When you think about cowboys, perhaps pirates aren't the first thing that spring to your mind. After playing some Swashbucklers, your opinion just might change. The game offers a unique setting and styled graphics, but the rest of it seems to be as misplaced as tumbleweed on a tropical island.
The back of the game's box describes your character as a schizophrenic kind of guy named Abraham Grey. It sounds like an interesting character, but it fact it's really just telling you about a voice that guides him and you through the game. This isn't normally worth noting, but it's pretty indicative of how the game could have had some depth to it, though it fails to deliver. For example, the story takes place during the Civil War, and as the two forces clash, piracy and privateering spring up in the Caribbean, making ample work for those looking for it. Also, it sounds like a great setting for a story, but the plot is generic and thin, and doesn't go anywhere interesting enough to warrant playing the game for it. It's also told without any voice acting, instead substituting mumbles and grunts for each character. In a different game this might have seemed appropriate, but it seems out of place and unsuitable for this title.
The plot is really a McGuffin, however, to the pirate action that the game offers. As Abraham sails around the seas, he'll be able to take on jobs, from either the North or South factions, or go do some of his own piracy. The formula for this is pretty repetitive, and is in fact repeated every ten minutes or so: you find a ship, and choose to attack it. You're then taken into a ship-battling mode, and after firing cannons at each other for a few minutes with both normal cannons and 'uber-weapons' like gatling guns and howitzers, if you manage to do enough damage to their ship, you board it and enter man-to-man combat.
The combat in Swashbucklers is decent, but in a mindless kind of way. It usually just involves repeatedly pressing the left mouse button to attack. There's a little bit of variation in the combat, notably in the special moves you earn when you level up (more on that in a bit), but generally it's the same thing over and over again. There is the option to use a gun by pressing the right mouse button, and it does add some variation to fights, but the weapon is generally too weak to be of any use.
The battles also follow a consistent pattern: fight of a wave of enemies in location one, fight off a wave of enemies in location two, and fight off a wave of enemies in location three. Some might have muskets. Maybe. The three locations have extremely little deviation between ships, and so you see the same ships over and over and over again, which tends to get old fast. And then there's the captain's duel.
After boarding every ship, Abraham and the enemy captain square off in a one-to-one battle of swords, but it's not as exciting as it sounds. The view switches to a fighting-game-style camera, with you on one side and the captain on the other, and you initiate one attack after another. You're relegated to a few moves: attack high, attack low, block high, block low, special attack high, and special attack low. Each attack takes energy to use, blocking the enemy attacks recover energy, and the special attacks are so slow and energy consuming that they're quite useless. So, while it's not turn based, it might as well be: once you expend all your energy randomly flailing your sword while the computer randomly blocks, you block while he does the same to you. Eventually, he dies and you win, and can plunder the ship, use it, or sell it. I say "you win" because the battles are so easy that losing them is more of a challenge than winning them, and though the ships range in difficulty from 'very easy' to 'very hard', only the last option offers any kind of problem, and even then it means Abraham's health nearly drops to fifty percent. Nearly.
That's all there is to this game, only the cycle repeats hundreds of times. The game would be pretty mindless if not for the simple addition of a stats-based system that, while not exactly as advanced as the back of the box touts it to be, does add at least a modicum of complexity to the title. With every enemy defeated, or every quest completed (which, in addition to the simple story quests, also include ferrying some goods from point A to point B), you get experience. Get enough, and Abraham levels up, allowing you to add a point to either swordplay, gunning, or endurance, as well as adding a perk to your retinue. These perks add a variety of effects and abilities, anywhere from simply increasing damage dealt with guns and swords to adding new combat abilities to increasing your abilities with your ship.
There are a few other minor things that can be done in the game, which somewhat break the monotony. For example, you can walk around towns, selling goods that you've purchased or looted, or buying better weapons for your personal armament and your ship. You can also head into a tavern for some local rumors, hiring crew, and for boxing, which is just like duelling, but with fists and less options.
The only part of the game, in fact, that seems to be done really well is the soundtrack, which is heavily entrenched in western themes, but which also tends to drift over to the shanty, pirate side of things. Some of the tunes are pretty catchy and worth mention. The graphics have a nice western style to them, but they're unimpressive overall.
Swashbucklers doesn't have anything that's worth the purchase, and it can be looked over by most gamers. It's really only the hardcore pirate fans that'll be willing to enjoy the repetitive nature of the title. The role-playing stat elements of the title might appeal to some, in the end, but much like the rest of the title, they're just not enough to consider this a worthwhile experience.