After a few years in Early Access, the multiplayer pirate combat title Blackwake gets an official full release. Being a game made by a tiny dev team that relies heavily on word of mouth rather than a big marketing budget, it’s the kind of title that often slips under the radar. However, Blackwake has a lot going for it, and can be considered a hidden, if slightly cloudy, gem.

The most defining feature of Blackwake is it’s ship management. In a similar manner to Sea of Thieves, each player controls a single character in first person, and every action on the ship has to be carried out by the player in the correct part of whatever ship they may be on. Loading a cannon requires picking up a gunpowder charge and loading it, selecting the type of shot and loading it, ramming the cannon, pushing it out, equipping the taper and firing it, which then resets the process. Reloading your gun as you catch cannonballs fly towards your ship in your peripheral vision and smash into the hull is a tense experience. Damage from enemy canon fire causes holes to appear where the shots impact the ship, which have to be repaired individually. Holes cause the water level in the ship to rise, so one or more players will need to pump out the water at the bilge pump(s) to enable the canons to continue firing and to stop the ship sinking. Sails can also be damaged, so a player would have to jump onto the rigging and climb it in order to repair the damage. None of these actions are complicated, and any player can undertake any task on the ship, which avoids people being relegated to certain positions. The beauty of this system is that each task is simple enough as to not alienate less experienced players, but having a well organised crew can make all the difference in a fight. Having your team manage the operation of the ship in this manner also makes Blackwake a rather unique experience.

You will be spending a lot of time slinging cannonballs at enemy ships, and thankfully the game gives you some variety here. Your bread and butter is the standard cannonball, which causes a hole on impact and can kill enemy crew. Heated shot can be created by placing canonballs on a heat grate for three minutes, after which they will turn to heated shot. Scoring a hit with these causes a fire on the target vessel, which can cause massive issues for the crew if left unchecked. Bar and chain shot also exist to damage masts and sails, but they are unfortunately rarely used. At closer ranges, you can make use of grapples and grapeshot. Grapeshot causes no holes but acts like a shotgun blast that can take out multiple enemies at once. Grapples cause a boarding action to take place, which is a key part of the game. When the boarding action is underway, both ships are immobilised whilst one or more grapples are in place, and the ships are pulled towards each other. Additionally, neither ship can sink from its holes, or be holed during the action. At such close range, you can bring your melee and hand weapons to bear, which mixes things up a bit. Respawn times are ramped up to over a minute, and if an entire crew is killed, that side’s ship will immediately sink. For this reason, grapples are often paired with grapeshot in order to maximise the chances of a successful boarding. Boarding actions are both a tactical option and nice way to mix up the combat, preventing matches from becoming a total long range slugfest, as a damaged but prepared ship can win a boarding action and advantage their team.

There’s also some variety in ship options, which are chosen by captains both at the start of the round and when respawning after being sunk. In each game type (with the exception of the defending side in siege), each side will have a large ship and two smaller ships. Captains can choose between ships with different deck layouts, gun positions, speeds, size and maneuverability. Captaining a ship is fairly simple, if sometimes a bit tricky, especially against more experienced enemy captains. This is one of the areas that sticks out as being less newbie-friendly. A key aspect of this is that as the captain controls the steering, they are effectively doing the majority of the aiming for the gunners. It can be frustrating to not be able to get this technique correct when also taking fire from enemy ships, making things even more difficult. As a result, it can discourage newer players from trying out captaining ships, and can often cause teams to be stacked towards sides with more experienced players. it’s a good idea that if you want to captain a ship but don’t have much time behind the wheel, join one of the small ships rather than trying to captain a large vessel.

With a game made by such a small development team, it’s understandable that there would be a few rough edges, and Blakewake is unfortunately no exception to this. There are a few things that stick out that mar the overall experience. Graphically, the game isn’t terrible looking, but it does feel a bit cheap and dated. The most glaring aesthetic issue, however is the animations. Players bunny hop around, weapon swings look floaty and unnatural, and the lack of climbing animations causes crewmates to awkwardly glide up the rigging of the ships. As a result of these animation issues, melee combat feels quite awkward, which can detract from the enjoyment of boarding actions and Siege mode. On the plus side, the creators have embraced a slight ridiculous edge to the game with the voice acting and dialogue from the Navy team, as well as allowing you to pull out a fresh cup of tea from your inventory and sip it gently for some health regeneration. The sound design, in contrast to the aesthetic features, is solid, with weapons making beefy noises, mortar rounds screaming before impact, and ships crunching as they hit each other or take damage.

Blackwake offers three game mode options. Team Deathmatch is the most common, which results in three ships on each side trying to sink each other to reduce the enemy ticket count to zero. Capture the Booty is an interesting game mode in which you are required to grab the single booty chest and get it back to your team’s base, resulting in more boarding actions and land based combat on the islands. These games can be tense, but can also drag on a bit if both sides are similarly matched. Siege involves an attacking team using its ships to attack a fort, resulting in a sea combat section followed by a land section. Siege is generally the weakest mode, due to the aforementioned issues with the close quarters combat. The maps also have a few environmental hazards that are sometimes thrown in, including waterspouts, dangerous ice patches and volcano eruptions which darken the sky (no Krakens unfortunately).

Blackwake’s style of gameplay makes it a fun and compelling title with a playstyle that differs a great deal from other multiplayer games on the market. The way that the game naturally encourages teamwork and co-ordination through the way you operate the ship makes the experience all the more engaging, if at times a bit frustrating for less experienced crews. There’s a bit of bilge water and some barnacles in places, and I wish the melee combat was more refined, but overall, it’s a multiplayer experience not to miss.