Game review: Dubloon
- Title: Dubloon
- Developer: Banov
- Platforms: Windows
- Price: Free
Dubloon is a jRPG developed by Banov that sports a pirate theme, tile-based movement, and visible, wandering enemy encounters. Featuring an odd mix of inspired design decisions and sloppy implementation, Dubloon is the first RPG I can recall having played where the system I played it on made a huge difference in my experience of the game.
In my mind, there are two ways to do a good pirate RPG. One would be to make the game somewhat realistic, modeling factions and events on the foibles of pirates that actually existed (e.g. bandits such as the Barbary Corsairs of North Africa, privateers like the American boats that hunted British ships during the American Revolution, or government-sponsored pirates like Sir Francis Drake of Britain, who terrorized the Spanish Armada in the 1500s). The other way to do it would be to make the game silly and whimsical, treating piracy like the caricature it has largely become in present-day internet culture.
Dubloon opts for the second route. It tells a story that is both silly and, frankly, pretty slapdash. Consider the opening sequence: you start the game without a crew, somehow managing to operate a vessel single-handedly, sail right up to a Navy ship in the dead of night, board the thing, kill a few sailors and (inevitably) get captured. The Navy officers decide to throw you in jail rather than execute you on the spot. Naturally, you escape. The Navy then pursues you for about ten steps and gives up when you duck into some nearby bushes.
These sorts of inexplicable events occur consistently throughout the story. (Spoilers follow.) One character is a tough, take-charge woman who acts as the captain of a crew you belong to. At one point, out of nowhere, she asks for a vote that your character (who is as warm and friendly as a parking meter, and half as chatty) be appointed captain. She gives no reason for this move, and no one asks for any. And everyone enthusiastically votes for him. Why? Who cares! You get to be a pirate captain!
Another character has a father acting as a pirate double-agent within the Navy. (Don’t ask.) The informant father is run through right in front of his eyes, crumpling up and soaking in a pool of his own blood like crackers in a bowl of tomato bisque. And what does this character have to say about it? That’s right: nothing at all! Oh, sure, he says to his pet monkey that they’d better escape. And then he gives your other characters some weirdly detached exposition about it afterwards. He talks about it like it’s just part of a list of equally relevant information. “My name’s Riley! My dad was a pirate informant! He just got killed! I have a monkey who travels with me!” A good while later, once you run into the murderer again, he finally decides it’s time to be upset about that whole dad dying thing. But his heart still isn’t in it. It’s like Banov wasn’t paying him enough to make the character care about delivering his dialog convincingly.
One thing I really like about Dubloon is the magic system. It’s actually a pretty standard RPG magic system, except that you don’t cast spells with magic points. Instead, your characters have alcohol levels. The alcohol levels go down when your characters use spells, and can be replenished by drinking hard liquor. As your characters level up, their alcohol levels increase. It’s never stated explicitly, but I like to think that your characters just keep getting more and more drunk as the story goes on. It would certainly explain some of their erratic behavior.
As much as Dubloon tries to be about pirates, I can’t help but feel that it could have gone further. Sure, there’s the Navy, and sea monsters, and a smattering of other pirates, and there’s that time you beat up a mermaid, but most enemies you fight have nothing to do with anything. You’ll quickly find yourself fending off animated suits of armor, bugs, wolves, electrified moles, mushrooms, evil bunnies, flying hippos, and things that look like Alf. There’s very little in the way of exploring the high seas, searching for buried treasure. There’s no first mate. There’s no boarding of enemy ships. There’s no making people walk the plank. I feel more like a pirate on Talk Like a Pirate Day than I do while playing Dubloon.
Still, Banov has gone out of his way to make the experience of playing Dubloon a pleasant one. Your characters level up very quickly, enemy encounters are seldom all that difficult, and the game is generous with save points and “song chests” (objects which restore your party’s hit points and alcohol levels to full). I’d be lying if I denied having fun playing this.
Combat is mostly standard issue, active-time combat of the Final Fantasy variety, but occasionally—typically during boss fights—you’ll get little mini-games to “defuse” deadly attacks before they hit your party. By the same token, you can pick up special “battle items,” like shake bombs, which require a little mini-game to charge up a special attack. The mini-games are cute, and help add excitement to some of the battles. By the end of the game, however, both you and your enemies will have such high speed stats that all combat encounters will progress at a satisfyingly frenetic pace, making even regular battles a test of reflexes.
Outside of combat, the things that really make Dubloon stand out are the elements Banov lifts from Zelda games. It’s hard not to be reminded of Zelda: A Link to the Past when you have to use bombs to blast through weak walls, dig up hidden items with a shovel, or trigger switches to toggle colored blocks separating portions of different rooms in a dungeon. The Zelda elements may not be original, but they are nonetheless a welcome addition that help keep Dubloon from feeling too much like a mechanical jRPG.
The controls, however, would have been best left as standard jRPG buttons. Dubloon’s control scheme is clearly designed for a mouse, and becomes horribly clunky when playing on a laptop. Actions you’re expected to perform over and over (such as using healing items, keys and bombs) require you to drag-and-drop, which can be somewhat awkward with a touch pad. Wandering enemies can (and will) attack you in the middle of performing these tasks, which makes the unwieldy controls doubly annoying.
Moving with the mouse is even worse. Your character generally sort of moves in the direction of the cursor while you keep the left mouse button held down, but it’s not coded very well. You will frequently find your character hung up on walls because the game can’t pick a second direction for your character to move in that also heads toward the cursor, and getting your character to exit the screen is sometimes actually impossible because the game won’t allow your cursor past the edge of the screen. Thankfully, there is a keyboard movement alternative that lacks these weird snafus.
There is no keyboard control for running, however, which seems like an obvious oversight. To run, you must hold down the right mouse button. Playing on my netbook, I found this mechanism unresponsive—I often had to right-click three or four times before my character finally decided to start running.
While we’re on the topic of the controls, I have to mention the sailing sequences. You get a ship relatively early on in the game, but you aren’t allowed to explore with your ship directly. Rather, you click an island on your map and proceed through a side-scrolling shooter sequence against Navy ships, sharks, conch-spraying giant pufferfish, and fire-breathing lagoon monsters. Forget exploring the high seas. Apparently, it’s all pirates can do to move in a straight line and not get sunk.
The controls in these sailing sequences are miserably bad. Left-click to fire a cannonball, right-click to move a short ways towards the mouse cursor. It’s playable (albeit uncomfortable) if you happen to have a mouse and you just keep the left and right mouse buttons held down the entire time. Unfortunately, my netbook allows only one mouse button to be clicked at a time, which makes this already-clunky control scheme nearly impossible to use.
For reasons known only to him, Banov chose to have one of the boss battles take place using this engine. I would imagine he did it because ship-to-ship battles are an awesome idea. Unfortunately, the actual experience of playing through this is something like trying to navigate a bullet hell shooter by standing over your ship and trying to pull it around with a three-foot length of string.
The graphics are quite unattractive for the most part, though Banov has thrown in some neat visual effects here and there (most notably the impressive water-rippling effect that kicks off combat). The soundtrack by Prophecy features some good tracks, though it lacks a professional touch. A number of tracks don’t loop properly, many are regrettably short, and all of them have a distinctly MIDI sound to them.
Dubloon runs smoothly on my desktop computer. Playing on my netbook, however, Dubloon runs slowly, particularly when walking around the larger maps. This strikes me as odd for a low-res, tile-based game. Then again, the performance might just be a limitation of Game Maker.
The Verdict: 3/5. Dubloon is a cute jRPG with fresh ideas and surprisingly frenetic combat. On the other hand, it may run slowly on low-end computers, the control scheme is not particularly good, and the story is pretty half-baked. Still, this is probably the only RPG you will ever get to play where you beat up a mermaid—that has to count for something.