(Reviewed on Xbox Series X by Games of DAYNE)
Developer Lion’s Shade have set sail on an ambitious voyage into the golden age of piracy with Under the Jolly Roger. Three vast maps are home to hundreds of quests, forts to raid, colonies to visit and barter with and of course… countless scurvy sea dogs and merchant vessels to destroy, plunder and capture. The employment of a crew leveling system, fun combat mechanics, supernatural abilities and encounters that accompany the real-time sailing set the stage for the player to make their mark and experience a story unique to them.
On the surface there is a lot going on with Under the Jolly Roger. Even after completing the opening tutorial the game immediately feels overwhelming. The sailing mechanics, crew management, inventory, colonies and quest initiations can be a lot to digest within the first hour or so. Luckily it doesn’t take too much longer before these start to feel familiar and nuanced in a way that isn’t necessarily as clear as it could be from the outset. This is YOUR story. How you play it is up to you and with that comes the flexibility to take your time, experiment and familiarise yourself not just with the variety of mechanics but with the world itself.
There are three vast maps to explore that offer the complete freedom desired by pirates. Simply sail around, engage enemy ships, pull into ports and accept missions, buy and sell goods, recruit more scallywags… how you play Under the Jolly Roger is entirely up to you. Progression is largely tied to completing quests and earning experience to upgrade your Captain’s Skills – which essentially upgrades the capabilities of your ship, it’s cannons, repair efficiency and speed for example. The other key component is of course money. Money earned from plundering ships and completing missions can be used to purchase supplies to upgrade the hull and therefore integrity of the ship for instance. The more money you have to throw around, the more powerful and efficient your ship and crew will be.
The player is able to toggle between real-time sailing and a map based traversal system of clicking a destination on the map and travelling to it in a much faster auto-pilot type approach. As you enter each of the three maps they will be completely blank but by sailing your ship over the map it will uncover it. In my experience I found it useful to travel across the map to fully uncover it to get a lay of the land before switching to real-time to travel the treacherous open seas.
Points of interest such as colonies, forts and mission areas are highlighted on the map which always keep the player informed of where they may want to travel. As Under the Jolly Roger is not in any way a linear experience, the player is free to tackle these if and when they see fit. This approach to freedom of player exploration and forging your own path as a pirate is fun, liberating and prevents the experience from falling into a cycle of repetition and tasks you don’t particularly wish to explore. You’re in control of how you play and I believe that is one of this titles strongest features.
While travelling via the map encounter icons will emerge which gives the player a brief opportunity to engage and participate in a ship battle or simply ignore it and move on. Taking on these encounters will boost crew morale while ignoring them will decrease it. Should the crew become too displeased they will need to be compensated to lighten their moods.
Enemy ships captured after successful boarding can be switched between by accessing the Shipyard. Each ship has a litany of stats such as speed and accuracy that of course can be influenced by components purchased from stores. Choosing the right ship for the job can make a massive difference as sometimes speed or defence may be a more favourable attribute than damage output.
The sailors and colonies of the world represent a variety of factions. Flags can be unlocked and switched at will to allow the player to fly “enemy” colours in order to pass by undetected and avoid combat. It’s these simple little details that personalise the experience and really open up the creative control for what type of pirate the player wants to be. Representation of this can be found in the Journal, along with quests and inventory.
Faction’s attitudes towards you and your reputation can be seen with the latter even providing stat boosts such as triple ram damage if your reputation depicts you as a pirate unafraid of an effective collision. Further along in the Journal your exploration progress and some fun miscellaneous stats such as cannonballs used, enemies destroyed and monsters killed. Yes, no pirate title would be complete without some mythological sea beast encounters and Under the Jolly Roger is certainly hiding a few of these aquatic tyrants that can devastate you in seconds.
Crew members can be recruited at Taverns and vary in their rank. The higher their rank the more effective they will be as a member on your ship but they will also be more expensive to hire. Crew members injured during battle can also be revived at Taverns by using medicine which can be looted from sunken enemy ships or bought from certain stores. A ship is nothing without the sweat, labour and sacrifice of its crew so it’s important to maintain full crew capacity at all times.
There are three areas of the ship for the crew to be allocated to and that’s the Mast – to increase speed efficiency and sail raising and lowering, Fighters Reserve – which act as the boarding party when an enemy ship has been incapacitated and you decide to take the fight to the decks, and finally the Gun Deck – manning the cannons and increasing efficiency of the time it takes to lock on to the enemy ship and the recharge time between restocking the cannons and being able to fire again. The crew can be moved around at any time via the very accessible crew menu. An even distribution of crew amongst the three areas of the ship is essential to ensure a balanced combination of speed and assault.
As well as the regular crew, special officers can be recruited by completing quests and can be allocated to the same three areas. They bring with them varying perks and stat buffs that can contribute meaningfully with appropriate allocation.
When it comes to combat Under the Jolly Roger provides two distinctly different types. The most common of course is the naval based ship combat, which can pit the player against one or more enemy ships that are prone to further chaos when roaming ships nearby sometimes decide to intervene, either helping or opposing the player based on the allegiances of all parties involved.
Each ship, yours included, has 3 health bars. One for the sails, one for the boarding party and one for the hull. Different types of cannonballs target specific areas of the ship so the chain-shot for instance damages the sails, which when fully destroyed will immobilise the ship and leave it exposed for boarding.
When boarding an enemy ship the combat switches to third person hack and slash essentially. The player takes control of their captain and is able to attack and block with their sword or shoot with their pistol. The combat here is very clunky and lacking in depth but its a fun inclusion that introduces a little variety to the gameplay that still feels like an enjoyable alternative to simply sinking the enemy ship. This boarding combat concludes when other side has lost its entire boarding party. If the player is successful they are able to scavenge the deck of the enemy ship for any chests that may contain loot and then are able to determine what to do with their conquest. The enemy ship can either be destroyed and used to repair the players ship, a member of your crew can take it to a port to be added to your Shipyard or the remaining enemy crew members can be forced to join your crew should you have space available. It’s worth noting that aside from boarding, this third person combat also features in some of the many available quests that even includes battles with undead skeleton pirates.
If boarding is not the players intention during the naval combat then prioritising hull damage to sink the enemy ship is almost like a turn based encounter. their are visual indicators for the left, right and rear of your ship that show when an enemy is within range. The cannons will automatically fire when an enemy is in range and a circular percentage meter fills, which indicates accuracy, or they can be fired manually with less accuracy. Each time the cannons are fired a brief cooldown is required which can be seen on the top left of the screen.
While waiting for the cannons to be ready, it is advised to stay mobile as the enemy displays a red area of damage that needs to be avoided. A fun supernatural element to the gameplay is the inclusion of Artifacts, these large crystals sit on the deck of your ship and can unleash the likes of fireballs that rain down from the sky to inflict devastating damage, requiring a brief cooldown before they can be used again. Up to two can be equipped at any one time and they can be purchased, for a steep price, from stores.
The sheer abundance of quests are littered with a wide array of objectives. Collecting, looting or purchasing X amount of an item, destroying a certain number of ships, searching an area for missing ships or bounties to conquer, forts to raid, undead skeletons to thwart and so much more. With no real “main story” so to speak the mission variety is really up to the player in terms of how much they will experience, there is as little or as much to do as the quest load you choose to accept.
There’s a simplistic visual charm to Under the Jolly Roger that allow it to feel enchanting and mysterious. The ships and character models lack the detail to fully immerse the player but the random lightning strikes and tornadoes light up the environment in an exciting and unpredictable manner. Sailing the treacherous seas looks nice whether its day or night and the way the sun appears and illuminates the sea is playful and at times mesmerising.
The score, particularly during ship battles is grand, epic and definitively pirate. It adds ominous tension and drama to the visual chaos masterfully. Outside of combat it varies with upbeat and hopeful themes to eerie and melodramatic. With such beautiful execution with the score and its masterful placement, the experience is undeniably heightened and full of purpose and hope.
Under the Jolly Roger is a mash-up of a ship management/simulation experience and naval combat with a splash of third person hack and slash and for the most part it works. The experience of creating your own adventure by doing whatever the hell you want when or if you want to do it is liberating and allows the world to be absorbed at your own pace. By removing the pressures or constraints of going from A to B to progress plot point 1 and open up plot point 2, Under the Jolly Roger doesn’t want to tell you how to play or experience your voyage and I think that says a lot for the ambition of Lion’s Shade to say “here’s the basics, off you go and good luck you filthy bilge rat”. While I do typically prefer a big picture to be working towards I found this to be a rare exception to my rule and I thrived in the environment of playing by nobodies rules except my own. This lack of linearity will likely be divisive among players that prefer a more guided experience but for fans of the genre, pirates or player freedom I think it’s hard to deny the opportunity we have to create our own experience.
+ Freedom to explore
+ All quests are optional
+ Fun naval combat
+ Epic and appropriate score
– Mechanics can be overwhelming at first
– Third person combat underwhelming
Developed by: Lion’s Shade
Published by: HeroCraft
Release Date: March 3 2021
Platforms: Xbox One/Series X|S, PlayStation 4/5, PC and Nintendo Switch
* A digital code was provided by the Publisher for the purpose of this review. *
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All digital photography was captured by Games of DAYNE in-game on Xbox Series X.