Saturday, September 04, 2010

Ancient Trader Review

Ancient Trader, developed and published by 4kids Games.
The Good: Clear-cut trading, exquisite map graphics, ship upgrades and side quests, monstrous enemies, randomly generated maps, card battles combine luck and strategy
The Not So Good: No online multiplayer, can’t save game progress, repetitive, limited AI
What say you? Distinctive visuals and straightforward mechanics highlight this turn-based trading game with abbreviated features for the PC: 6/8

The ancient seas were full of peril. It took a special breed of man to take on the salty ocean and all the terrible evil it contains: giant squid, dragons, serpents, Miley Cyrus. The early cartographers made sure to include such beasts on their highly accurate maps depicting the wonders of the ocean. Of course, these dangers are totally real and still exist, so it’s about time someone came up with a faithful simulation of the perils of oceanic travel. Ancient Trader is a trading game where you shuttle goods from port to port, battle monsters, upgrade your ship, and make lots of money. How does this more casual title compare to other trading games? And, more importantly, will I get eaten by a whale?

I would wager that it’s the graphics that draw most people towards Ancient Trader, and for good reason: the game looks fantastic. The game uses the aesthetic of an old map to great effect, instantly placing the game in a historical setting without any need for exposition. The level of detail is very good, from the ship and monster designs to the individual islands scattered around the seas. Ancient Trader is also animated in a subtle and effective manner, bringing the dangerous high seas to life. The game features one of the best maps in any computer game. The background music is restrained and the sound effects are few, but I feel both fit the overall mood of Ancient Trader.

Ancient Trader has you taking to the high seas in search for money, danger, and more money. The single player game offers three levels of difficulty that gives the AI slightly better equipment to start with on several set designs or randomized maps of three sizes. Each of the single player games has a single goal: defeat the Ancient Guardian (a giant fish thing) by collecting three artifacts scattered around various ports and engaging it in a final battle for naval dominance. Tutorial messages are incorporated in the game as you play, which serve to teach the simple mechanics effectively. You cannot save your progress, though: games are somewhat short (30 minutes to one hour, depending on map size), but you should always have the option. Multiplayer is tragically limited on the PC: only hotseat options are available, as the online capabilities are restricted to the evil consoles. Up to four human players plus up to four AI players can take on maps of the three sizes. The only real difference between the multiplayer hotseat and the single player modes is the ability to change the objectives, adding in cash and wealth options for determining victory.

The interface in Ancient Trader is obviously designed for a television console, as the data display takes up almost half of the screen, obscuring the map and requiring more scrolling. The game does clearly show ship range as you navigate the treacherous waters and hunt (or avoid) monsters that move about the map hunting for you. There is also an assortment of loot to be found floating in the ocean: cash, cargo, directions to an unknown port, increased speed, and a maelstrom that transports you to a random location. Most of your explorations, however, will be focused on finding ports for trade and artifacts.

Most of your explorations will be focused on finding ports for trade and artifacts. It’s like I just said that! Each port has access to three goods (tea, spices, and fruit); each item has a clearly marked price that is fixed for each port throughout the course of each game. While this system obviously doesn’t take supply and demand into account, it does it make very easily to set up profitable trade routes quickly (a little too easily for advanced players). Each port also gives you access to three upgrades for a monetary cost that increases with each level: better combat cards, larger cargo space, and faster speed. The combat card bonuses change from port to port, so extensive exploration is key to maximize your firepower. You can also embark on simple quests: deliver an item, find a hidden port, or kill a monster terrorizing the locals. These are quite repetitive but offer significant enough rewards where they should not be ignored. Quests also give some direction and purpose to occasionally monotonous trading runs.

Combat in Ancient Trader is card-based. You are given three cards (red, green, blue), the power of which is determined by how much your upgraded them at each port (you did upgrade them, didn’t you?). Each card has another color against which is receives a two-point bonus, and here is where the strategy lies: which card do you play first? Which card will your opponent play first? Which card will your opponent think you will play first? This initial tension (which is present in every battle that involves cards of similar ability levels) is much more intriguing against a human opponent (which is why online multiplayer is such a sad missing feature), because you feel like the AI might be picking things at random. There are occasions where the computer does “outplay” you, or so you think (maybe it was just chance). There is a significant amount of luck with the battles: ties are broken randomly, and you might need multiple attempts to “luck out” against the most powerful monsters. Ancient Trader is about 75% luck, 25% skill, which I suppose is no different from games that use dice rolls to determine the results. A successful battle earns you cash, but a loss costs money or cargo. The AI overall is a very efficient trader (especially on higher difficulty maps) and will seek out the most profitable routes, but they ultimately offer no challenge as the computer opponents do not collect the artifacts required to defeat the ancient guardian, even on the highest difficulty level. It took me about three games to get the mechanics down and then I was able to easily beat the AI on the default victory condition every time.

With Ancient Trader, you come for the graphics and stay for the gameplay, at least for a little while. The map is beautiful, a testament to how great 2-D graphics can still trump three dimensions. The game’s oceanic settings can also be randomly generated: while the individual islands will become familiar, their locations will not. Trade is very straightforward: constant prices are clearly displayed, making so that anybody can accomplish efficient trade easily. The seas are populated with dangerous monsters, which at first are avoided but later hunted for cash rewards. Quests are also available to earn more money, usually involving finding a specific location or taking on powerful sea dwellers. Money earned through trade and combat can be spent upgrading your ship’s attack ratings, speed, and cargo hold. Combat is card-based, where specific cards best others; it favors luck more than skill, but still serves as a slightly more interesting resolution than simple dice rolls. The AI isn’t up to the challenge, though: while they are able traders, even on the highest difficulty setting they did not fulfill the game’s basic collect-and-kill objective. This problem would be alleviated by robust multiplayer support, but the developers sadly only allow for hotseat competition on the PC. Despite some limited features and a feeling of repetition after a couple of games, I enjoyed looking at and playing Ancient Trader more than some other trading games. For $10, the casual experience is worth the price of admission. Just watch out for the Kraken.