Reading up on Swashbucklers Blue vs. Grey prior to it's release got me shivering my timbers on the poop deck in anticipation. The concept of an action RPG pirate game set in the United States during the Civil War era sounded intriguing. Alas, just like a Christmas with presents of socks and underwear, this budget title disappoints. With all the potential behind the original concept Swashbucklers can never quite pull the trigger into an enjoyable game.
In Swashbucklers Blue vs. Grey you play the part of Captain Abraham Gray: an alcoholic split personality who's constantly looking for work. The split personality turns out to be Abraham's inner voice who talks you through how to play the game as you progress. Work comes from people located in cities around the map which reward Abraham with money to increase his arsenal and attributes for performing various tasks. Each quest adds to Abraham's experience points as you wreak havoc by foot or by ship.
The game progresses by accepting and completing missions one at a time. You get to choose which mission you'd like to attempt next, some of which are side missions for money and others are part of the main storyline. I found on many occasions that I would accept a mission only to find out that I was not experienced or equipped enough to succeed, so saving regularly is a necessity. During the searching, accepting, and completion of each mission you will go through the various gameplay modes. During your adventures you will either be running through any of the nineteen cities in the game, visiting any of the businesses in any of those cities, sailing your ship, or engaging in battle.
After entering a city (by docking at its port) the screen layout presents you with an elevated view of your current section of that city. Each city at differing degrees gives you the opportunity to buy/sell supplies, upgrade/sell your ship, save your game, or find new missions to accomplish. When traversing a city you are limited from interacting with anyone within the town unless it is part of your current mission. This makes going from one place to another within a city purely functional and frankly quite boring. Entering each building presents you with a static picture view of the interior with the various avatars moving in short pre-set movements. Interacting with people in Swashbucklers is done on a pre-set text basis where you either respond with the only choice provided or choose when being asked to perform a mission. The interior of each type of building (bar, shipyard) have variations from town to town but not enough to squash the overall lack of repetitive tediousness. The controls during these parts of gameplay are limited to the left analog stick and X-button which means that most of the game is X-button mashing.
Violence is a natural part of any true pirate's life and in Swashbuckler's you'll find yourself maiming and defending on both land and sea. Abraham inflicts damage by ship or on foot depending on the battle. Captain Abraham has the ability to use his ship to attack other ships or protected ports for gaining resources or as part of a mission. To engage in a naval battle you press the X-button once in range of your target and select the option to attack. Naval battles put you in control of both the steering of the ship and the weapons. You can equip different weapons for your ship you've purchased from shopping at a city. At the beginning of the battle the opposing ship will start off at a bit of a distance. Controlling the orientation and speed of the ship is a bit tricky and takes time to get used to. Naval battles progress with you and your opponent lobbing weapons fire at each other until you either lose, run away (or sail away as the case may be), destroy the opposing ship, or board the opposing ship. If you choose to board the opposing ship you will enter an on-foot battle against the remaining sailors and eventually duel with their captain. If you manage to defeat their captain you can take what you want from their resources and auction off the ship (or use the new ship and auction off your old one) to make money. Of course if you feel in a destructive mood you can burn the ship to a crisp just for fun.
Battles on foot take place in two different fighting modes: land battles and duels. Land battles pit you armed with a blade and firearm against numerous sailors. Main attacks are the standard hack'n'slash, a jump slash (which makes heads roll and arms separate from bodies), and firearm shots for distance damage. Land battles aren't difficult with no finesse or skill required, just continually button mash and take time for a block or two and you'll cruise through without too many problems. Duels occur between you and a boss (normally a captain of a ship). This one-on-one battle is fought using your blade and without firearms. The trick with duels is in getting as many hits as possible before your energy bar runs out. Attacks are divided into high and low and with each one your energy is reduced. Blocking your opponents' attacks takes some anticipation to choose between a high and low block. When the opportunity arises you can use either R1 or L1 to perform one of your two special attacks for increased damage. Boxing matches are a great way to make some quick money and are very similar to a duel except that you need to win multiple rounds to be the victor. There are three blue and three red indicators at the bottom of the screen. Each time you win a round one of the red indicators turns blue or vice versa until all of the indicators are one color making that person the winner. Despite any attempt to add a strategic component to the fighting engine with the high/low attacks and blocking, I quickly found that if I just hit the R1 button repeatedly more times than naught I'd win the battle without being hit. AI this dumb is either the result of bad programming or a successful simulation of Paris Hilton's low IQ.
The graphics throughout Swashbucklers are average but consistent. The background images provide an inviting sense of environment and, in my non-historical experience, appear to be valid caricatures of the Civil War. Animated sequences when entering/exiting a building and in other points in the game are blocky and awkward to watch. The limited movement of each sprite appears rigid and almost robotic. Land battles provide the blood and displaced limbs and heads that warrant a Mature rating but fail to add any significance to the repetitive battle sequences. Swashbucklers generally has the various graphic components that are necessary for a solid graphical bloody RPG adventure but lacks the depth and polish required to make it a success.
The sound is truly the most polarizing feature of Swashbucklers because it is both the best and worst part of the game. The music was a pleasant surprise that succeeded in helping to create a historical ambience. Unfortunately the music cannot make up for the new low in audio quality set by the ridiculous verbal communication. In what I assume was an attempt to keep costs down the characters don't speak to each other using real words by voice actors but rather mumble incoherently. Listening to the equivalent of David Suzuki with a mouth full of marbles being pleasured with a constant stream of CO2 (with sporadic spastic emphasis for dramatic effect) is not my idea of a good time. Inter-character verbal communication was a constant annoyance throughout the game. Swashbucklers should have just shown the text on the screen as it does now with the music in the background.
Swashbucklers is a value title with very little value in it. I was very interested with the idea of the game but ended up disappointed with the experience. Any producer or developer only willing to go halfway to create what could've very well been a decent title will get what they paid for: crap. With most PS2 games now in the bargain bin at your local retailer you'd be far better off walking past Swashbucklers and using your $20 on a game that you may actually enjoy.