Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island review
What does it mean to be a pirate? At one time, it meant being a bandit of the sea who mercilessly stole from merchants and killed at whim, though nowadays it seems to apply to anyone who likes boats and employs a skull-and-crossbones decorating motif. In the world of Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island, on the beautiful Azurbbean sea, you won’t find a more beloved blue-eyed hero than Captain Flint, King of the pirates and all-around good guy. Unfortunately for Flint, some have grown resentful of his heroism. Queen Zimbi, duplicitous wife of Papa Doc, the head priest of Vooju Island, teams up with a low-ranking pirate named Captain Green Beard to capture Flint, turn his crew into zombies, and free some evil Vooju baddies. Now it’s up to Papa Doc, a rotund chef named Blue Belly, and buxom spy Jane Starling to stop them. There’s just one problem: our heroes are already dead.
Luckily, right before they “died,” Papa Doc cast a spell keeping the trio’s spirits mobile and their bodies in a kind of stasis. They can still come back to life, but several tasks must be completed first, and even that is only the beginning of their epic adventure. Before the tale is finished they’ll need to travel all over the Azurbbean, from the sunny shores of Merry Cay to the temples of Azticla, and even into the depths of the (relatively harmless) underworld. Each new land you’ll visit is populated with a quirky cast of one-note characters, like the petulant Child Emperor of Azticla (who hates smelly things) or the sad pirate who’s always been thoroughly “spanked” in battle and goes by the name Red Rump. That’s not necessarily a criticism: for a game like Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island, always more concerned with whimsy and one-liners than anything resembling genuine emotion, one-note is all you need, and the variety is appreciated.
In fact, variety is Ghost Pirates’ greatest strength, especially when it comes to the jaw-droppingly beautiful hand-painted backgrounds. With every new location, I was freshly impressed by the artistry at work here. Right from the beginning, when Papa Doc stands outside his temple with the nearby lava moat casting an eerie red glow, I was in love. Whether it’s the light-filled greens and blues of Merry Cay or the decaying swamplands of Grand Fascile, each screen is suitable for framing. We’d expect nothing less from the studio of Bill Tiller, of course, whose unique style is as distinctive now as it was as lead background designer on Curse of Monkey Island over ten years ago, though the gains in PC technology since then allow for even more arresting environments here. Ambient animations like waterfalls and lightning storms further contribute to the visual experience nicely.
Sadly, all the beauty around them highlights the imperfections of the character models. Certainly artistic choices are subjective, but I found the characters’ exaggerated features generally grotesque, like Azticlan priest Itzacoka’s distended stomach or the rictus-like grin of Blue Belly’s little sister. It’s even worse when the character is supposed to be pretty, as troublingly evidenced by Jane Starling’s ample assets. I consider the almost completely exposed (and perpetually bouncing) zeppelins attached to her chest to be less titillating than disturbing. How are we expected to react to her character? Should we take her seriously, even if the other characters don’t? While nobody in-game specifically references bosoms, a large percentage of the one-liners have to do with Jane, Jane’s figure, and Jane’s dating habits, though the issue extends beyond her. Apparently there are precious few clothing stores in the Azurrbean, as virtually every female character chooses to exhibit herself in this way. I can’t fathom why the designers went this route. Don’t women make up a healthy part of the adventure game audience?
But Jane is only one of the three characters you’ll control in Ghost Pirates, and you can almost always switch between them at will. Their goals aren’t intrinsically linked, and in fact the characters never occupy the same screen outside of cutscenes, so alternating protagonists mid-segment is entirely optional. Still, if you get stuck or tired of a certain situation with one, the ability can make for a refreshing change. Despite their separation, Papa Doc’s spell left our heroes psychically linked, so they will comment on each other’s actions and even help out in puzzles. There are three character portraits in the inventory, and you can combine them with other items to ask for advice. When Blue Belly can’t comprehend a Vooju symbol, he can go to Papa Doc, and when Papa Doc can’t figure out how to tie a strong knot, he turns to Jane. It works very well as a mechanic, adding a little more depth to the experience. The adventure is not just about hunkering down and solving a puzzle, but also about knowing when you should stop and ask for help from a friend.
Apart from that twist, the interface is quite conventional, and if you played Autumn Moon’s A Vampyre Story, you’ll already be familiar with it. Hold down the left mouse button over an object, choose between hand, eyes, or mouth icons (to interact, examine, or speak), then release the mouse button to perform the action. Most screens have a half-dozen or more things to look at, a fair percentage of which are functional. In the parts of the game when you have an actual physical form, you’ll be able to speak with other characters, but there aren’t really any dialogue puzzles; you simply exhaust all options until you’ve learned everything you need to know.
There are a couple brief moments when you’ll need to interact with a problem in a different way, like throwing a rock and partaking in a swordfight, but the only one that really stands out is also one of the most frustrating parts of the game. A puzzle built around charades sounds like a great idea, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The icons representing body movements aren’t labeled or drawn in a way that makes it clear what you’ll be communicating if you choose them. Exactly what you want to say is also unclear, and you’re given almost no feedback indicating if you’re close to the solution or hopelessly distant. There are three rounds of charades, the second of which has 256 possible combinations, and you can’t save and come back later once you’ve begun. After 20 minutes of this, I was ready to make the game designers walk the plank, or at least hit them with one.
Fortunately for the nice folks at Autumn Moon, the rest of the game is very fair in terms of difficulty. Outside of the charades puzzle, I was never stuck on any one situation for more than a couple minutes, and usually less than that. It’s not that the solutions are slap-you-in-the-face obvious, but there are enough little hints and indications about what needs to be done that I was able to form a plan in my mind, then execute it successfully. If it seems like being a ghost might be a huge problem for your typical kleptomaniac adventurer, many objects can still be manipulated, and the ability to walk through doors and remain invisible to bad guys often makes life a little easier for you. Besides the few exceptions mentioned earlier, all the puzzles are of the gather-and-apply variety, with no danger of failure, death, or creating an unwinnable state. One of my favorites ended up being the first puzzle of the game, where you have to clear away a line of salt (ghosts can’t touch salt) using chickens, zombies, and a whole lot of coconut milk. All throughout the game, the puzzle density is such that I felt like I was constantly figuring something out, and the experience of almost nonstop accomplishment was both very satisfying and a little exhausting.
Ghost Pirates is fully voice acted, and the three protagonists all do a respectable, if not particularly impressive, job of being sarcastic adventure game characters. Each one has a different accent (Scottish, Spanish, and, um… Vooju?), but they speak clearly enough that one could understand them even with subtitles turned off. The other characters range from passable to mediocre, sounding more like amateur actors doing funny voices than real people, but none of them are downright offensive. Sadly, it’s impossible to skip lines of dialogue, so if you accidentally repeat a question or examine something twice you must simply bear the repetition.
The music is similarly fine without being memorable, resembling exactly what you’d expect to be playing in the background of a Caribbean-style pirate adventure. There is a theme song at the beginning with actual vocals and lyrics, but the singers are so marble-mouthed I couldn’t understand two words of it. I had an even bigger problem with the audio during cutscenes. As with any PC game, your mileage may vary, but for me in virtually every pre-rendered cinematic the audio either completely dropped out or would repeat the same one-second soundbite over and over again, making the storyline very confusing, especially since the cutscenes don’t have subtitles. This caused me more than a little frustration, but hopefully it’s a glitch that won’t affect everyone.
Though advertised as being double the length, it took me just over seven hours to complete the game without a walkthrough. Still, the multitude of lovely environments and the constant stream of puzzles made the adventure feel epic enough for my tastes. I laughed out loud several times while playing, but given the game’s propensity for one-liners, it would be fair to say they missed a lot more than they hit. It might’ve been better if the game had taken itself slightly more seriously, particularly considering the incredibly anti-climactic climax, which presented the easiest (and simplest) puzzle in the game, followed by a brief, unsatisfying wrap-up. After all that build-up, the heroes exerted about as much energy against the final villains as one would tipping over a lemonade stand, and maybe not even that much.
The time spent reaching that point, however, was a generally entertaining experience, if a little rough around the edges. Pirates aren’t known for their high culture or good manners, so perhaps it’s fitting that playing Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island is like having dinner with a beautiful companion who has lots of interesting things to say, but tends to stutter at key moments, make some infuriatingly incomprehensible hand gestures at times, stuff every exchange with half-hearted one-liners and PG-rated sex jokes, then wander off before dessert arrives without even saying goodbye. But still, in the end, you had a fun time, and if they ask you out again, you know you’d be there in a heartbeat.
A series of small issues prevent it from shining as brightly as it could have, but its fun puzzles in a cool setting make Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island an entertaining adventure.