with the water effects and sun set/rises
- - Constantly have things to do via tasks, maintaining your cities, setting up trade routes, and helping people out
- - Easy enough to learn and pick up as long as you follow the tutorials
- - It'll consume many, many hours without you even realising
- - Only one map (but you can adjust a lot of settings in Freeplay mode)
- - Supposedly the warehouse and other features are simplified over previous titles (see the link in the review, the developers are releasing a patch for this)
- - If you're not careful, you can easily screw yourself over by handing your foes a bunch of new ships to attack you with
- - Not a negative but I wish we could freely move the camera and disable the hud for an improvised photo mode (or, a photo mode being added)