Ascaron Entertainment is never one to pass up on a good ole Caribbean tale of adventure. The Port Royal, Tortuga, and Patrician series established Ascaron as the gaming equivalent to Age of Discovery-themed B-movie studio execs. They don't churn out products at grindhouse levels, but they never shy away from squeezing a sequel or two out of their circa 17th century "World of Tortuga" properties.
The previous Tortugatitles (more specifically the Pirates of the New World and Pirate Hunter iterations) employed trading, fleet maintenance, and international standing as gameplay staples, operating as a more or less faithful hymn to Sid Meier's 1987 Pirates release. Politics aimed the tip of your sword -- and the business end of your cannons -- just as much as targets of opportunity and pirate booty did. The open-ended Grand Theft Galleon gameplay expectedly earned them some extended playtime. But judging from Two Treasures' pulpy movie-poster veneer and its attractive cast of romance novel cover models, it's become obvious that Ascaron has set their sights on a slightly distant shore.
Distant, but familiar, nonetheless. Ascaron broke out the telescope and focused on a more personable story this time around. You fill the cuffed boots of Thomas "Hawk" Blythe, a young swashbuckler with a Johnny Depp frame, but with none of the Keith Richards swagger. The dodge-parry-thrust dialogue between Hawk and his long-lost sister (or is she?) evokes more of a Princess Bride sense of timing and humor that keeps the cut scenes a welcome pleasure rather than an arresting bore. On the other side of the doubloon, however, I suspect that the actress playing Hawk's voodoo-worshipping lady love, Sangua, is earning less work nowadays, since the actress may have been striving for a sultry smoker's voice, but could only rehearse her lines like an enamored soccer mom. And Hawk's mentor, the nefarious Edward Teach (that's Blackbeard to you, deck swabbie), portrays a better Old Saint Nick than he does portray the premier visage of villainy for the Golden Age of Piracy.
This hyper-dissection of the voice acting is only relevant due to Two Treasures' single-handed reliance on cut scenes to propel the storyboard. A few lines of narrative prelude each stage before Hawk is thrust into one of three scenarios: Blow up ships, evade ships, or hack your way through town -- and its sea-legs are notably sturdier than its landlubbin' counterparts.
In the 'blow up ships' scenarios, Hawk captains an increasingly impressive line of ships from chapter to chapter, though fleet commanders will be sorely disappointed: Hawk pilots only one ship at a time, and only in a couple instances will a second ship's AI take the helm to aid in Hawk's quest. With the inclusion of at-sea sail, hull, and cannon repair kits, Hawk's enemies don't stand much of a chance (since you can fix damaged areas on the fly), despite the intimidating odds. The battles escalate from tutorial-sized one on one matches, all the way up to half-a-dozen or more assailants swarming after Hawk's ship. The sailing vessels range in size from the lowly swoop all the way up to the triple-gun-decked Ship of the Line. Even with the latter's ghastly size, it still maneuvers like a Honda Civic, pulling a tight turn radius when need be. Ship to ship combat as a whole is a fast-paced, maneuverable affair; an excellent game design choice since realistic ship movement makes for a long day at sea, indeed. Let's leave Ship Simulator 2007 thrill-seekers to their own devices.
Along with at-sea repair kits, a treasure chest of other goodies standby to equip you with some raucous times during Two Treasures' short stint in the Caribbean. Kraken Bait, for one, summons forth a malevolent giant octopus to put the hurt on the next enemy that makes an aggressive move against you. It's a beautiful thing. And another, explosive barrels, create floating minefields that indulge a satisfying explosion if it's either run over by the hull of a ship -- including yours -- or its ten-second timer expires. Chain reaction explosions from the barrels are a blast to execute, and it'll become a favorite tactic to cutoff an opponent with a line of barrels (permanently hotkeyed to the number 5) with the agility of a Tron light-cycle. The enemy AI is often baffled in how to avoid these contraptions, provided they're well-placed -- but it'd be no fun if you couldn't slam bad guys with these heavy hitters. Your regular, run-of-the-mill cannonball is in infinite supply, so should you expend all other munitions, your guns stay loaded.
Damage modeling is very specific, with your ship drawn into evenly-spaced quarters. Chain-shot, a specific type of cannonball, tears sails to shreds and can quickly put a ship dead-in-the-water, while grapeshot racks up a nasty body count for depleting an opposing ship's human resources. These specialized cannonballs cost a pretty penny (and you never acquire much gold to speak of in Two Treasures) and tend to run themselves out within a few solid, broadside volleys. Again, not to harp on the story's linearity, but there's really no need to preserve an enemy ship unless the storyline deems it necessary, since you cannot amass a fleet of ships, and the only way to acquire an enemy's goods is by sending the ship down into Davy Jones' Locker. The goods float indefinitely in treasure chests that you can pick up by running over, while surviving enemy crew begin treading water. That is, until the sharks start circling. And at that moment, your recruiting-at-sea program has only a few seconds to run over those grateful new crewmembers before the Great White Shark population starts turning the cerulean seas into a bitter shade of bloody.
No recruiting in taverns, you bellow? Nope, Two Treasures doesn't aim to rehash the conventions of previous Tortuga titles, and this is just one more of its arcade-like devices that make for hot ship-on-ship action, while notably sacrificing a huge chunk of onshore strategizing. But it works and it works well.
Once you step foot on the pier, however, things get shaky. Hawk's trusty saber can't manage too many guards and pirates at a time, since his direction and his targets are pretty much taken over by the computer at this point. You're helpless in joining click-fest after click-fest of combat, surrounded by enemies that aggro at the drop of a hat (violence is the only answer), and a block button that's perfectly useless the moment a second aggressor joins the fray -- and trust me, the number of baddies you face reaches comical proportions. Swordfighting is nothing more than hammering your left-click and quaffing down legions of healing potions. And ignore any so-called "stealth missions," since Hawk is only capable of moving at full-bore speeds; and pirate boots sound like horseshoes when you're on the move.
To be fair, a shortlist of special moves sprinkle their way into gameplay with the defeat of particular bosses. Simple mouse and WASD combinations add up to moves like the "Sailor's Grave," a coup de grace finisher for that Limey Hawk just dropped with a "Stern Kick." You can bring the fight to a standstill with a well-placed boot to the "Family Jewels," or run maniacally at a stack of enemies with your saber swinging in figure-eights using the hysterical "Wrath of the Caribbean." But even throwing in tradable goods like a single-shot pistol, or a flaming-rum grenade (of sorts) can't salvage this shipwreck of a combat system. The cameraman hangs out at a fixed distance, while infrastructure and plant growth impede your viewing angles -- especially as the land-based chapters run Hawk through increasingly claustrophobic environments.
While running through these set pieces, Hawk will discover some things that earn Two Treasures a Gaming Nexus Dubious Design Award: cocktail recipes. Now, despite the fact that cocktail recipes don't inform a single aspect of the gameplay itself, you will find treasure chests that imprint recipes for, say, a Mojito or a Sex on the Beach into your trusty game journal. (2 ounces of white rum, 1/2 a lime, 1 teaspoon of brown sugar, mint leaves, and crushed ice, by the way, if that Mojito sounds interesting.) I can only suppose that chapters solving the problem of "No Rum in Tortuga" already earned Two Treasures a Teen rating for use of alcohol, so the cocktails were just freebies at that point.
It's also understood that Two Treasures is set at a budget-minded price point. But the game easily clocks-in less than seven hours of gameplay, and a healthy portion of that time is taken up by the bullying cutscenes -- "bullying" because these scenes cut off the chapter the moment Hawk's killed the last enemy for the level, often propelling him forward into a chunk of full-motion video before you can pick up the last of the gold while on land, or salvage crew and supplies while at sea. And even though the cutscenes provide a chuckle-worthy level of dramedy, inconsistencies between the subtitles and voice acting abound. You might read about a character named Cripplefinger Johnson, while the voiceover talks about Pegleg Johnson. Or Three-Fingered Henry might wallow about how his plantation is burned to the ground, when Hawk was actually just there and the rows and rows of plants were looking healthy -- and Hawk just hacked n' slashed everyone around that might've tried to light the place ablaze. Some cut scenes are unforgivably strung together with needless "missions" that might have you run 20 yards to the other side of town, or sail your dingy back down an eventless span of river you already ran, before throwing in another cutscene.
None of these disable the entire story, although Two Treasures ends on a cute but needlessly open note, with not even enough of a cliffhanger to beg for the inevitable sequel ("Tortuga - Three Threats," maybe?) But since Two Treasures' load screens only ferried Hawk through a measurable portion of the northern Caribbean -- basically from the Bahamas to Jamaica to Puerto Rico -- there's still room to explore. But until Ascaron dedicates some late nights to improving their impoverished land-combat engine, there's little to look forward to. And if they don't remove the invisible chain-link fence around sea combat, the "World of Tortuga" will be doing itself a great disservice, since would-be pirates and privateers (present company included) rightfully don't tolerate such a tight leash around their swashbuckling tendencies.