Blood & Gold - Caribbean

There's a lot to love in Blood & Gold: Caribbean, but there's a mite too many rough edges to be able to recommend it. Interesting new systems that are perhaps a bit too deep and not really well tutorialized could use some attention, and the production values are uneven and questionable, but at the heart of Caribbean, the roleplaying aspects and the sea combat, are done well. With some TLC this could be a great pirate sim.  The strong sea combat mechanics coupled with the roleplaying aspect will likely carry it for many people with a strong interest in the niche of pirate sims, but otherwise, the many rough edges will probably put off less enthusiastic fans.  With some TLC, this could be the pirate sim game, but as is, I'd only really be able to recommend it to someone really into the pirate theme or a huge Mount & Blade fan who wants more but in a different scene.
Blood & Gold - Caribbean
Date published: Oct 24, 2016
2 / 3 stars

Blood & Gold: Caribbean is a dual-mode strategy/RPG game in the Mount & Blade engine developed and published by Snowbird Games.  This is firmly in the category of "well I was playing it so I may as well review it" as far as games knows and goodness knows I seem to have established myself in the weird niche that is Mount & Blade and it's many spin-off games, so I thought, why not take a deeper look?  Much like the original Mount & Blade (and Warband it seems to have modified the engine of), Caribbean is rough around the edges and dated looking at best, but while Warband managed to make things gel well enough it didn't matter so much, the experience of Caribbean wasn't quite as cohesive for me.  It was still plenty of fun, but it's not one I could recommend to someone that wasn't well into the theme or a huge Mount & Blade fan because it's just a bit too rough, in my opinion.  Let's unpack why that is, shall we?

A Pirate's Life For Me

The primary difference in Blood & Gold: Caribbean is right there in the central premise: rather than being the Darklands-style medieval RPG/strategy hybrid that is its parent game's Mount & Blade (and spin off Viking Conquest, which I've also reviewed) thing, it is instead set on the high seas, with a focus on naval combat, role-playing a captain, and on managing a fleet and assets in ports.

Opening with a sea shanty at full enthusiastic tilt played over the image of a warship at sea and the main menu options, it's clear from the very onset that Blood & Gold has nothing but enthusiasm for its source material.  Indeed, much of the game comes of to me as a labour of a lot of love and enthusiasm from it's developers and I must admit that leaves me somewhat inclined to be charitable towards it, and don't get me wrong, this is not a bad game by any means, just  a very flawed one.  In a way that can almost be kind of worse: a bad game I can just slag off and then explain what didn't work.  A flawed game made with passion and heart is much more difficult to handle, with all the requisite hand-wringing about not wanting to be unfair and wanting to justify what I think works and what doesn't.

Opening into a familiar formula for Mount & Blade players, starting a new game has a short loading screen and then you go through, selecting the gender, starting backstory (which essentially determine difficulty level), whether you want a sort of Ironman mode or not (whether you can quit without saving), and then assigning the usual battery of statistics.

Seamanship on the High Seas

This is where the first big deviant from the game can be found and probably would be expected: the skills and weapon abilities available both vary from Mount & Blade.  A variety of seafaring skills have been added, as has a weapon proficiency in firearms (for guns) and artillery (for cannons).  Additionally available are special traits you can accumulate as you level which offer different advantages.  For the sake of completeness' sake in the review, lets go through the player character's mechanics in this regard in full, since a lot of people new to Mount & Blade may be giving Caribbean a look given the different subject matter.

On the coarsest level, there's four base attributes: Strength, Agility, Intelligence, and Charisma.  They do about what most RPG players would expect them to, with some specific caveats or applications.  Strength increases health, moderately increases damage of certain weapons, and is the cap skill for physical weapon skills and the Ironflesh skill that increases health.  Agility gives more weapon proficiency points (more on those shortly), and increases how quickly you strike with melee weapons, as well as being the cap attribute for Weapon Master, Riding, and related skills.  Intelligence gives you one extra skill point per attribute point spend on it and is the cap skill for most of the management skills, of which there are many.  Charisma increases the size of the party you can lead (boats at sea or troops on land), as well as being the cap attribute for persuasion, leadership, and trade.

Next you have a variety of skills.  Getting into the nitty gritty of them would be a bit lengthy beyond the scope of this review, since there's 25, but they roughly break down into personal combat skills (Power Strike, Power Shot, Ironflesh), skills that improve your party (such as Fleetmaster that lets you have larger ships, or inventory management that lets you carry more stuff), skills that heal your party (herbalism, and surgery), and leadership skills that allow you to recruit more people, persuade the enemy officers to do what you want, and get better prices.

Finally when it comes to the start, you have weapon proficiencies, that are broken down into one-handed weapons, two-handed weapons, polearms, archery, firearms, throwing weapons (grenades, throwing axes, etc), and artillery (cannons).  More points spent in weapon proficiencies help out in a variety of complex ways beyond simple mild damage improvement over points spent, such as making it more likely for you to break through a block, more resilient when blocking yourself, slightly faster with the weapon in question and in the case of archery and thrown weapons somewhat increasing effective range as points are spent.

A Captain's Face Might Not Be So Unique

Somewhat unfortunately, once you get yourself set up with the respective point buys for attributes, weapon proficiency, and skills, and a name, you're taken to the site that is the game's first major stumbling block and that's character customization.  This is, once again, a very familiar screen for Mount & Blade fans, but they'll immediately be vexed by one of Caribbean's big departures.  In what I assume has become a trade-off, the face textures and hair models and textures both, have been considerably improved, but at the cost of a lot of the additional customization.

As per usual with mount and blade, you're given skin, skin colour, and hair sliders that basically change the texture of the face and model and texture of the hair.  You then have an age slider that basically slowly superimposes a texture with age spots and wrinkles, and so forth, that is simple but effective.  Finally you have a hair colour that basically changes the hue of the hair texture with some minor accommodations so it doesn't look too terrible.  These all work fine and are familiar customization options for Mount & Blade familiars.

What doesn't work is the whole bevy of other customization sliders given on the right hand side.  From face width to the distance between the eyes, Mount & Blade's engine may look pretty primitive compared to say, Dragon Age Inquisition, but it affords a great deal of customization - none of which actually works in Caribbean.  As far as I can ascertain, this is because they overrided the models used for player characters and faces, but never did whatever it is they need to do within Mount & Blade's engine to make these customization options actually work in character creation.  As such, we've traded slightly the customization of the player character for higher-resolution textures, and I don't honestly feel it's an equitable trade, especially since it's very easy to drop in a high-resolution texture modification on top of an existing Mount & Blade game of any variety if the models haven't been overriden.

Being the Terror of the Seven Seas Was Never So Fun

Once you've customized your captain, you'll be plonked out to sea to seek your fortune, and this is definitely where the game shines.  Unlike Mount & Blade: Warband, which definitely has, shall we say, a slow start, it's relatively very easy to get stuck in when it comes to Caribbean.  Unaligned smugglers are easy prey at the beginning of the game, especially if you know what you're doing, and you can easily fill out your fleet with a variety of small ships by capturing them in naval combat actions.

Naval combat has two seperate modes: ship to ship combat, and boarding actions.

Ship-to-ship combat is the meat of much of the game and you'll spend a lot of time here.  You have two specific elements here: driving and fighting with your own personal flagship, and also commanding your fleet of additional ships once you have them.  You can call specific targets, have ships drop explosive barrels as mines, or even set themselves on fire as a fire ship as a last resort sort of kamikaze maneuver.  Meanwhile, your own ship can fire cannons from front, back, or either sides, and the combat becomes a game of skilfully maneuvering your ship so that you keep the enemy in the sights of your biggest guns and your ship out of the sight of their big guns.  Since this is the age of sail, wind direction and speed plays into thing a lot as well.  With the prevailing wind on your side you'll be able to jockey for position much more effectively.  Each ship has a hull, rigging, and crew score.  Hull represents basic hit point damage and when it's gone, you're sunk.  Rigging represents damage to your sails and the associated ropes and tackle, and the more damaged those become, the less effectively you can move around.  Crew is pretty obvious, and while you can get away with only your captain on a ship everything is going to be much slower, as one imagines it would be if a single person is madly running around to try to salvage the situation.

Boarding actions represent one of two forms of personal combat (the other being land battles), and they essentially are set between two ships alongside, with fighting across the main decks, and on bigger ships the subdecks, as well as in the rigging and crow's nest.  There's plenty of vantage points for shooting from and a lot of bloody close combat fighting.  It's impactful and visceral, and backed with thematic music and plenty of growly men going 'arr', this definitely nails the feel of age of sail boarding actions.

Where these fall apart somewhat is the AI - both on the ship-to-ship combat and the boarding action neither friendly nor hostile AI is particularly sharp, and this does undermine the whole sort of skillful positioning aspect of the former especially.  Neither are game-breakers though, and I really enjoyed both aspects.  Much of the fun I had with Blood & Gold: Caribbean was with the sea combat and if all you care about in a pirate game is the ships going bang-bang at each other with cannons and some great deck combat, well, read no further, this game has that.  In spades.

A Silver Tongue Brings a Letter of Marque

The other screen the more seafaring, bloodthirsty captains are going to become familiar is the town screen.  There's a lot of aspects to this and I'll get into the more trade-related stuff later.  For now, lets look at the buying of armaments, ships, and refitting of ships, as well as the quests screens, because those are what are unavoidable in townes to some degree.  So lay down anchor in a port with your fleet, and take a moment to rest, and you can find all of these in the ports.

Part of the reason that I am going in as much detail as I am here is because the game is very bad at explaining the base mechanics.  The first time on each screen you get a dense box or two of help text explaining the basic function of things, but beyond that, you're on your own, and if you accidentally click through it, you're screwed.  Buying arms, armour, and horse is simple enough, but the ship management and mercantile stuff are particularly complex and not well-explained.  This becomes a game one plays with a guide or wiki on hand, because even if you do read that stuff, it still only touches on most things in a cursory, basic fashion.  Such as how to find the job board!

Clicking on the quill and paper icon brings one to said job board, where one can find a variety of jobs posted.  This is much more convenient than most RPGs' (and Mount & Blade's) system of having to go to specific quest givers and streamlines things.  You'll find all variety of jobs here, with more becoming available as you gain Renown which basically represents how well-known you are and increases with battles and complete quests.  There's a good variety of different quests available here, from hunting down smugglers, to fetching supplies the port is short on, Letters of Marque which represent one of the many Nations hiring you to hunt one of the others, and more.  You can also find mercenaries posting on the job board, which allows you to hire career soldiers for your crew at a decently expensive cost.  They don't help the crew at sea and in sea combat, but they are a huge boon in boarding actions, where armoured professional soldiers essentially become your marines against the usually much-less armoured and equipped smugglers and pirates.  If you take a Letter of Marque to go after another nation you'll want some of these mercenaries, because those ships will have at least a small complement of professional soldiers, and they don't play around!

Maintaining the Fleet is Easy and Neccesary

Once you've found a job that takes your fancy, your next visit is probably the Shipwright, where you can buy, repair, and upgrade ships.  There's a lot to this, and its one of those things that you don't need to know a lot of to get into but to min-max things, yeah, there's a lot of depth here.  Each ship has a hull rating, which is basically hit-points, a sails rating (that gets called rigging in the combat screen you might remember) to which damage reduces maneuvering, a crew compliment, a cargo hold size, a top speed rating, a maneuvering rating (how quickly it turns), a number of swivel guns that are used to try to repel boarders, 1 or more decks of cannons on each side, and then possibly, cannons on the bow (front) and stern (back).  Additionally, they have a certain amount of ammo they can carry.  Each of the different classes of ships have different values for this.  The ships are essentially divided into tiers, with ships in that tier holding different roles really - some are slow but have a lot of cargo room, some are fast with a few punchy cannons, some are slow because they're laden with many cannons, and so forth.  Even different tiers tend not to be objective upgrades though - there's trade-offs as you get bigger, with bigger size meaning larger holds and more guns and crew, but slower speed and maneuverability.  A shooner [sic] is going to outrun and out-maneuver a war brig any day, if they've got a competent captain, for instance.

There's a few tasks on this screen: buying and selling ships from your fleet, repairing damaged ships, buying ammo and upgrades for your existing vessels, and recruiting crew to replenish fallen seamen, as well as training them if they're unskilled.  Buying and selling ships is easy enough, though you might have to shop around for particular varieties of ship if you want one, since the simulated economies of the different ports carries over into having different ships available for purchase.  Repair is easy enough though desperately in need of a "repair all the ships" option for larger fleets.  Upgrades are where things get a mite more complicated because there's a variety different things that can be upgraded.  You have three slots for general upgrades, that can be things like "Hull cleaning tools" that take up some hold space but increase speed and maneuverability, but additionally, you can also upgrade each of the types of guns on your ship to heavier varieties.  These are basically a continuum, which heavier cannons being more powerful, but suffering mildly on range and reload time.  There's also the 'culverin' variety of cannon (and demiculverin for the lightest) that does not have the range penalty, and does more damage still, but is much more expensive. 

The ship's crew is something you also have to address individually for each ship, and there's more than a little fuss here.  Each port is only going to have so many sailors available, and you cannot train your crew from rookies to seasoned seamen unless you have a full crew.  This is something of an incentive to keep your crew full, but it becomes very fussy with larger fleets, as crewing the number of ships you need to be competitive with the fleets of the Nations when you get to that level of play becomes an absolute fucking nightmare.  Pardon the expletive, but it is a headache and a half.

Moreover, even if you luck out with that, or manage to adeptly balance your fleet size to the available crew pool you often have access to, this kind of fiddling easily falls into the kind of micro-management that may turn a lot of people off, and the interface could have used a fair bit more polish to make it easier, such as options to hire as much crew as you need/is available, repair all your ships, buy all the ammo you need, and so forth.  Instead you have to go through each ship and this becomes a bit of a chore with large fleets as you may rightly imagine.  Unfortunately, while skill can carry you past needing to fuss with most of the upgrades if you don't want to, you're still going to need to repair your ships, and even if you just turn over damaged ships for newly-captured ones, you'll need to upkeep crew regardless (and indeed part of reason the crew mechanic seems to exist is as a soft limit on just how many ships the player can effectively put to sea.)

The Nations Are Demanding, But Not Bright

As I alluded to earlier, getting involved with the various Nations and their proverbial game of thrones and intrigues is the high-end game here.  The pirates of the game have one such faction, the Brotherhood of the Sea, but also the other powers of the new world are on plenty of display here as well: England, Spain, France, Holland, and so forth are also here.  Along with doing the posted quests, you can seek out the officers of either faction, to do tasks for them and engage in other diplomacy.

Each officer has basically two important factors when you deal with them: their personal opinion of you, and your relations with the Nation they serve.  So if the Pirates are at war with Spain, dealing with a Spanish officer, you might have an officer that themselves quite likes you, but the Nation doesn't, because you treat with the Pirates, and many other such complex relationships.  As with Mount & Blade, the game manages to make this quite easily understandable and presented easily.  There isn't as much variety in the tasks you might do for the Officers as you might find on the job board, but they tend to be simultaneously more daring and more rewarding - which also means they're more dangerous.  Said officer of Spain might, upon some unsaid pretense of testing your loyalty perhaps, send you to capture a Pirate officer.

This is one of the most compelling elements of Mount & Blade and it's sequel Warband, and it translates very well to Caribbean.  Going through these interactions, the diplomacy in getting favour - or intentionally picking fights - doing quests, and so on, does a very good job of organically creating a story for the player character that is very much your own.  It might not be as detailed and tightly-written as something hand-done and more linear, but it captivates the imagination and IU imagine to those whom love pirate games in particular, this is a huge draw.

Unfortunately, the AI lets down this aspect of the game more than a little two in two ways.  First of all, the campaign AI is not very bright and tends to send you off to die a lot (and itself off to die a lot for that matter), and secondly, the relations of nations can only be described as random and schizophrenic.  Bosom buddies that have the best of rapport can end up becoming dire enemies within a single game day because the AI decided it wanted one particular port town that is impoverished and in the middle of nowhere.  Mount & Blade had issues with this too, but they come up here as well, perhaps exacerbated by a much more complicated and intricate economy system that the AI just doesn't seem to be coded to cope with at all.

Build a Business Ashore - if you Dare

Right, before I go any further I have a confession to make: I might have to come back and correct parts of this review.  The economy is easily one of the most complex game mechanics period I've cared to try to unpack fully and while I won't be taking it all the way apart here I'm still as a matter of course going to be explain it in the generalities, this is a complex system, explained exceedingly poorly, so I can't say that I'm going to be 100% correct about everything here.  There's a shit-ton of apparent nuance to this system and almost none of it is explained.  So frankly, I kind of went through the motions for the sake of trying to understand the system as best I can and then never looked at building businesses ashore ever again, because it was too much work for too little reward.

More enterprising, mercantile captains than the bloodthirsty corsair I was, will find that they can hire a clerk in the town hall, after which, they are able to construct businesses of all kinds of varieties in towne.  Brewers, mines, cattle pastures, and so forth.  In the broadest sense, you have businesses that generate resources, such as the mines, and ones that turn them into usable goods, like a blacksmiths.  It's not too terribly difficult to grasp and the businesses are pretty intuitive as to what they do and the like.

The complications come in with actually maintaining the business and seeing to it's needs.  You need to get it the stuff it needs, be that people to stick in it, materials to turn into things, money, and more, and that means setting up trade routes.  You can't hire someone to do that by the way, or rely on merchants to do that.  Each port has between 2-8 good depending on prosperity and those are it's goods.  Unlike Warband, you can't really rely on the AI traders (and smugglers) to pick up the slack for missing materials because they will be interdicted by hostile powers all the time.  The nations aren't really self-contained and self-sustaining either, beyond Spain (which as a result has a huge advantage over the other nations), so this means you're going to get used to running supply routes.

Even if this is your thing (and it is for some people, don't get me wrong), it's further complicated by the market simulation.  Prices and availability fluctuate daily, so you might find the port you relied upon for iron for your smithy suddenly got prohibitively expensive for you to go to.  While this does make the game much deeper for those that prefer the mercantile approach, I find too little of it is exposed to the player and a lot of it becomes a black box.  You don't get enough feedback to really work the markets well.  You can't - for instance - consult with local buyers to know how the prices in one port compare to another.  As such, you wil probably end up wasting a lot of time running around until you manage to find the economy's particular groove (until a war derails it again).

Landlubbers Find Plenty, Quizzically

There is something of an impetus to go ashore with a shore party in getting cheaper goods at things like mines and plantations.  This is kind of a curious thing to me in several contexts.  First of all, its an age of sail game about pirates where you're (mildly) incentivized to go inland for cheap goods.  Secondly, they have obviously spent a non-trivial amount of time adding all kinds of neat things to this.

It's not all fun and games and cheap wares inland, with mercenaries, hostile Nations, and native tribal warriors all out there.  Tribal warriors can be especially troublesome because while much less equipped than you, they will come at you in numbers if you get near their bases.  Land combat is one of the aspects of the venerable Mount & Blade engine that got a lot of improvements.  There's an overhead view strategic display you can use both to initially deploy troops and order them during combat, as well as the familiar personal view, and also there's things like proper artillery and a lot of interesting terrain and places to fight over.  As an aside for those bothered by that sort of thing, there's a fair bit of nudity in the tribal warrior outfits and armour.  I wasn't particularly bothered by it nor was it there to be pornographic, but it's worth mentioning for those that might want to steer clear of such things.  For instance the tribal warrior outfit I kept in my inventory because it amused me has bare breasts for the female character as well as the male.  (Score one for equality?)

It's a little weird to me, in an admittedly positive way, that my second-favourite part of the pirate captain game I liked is the complex and large-scale land battles in lush, detailed, and varied terrain.  They were, like the sea combat, still somewhat crippled by the AI, but not breakingly so, and I had a lot of fun with them.  Honestly if you do get this game and play it, as much as it's out of theme so to speak, I'd recommend going ashore on the mainland at least once to just see the sights - there's plenty you'll miss if you spend the whole game at sea.

The Production Needs a Re-Rigging

There's a fair bit of loose ends I'm not getting into.  Colony management is a kind of endgame thing that basically duplicates the mercantile aspect but on a meta, not micro, sort of level, and shares the same problems.  But the UI is the big elephant in the room really.

I won't say that Caribbean's UI is terrible.  It's decently-designed in most elements, the iconography is mostly easy to decipher, and makes the basic functions available, but it has that very common modern UX problem where things get buried under a lot of clicks.  Lets say I want to go to shore, and repair all of my fleet of eight ships. First I have to click on the port I want to go to, to have the fleet go there.  Then I have to click on the Shipwright to access the ship management interface.  Then I click repair ship for the flagship.  Then I have to click on the portrait of the flagship to bring up the menu of the fleet, and click the next ship, then repair ship, for each one.  That's 24 clicks, or so, and it would be like three if you had a "repair all" button.  I seem to remember having this, but if they did at one point when I played it earlier prior to this review going on the back-burner, they didn't have it when I revisited it today.

There's a lot of stuff like that.  There's also a troubling amount of basic production errors.  For example, there's an unusual and unnecessary space after every letter "j" in a game message that gets really hard to un-see once you've noticed it (I'm really sorry.)  There's also some real inconsistency in the texture quality for armour and weaponry models and in some of the textures when you're ashore.

And that's not to mention the crashes.  It's gotten better from the initial release, which much like Viking Conquest crashed all the time under the weight of all the fancy stuff they were doing with the engine that goes above and beyond what it was ever originally programmed for, but it still has a tendency to lag tremendously when recalculating the markets when it doesn't downright crash, and sea battles can get unstable when they're particularly busy with large fleets.  Doubly so if its more than two fleets engaging.  It's basically gets increasingly less stable the larger the game stakes become, because there's a lot more to juggle.  This wasn't a huge problem with Warband because it knew it's limits, but Caribbean is pushing this engine to its utter limits in that regard.

Many Small Details Await the Explorer

As I've said a few time, there's a tremendous amount of depth in this game, and it's easy to get lost in it.  There's a few details I particularly liked, so before I cap off with the conclusion I thought I'd be remiss if I didn't mention them.

First of all, while it's mostly a superfluous function that's carried over from the original Mount & Blade requiring you to wander around town to go to vendors and the like that Warband compromised with those that like the immersive quality on by giving central town screens with the option to wander town, the towns to poke about in Caribbean are really-well made as far as those things go with period-authentic looking architecture, and all of the central stuff a reasonable walk from one another.  It's not like Viking Conquest where some of the towns felt a bit too big, Caribbean nails "just right" and looks quite good.  There's several Easter eggs to find that I'm not going to spoil if you go looking, as well.  If you fancy that immersion, you can literally walk all around town to the various merchants and contacts, and climb right on to your ship, to boot.

No good pirate captain game would be complete without gambling, and you can try your luck at said in the taverns, essentially going into simple gambling mini-games.  It's not all that central or important to the game mechanics, but it's a nice thematic addition and you can actually game it for profit as well, like a proper pirate bastard.

Another thematic touch in the taverns is the, as they call them, 'procurers', which is to put it plainly, pimps that sell you prostitutes.  It's just a fade to black and then back in to the room (where you can occasionally find Easter eggs by the way), but I mention it because I thought the fact that you have to find the more deviant procurers to have lesbian trysts as a female captain an interesting and kind of neat attention to historical detail.

There's a lot to love in Blood & Gold: Caribbean, but there's a mite too many rough edges to be able to recommend it. Interesting new systems that are perhaps a bit too deep and not really well tutorialized could use some attention, and the production values are uneven and questionable, but at the heart of Caribbean, the roleplaying aspects and the sea combat, are done well. With some TLC this could be a great pirate sim.  The strong sea combat mechanics coupled with the roleplaying aspect will likely carry it for many people with a strong interest in the niche of pirate sims, but otherwise, the many rough edges will probably put off less enthusiastic fans.  With some TLC, this could be <em>the</em> pirate sim game, but as is, I'd only really be able to recommend it to someone <em>really</em> into the pirate theme or a huge Mount & Blade fan who wants more but in a different scene.