Port Royale 4 is a trading and town management game set in the Caribbean during the 18th century. The opening CGI video gives the impression that you’ll be getting involved with an awful lot of piracy, but while that is part of the game, it’s by far one of the smaller aspects of a game that is trading and town managing more than anything else.
You’ll want to start by playing through the tutorials, which do a good job of explaining not only how to control the game, but also how to actually play the game. You’ll need to learn how to manage ships and convoys, how to lay out trade routes, the ins-and-outs of naval combat, and more in just a couple of hours. These tutorials are indispensable as the game’s UI is a little… unique.
While strategy and management games on console have come a long way over the last decade, Port Royale 4 is not quite as intuitive as the best examples. It’s manageable with a little guidance and practice, even if you occasionally open the wrong menu by accident and have to put up with using analog sticks for most menus.
The first few hours of a game at least are going to be spent trading between towns belonging to your chosen nation. Thankfully it’s pretty easy to tell which goods you should be buying, selling, and ignoring thanks to a bar that fills up based on demand in that town. If it’s full, the town has a large surplus of the resource and is selling it cheap, but if a bar is empty, the town needs that resource and is buying it for a higher price. If you then buy too much of it, the price per unit will increase as their stores dwindle, cutting into your profit.
You’ll probably begin by managing this manually, personally ordering your ship between towns and buying and selling things yourself, but you’ll soon get an extra ship or two and be able to set up a trade route. Once you’ve made a trade route, by way of a lengthy process of picking all the towns on the route and setting out instructions for buying and selling in each one separately, ships you assign to it will run it automatically. This allows you to focus elsewhere whilst your ships rake in doubloons, or whatever.
You’ll also need to plan each trade route’s, well, route. There are a few things to consider when you’re at sea: sailing against the wind makes your ship slower, while sailing through storm-prone areas can damage your ships, not to mention avoiding any areas that happen to be populated by pirates or hostile nations. The route planning aspect can be used to cut out unnecessary time wastage on your trade routes and really maximise profit. Most of the time you can just use waypoints to move it away from the red areas on the map where storms are likely and you’ll be fine, but the option to really optimise them is there if you want it. The same goes for your purchase instructions, where you can set specifics about how much to purchase, or you can just select which items you want to buy and sell in each town and leave the game to decide the amounts automatically based on supply and demand. This is very welcome as choosing specific amounts for everything would likely double what is already quite a lengthy process in a game full of menus.
As money starts rolling in, you can start to expand your fleet by purchasing or building newer, bigger ships and sending them to discover other nations’ towns. At that point you’ll be able to plan more expensive, but even more profitable trade routes to these more distant areas.
Managing towns is another aspect to consider. Obviously you can fully manage your own hometown as the governor, but you can also manage your nation’s other settlements once you’ve got approval to set up a business and then built them up to be large enough. From there you can start constructing the relevant buildings in towns to start producing resources – after all, you then don’t have to buy it, so there’s more profit! – and eventually become governor of those settlements as well.
Managing each town is more than just catering to your business needs. You’ll need to keep the people fed, healthy, and happy, partly by trading the resources they need, but mostly by placing hospitals to reduce the risk of plague, markets to distribute food, and trying to keep noisy factories out of sight. It works well, but can become a bit of a juggling act later in the game when you’re managing multiple cities at a time, and all your trade routes, and likely defending them from pirates and hostile nations as well.
It’s also around this time that repetition sets in. There’s only so many times you can improve a town into a bustling trade centre before you realise you’ve already done this, especially with the obtuse Fame points system. You earn these from being successful at town management and completing tasks, but you earn them at a slow rate compared to the need to spend them on working through building chains and captains to give your trading empire a boost.
There’s also only so many times you can plot a trade route before the clunky menu and controls make what was a finicky, but rewarding process early on into a bit of a chore, especially with the more expansive routes. Unfortunately, the turn based combat falls into this category as well. It has some decent ideas like manoeuvring to fire from both sides of a ship, but after a while it becomes clear that it lacks depth and is disproportionately affected by consumable skills rewarded for completing tasks for towns. I started automatically resolving any battle where I was likely to win pretty quickly, reserving the turn based combat for the rare fights that required my attention because I was at a disadvantage.
This also ruins any dream of just being a pirate. The game does allow you to engage in piracy, but it just doesn’t seem worth it when it is so heavily reliant on combat, one of the game’s weaknesses.
The Caribbean itself looks really quite nice. It’s as sunny and colourful as you’d expect, even if those colours are mostly blues and greens from the ocean and trees. It’s almost unnecessarily pretty, considering you’ll spend the majority of your time zoomed all the way out because, for some reason, time moves more quickly when you’re zoomed all the way out. You can pause time and you can speed it up to 3x, but zooming in forces the game to run more slowly. Zooming out also turns my PlayStation 4 Pro into something that sounds like a jet engine as the fans speed up drastically. It’s surprisingly that this trading and city management game is the game to tax my system the most, but here we are.