An Explosively Good Time

No doubt pirates were, and in many corners of the world still are, some of the more wretched folk to do business with. But wow, they sure make for great entertainment, don’t they? We sensed Black Pearl Games and Lakoo were on to something truly brilliant when we spent some hands-on time with PirateGunner (Out Now, $1.99) a few weeks back, and I wasn’t disappointed when I returned for a more thorough review. I must begin with a shout-out to those responsible for the localization, which features not only well-penned English, but well-penned, err, “Pirate-ese”. While PirateGunner‘s campy light story will draw the player in early on, the script does build up more than its fair share of rough patches as the player progresses. With fine-tuning in updates, however, this could be a translation for the iOS history books.

Story Mode is where players will spend the meat of their time with PirateGunner. Black Pearl Games’ iOS debut stars a lowly sea dog named Billy, an indentured servant who slaves away on the Dark Thunder thanks to his father’s gambling debt. As the ship’s captain steers his crew from firefight to firefight in search of fabled treasures, he puts Billy in charge of operating the cannon battery.

Despite its ominous title, Dark Thunder doesn’t particularly have its act together: the ship’s deck is littered with little bits of rope that are supposed to connect flames to cannon fuses, and Billy’s job boils down to arranging these properly so connections can be tied together. The player accomplishes this by tapping individual rope pieces on the game board, giving them clockwise rotations until a contiguous length of rope runs from a flame to one or more cannons. Oh, and did I mention there’s an enemy ship, fort, or giant sea monster battering away at Dark Thunder while the player’s scratching his or her head trying to figure this out in realtime? Once a connection is made and the cannons fired, the bits of rope burned out in the effort disappear and a random assortment plops in to re-fill the game board.

PirateGunner‘s hybrid of gun battle and puzzle game makes for a wonderfully tense experience, difficulty picking up right off the bat after Story Mode’s excellent live tutorial level is cleared. Strategic depth is added by offensive and restorative bonus items that plop onto the game board once certain conditions are met. It takes lots of time to carefully engineer a rope path that traces over bonuses so the passing flame may activate them, but the rewards are well worth the risk. Battles will only be won by the skin of the player’s teeth unless he or she masters the arts of activating multiple cannons at once and clearing the board of dead-end rope pieces. Should the player wish to review all the game’s nuances, PirateGunner‘s Help menu offers a succinct cheat sheet that’s just a few taps away.

Expert players might be tempted to ask for a challenge mode… if the developer hadn’t thought of it already, that is! Arcade Mode pits the Dark Thunder against all twenty of Story Mode’s enemies back-to-back, and an internal leaderboard tracks how far the top players have gotten in this survival match. A little less interesting is Puzzle Mode, which removes the gun battle aspect. Instead, it challenges the player to make a specified number of connections within a limited number of fuse bit rotations. Puzzle Mode is worth a go to mix things up and to get more practice with super-efficient fuse alignment, but only true puzzle-solving fanatics will go through all forty of its offerings when the more exciting action lies in the other two modes.

There’s nary an interface to speak of in PirateGunner aside from the main menu system and the rotatable tiles on the game board, and the product benefits from that simplicity. PirateGunner‘s story is accentuated by lively full-body character portraits. Though extremely limited, its soundtrack conveys the feeling of epic high seas action so well that I never tired of it. The average player should expect to squeeze three or four hours from PirateGunner‘s Story Mode, with a few more in store for the challenge seeking crowd who want to test their rope alignment skills in Arcade Mode.

iFanzine Verdict: Absent the production value and all the attention lavished upon its campy Pirate-ese, PirateGunner would be an action puzzler that’s addictive as it is challenging, and merely a must-have for puzzle fans. Once you add all the window dressing and polish, however, it becomes a game of interest to everyone who has an iDevice and takes guilty pleasure in pop-pirate culture. And how many iOS gamers don’t like pirates?

[xrr rating=4.5/5]