Yo-ho-ho and some kid-friendly fun!
Growing up, I knew Playmobil only as a company that made cool toys of pirates and knights that were too expensive to buy without getting a job, which turned out to be illegal before age 10. Modern kids have it easier, as Playmobil Pirates from Playmobil Interactive and Gameloft lets them build their own pirate island and sail out for adventure for free on their iPhones or iPads. Lucky whippersnappers.
Of course there’s nothing that says that Playmobil Pirates has to be played by kids, but its pixel perfect recreations of Playmobil figures and playsets definitely point it toward a younger crowd. Yet it has many game mechanics that will feel familiar to anyone who has played any number of mobile and social titles, as you slowly assemble a pirate crew capable of taking on the infamous pirate Blackbeard – or at least his toy version.
Most of that work is done in builder form, transforming a series of islands into your very own pirate outpost. The local tavern has a steady supply of enterprising pirates who will join up for the right price. Once you recruit them, they can be put to work clearing out rocks and vegetation to open up more space. Other pirates have their own specialties, like fighting off dangerous wildlife.
Your scallywags will also need houses, which also produce gold doubloons (let’s grab ’em and go!) and experience points on a regular basis. Workshops can manufacture tools that will speed up different kinds of pirate tasks. That’s important since time is the lone constraint on your activity, and some things simply take a long time to do.
Defenses like fortresses and cannons are also a must, because your hideout will be attacked every few minutes by small groups of seaborne enemies. In the early stages, these are skeletons in rowboats, but presumably the danger increases as you advance. You are able to see the path the invaders will take, and since the defenses fire automatically, fighting off attacks is a matter of making sure you have the firing arcs of enough guns covering the right places.
Successfully repelling an attack opens up the other major attraction, which is the sailing mini-game. Each expedition is split between firing cannons at angry octopi, rays and enemy ships and blowing up floating barrels. The battles start out calm enough for everyone but intensify the longer you play, though the initial excitement does wear off after a while. A pile of doubloons awaits if you make it to your destination in one piece.
Better ships are the biggest reason you’ll find yourself wanting Gems, the premium currency that you’ll receive in small doses every time you level up. Quests can help you advance at a faster pace, relatively speaking anyway. The option to buy Gems for real money is also available, naturally.
A bunch of social features are also on board. Friends can be added through Facebook or Gameloft Live for the usual gift-exchanging and reciprocal island-visiting. Support is also built in for sending out notifications through both social networks when you level up or do something equally noteworthy.
All of these pirate adventures take place in a world that really feels alive. Pirates with no assigned duties wander your islands alongside interactive animals like turtles and monkeys. There’s a constant sense of motion thanks to flags blowing in the breeze, your ship bobbing in the harbor and clouds drifting overhead. The lone visual gripe is that the 3D nature of the buildings and some of the scenery occasionally gets in the way of tapping on some of the characters. Pinching to zoom helps, but a rotate function would have been even more helpful.
When it comes to a recommended age range, both my four-year old son and six-year old daughter were interested in trying out different aspects of Playmobil Pirates, but neither could handle all aspects of the gameplay without some help. Reading is essential for understanding some of the quests, suggesting that perhaps ages 7 and up can handle the game without any adult assistance.
Playmobil Pirates is proof that it’s possible to make a mobile game that appeals to younger gamers without dumbing it down, as well as a kid-oriented game that might also get some adults to try it. At the very least, parents shouldn’t be too distraught about spending some time in the islands during the lengthy quest to bring Blackbeard to justice. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go make sure the boys are hacking down some palm trees.