App Reviewed on: iPad Air 2
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It very much feels like we’re in the golden age of card-based dungeon-crawlers on mobile. Just last week, the fantastic Card Crusade dropped from Pollywog Games, and last year we saw the release of the completely free (and great) Mind Cards, plus the phenomenal Meteorfall, among others. With all of these quality releases, it seems impossible for there to be more room for games of this ilk to stand out, but then something like Pirate Outlaws can come along and prove that theory wrong. If it weren’t for two, very specific sticking points, Pirate Outlaws could very well be one of the all-time greats in the genre.
Chart your own course
Pirates Outlaws is a game about pirates, but it isn’t about leading a motley crew of thieves, robbing ships at sea, or most of the traditional piratey things you can think of. What it actually is is a spin on Slay the Spire, but with a more buccaneer veneer.
You play as a single pirate on a quest to cross a sea to defeat a boss. In order to do that, you have to make sure your ship is durable enough to make the journey and that your character is powerful enough to take down the enemies standing in their way. The wrinkle here is that both of these considerations work counter to each other. To keep your ship in working order, you may want to waste no time navigating to the boss, but if you want to make your pirate stronger, you want to go out of your way to fight battles and visit shops to build and upgrade your deck of attacks and abilities.
On any given journey in Pirates Outlaws, you navigate an overworld map by choosing between one or more available locations that take you closer to your final fight. These locations can either present a turn-based battle against groups of enemies, a random event that can help or hurt your journey moving forward, a tavern for repairing your ship, or a market for buying new cards to add to your deck.
Of all these options, the bulk of your interactions in Pirates Outlaws are fights. Fights pit your pirate hero against one or more enemies, and this is where your deck comes into play. When in combat, enemies present what they intend to do when they end their turn, and you have to decide how best to deal with these actions given the five cards you have in your current hand. You can’t just play any cards you want though, as Pirates Outlaws limits what cards you play using an “ammo” system, where players have three ammo at max to play cards, and many cards in their hands that can cost one or more ammo to play. With this being the case, Pirates Outlaws is very concerned with having players create optimized decks, and not just ones with powerful cards in them.
The combat in Pirates Outlaws is really satisfying and tactically interesting thanks to a decent variety of unique cards to use. There are also things like unlockable characters and relics that players can pick up on runs that give them passive bonuses, which can further change up their experience between play sessions. All in all, there’s a lot to like about Pirates Outlaws.
But, as brilliant as Pirates Outlaws may seem, it also has two pretty annoying aspects to its design that—depending on who you are—might be considered straight-up dealbreakers. First is that Pirates Outlaws is a game that must be played in landscape orientation on your device. There is no option to play the game in portrait mode even though it seems like the kind of game that could work just fine without needing to turn your phone sideways. In a world where so many great card-based games on mobile play conveniently in portrait mode, this feels like an odd choice.
The other (and perhaps more annoying) issue with Pirates Outlaws is its monetization scheme. On top of paying the $0.99 to download the game, Pirates Outlaws has a full-on store where you can buy currencies that unlock new characters and maps. There seems to be a way to experience almost all of this content without paying anything, but road to grinding out all of the necessary currency to do that is extremely long. If you get way into this game, I could see this as a way to keep giving you something to work toward, but it seems much more likely that people will walk away from this experience either having bought all of the additional content or not paying any additional money and not having unlocked much of anything.
The bottom line
At its core, Pirates Outlaws is simply Slay the Spire with a seaworthy spin on it. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but there are a few annoying design choices here that can put you off of it. The main offender here is the game’s store, which cheapens the whole experience. Without spending any money, you can complete a run in Pirates Outlaws without issue and have fun doing it, but the store’s presence—with its glut of purchasable possibilities that seem nigh unattainable without cash—does a lot to try and convince you otherwise.