Slow-paced strategy and RPG touches do the trick
Saturated by jewels and candy sagas, there's possibly nothing less appealing than another match-three puzzle game on the App Store. Perhaps this is the reason why when one title stands out, it really feels like the creative achievement of the century. Scurvy Scallywags is not quite there but it deserves a space on the app folder of grid-based puzzlers that don't suck, sitting next to 10000000 ten thousands, Puzzle Craft and Triple Town.
The tongue in cheek pirate theme comes with video game pedigree of the creator of the Monkey Island series Ron Gilbert and his team. Pirate credentials aside, Scurvy Scallywags - The Voyage to Discover The Ultimate Sea Shanty is a story driven match-three puzzler with basic customisation and RPG elements that manages to play differently by tweaking a couple of the mechanics you'd come to expect. In fact, the game is much more about strategy than matching, forcing you to think some moves ahead without going into the clinical precision you needed in Triple Town.
The key addition is throwing a character to the board itself to become a tile. Several zombified buccaneers will appear too, not so interested in the loot but your brains. Different types of enemy will behave differently, although they're mainly slow and not too scary.
That's when you realise that clearing a level is not about collecting gold, but staying alive in a slow cat and dog chase; a true game of survival. To ensure you have a chance to escape, the gameplay adds a few twists to the traditional mechanics. Instead of replenishing the board with new items from the top of the screen — like Bejewelled — new tiles appear from the direction you have swiped. This can be disorientating and tricky to get right at the beginning; you would naturally be focused on matching items and not in which direction you are going to match them.
Slow cat and dog chase
As soon as you understand how the board shifts, the next immediate goal is to amass loot in all its forms. The single most important item is purple sword, which adds one attack point to your character. These are crucial to the game to defend yourself in combats. Every enemy has a number of hits you need to match or you're out. If your character is stronger, no problem. When the counter badge on the enemy is red, you'd better get moving.
Every time a zombie arrives to an adjacent tile the game enters a mini frenzy to indicate the upcoming fight. You can try to escape in a desperate swipe or use some of the special abilities. These are power-ups and permanent improvements subject to reload timers based on the amount of moves instead of minutes, which is sensible. All of this matters because when you die, you die. Distracted by the silly dialogues in my first playthrough I dismissed my opportunity to revive my character from the dead for some gold, just to realise the game resets itself if you don’t pay the fee.
Equipped with the not-essential coin doubler and better understanding of the board shifting mechanics I began my adventure again. The levels change ever so slightly to avoid repetition and the different types of enemies encourage you to try new strategies as you combine more advanced power ups in line with the type of game you want to play. There's even one to forfeit a game without begin punished because the old trick of restarting the app is not going to work.
Style, style, style
While the core game on its own puts Scurvy Scallywags high in the list of games to kill five minutes, there are plenty of nice touches that add to the experience and make it a more complete product. The number of side quests (based on collecting special items) is difficult to track but still rewarding. There's a meta game to build pirate ships with the scraps collected during the game, which awards you permanent ability boosts. The cartoony 2D visuals with pastel colours on grainy textures, similar to recycled paper, giving it a lot of personality.
Scurvy Scallywags has moments or frenetic activity toned down by the lack of a timer to complete a level. The assurance that the board will always offer a suitable combination inevitable encourages you to out game the machine, predicting the next move. There's no way to get stuck and have to pay for free-to-play helpers though. In here you are offered to pay virtual coins if you die or start from scratch, which adds a true reason to think your moves properly and keep playing until late at night.