Review: Crimson: Steam Pirates (iPad) Bungie’s Steampunk Strategy Game Plunders My Heart

photo 2Crimson: Steam Pirates is the first release from Bungie Aerospace, a new division of the beloved Halo developer Bungie, created to help small, independent devs launch their mobile and social games. Boy, oh boy, does this first release from developer Harebrained Schemes really float my boat: Turn-based steampunk pirate battleships!

Yes, Crimson puts you in the boots of newly appointed pirate captain Thomas Blood as he pillages ships, forts, and ladies across the imaginary waves of a 19th century Caribbean Sea full of steam powered ironclads, submarines, and even airships. Sporting a soundtrack ripped straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean and yellow paged mission briefings with pictures of actors in pirate garb, Crimson sells its setting remarkably well. Graphics are clean and crisp, control it tight, and the interface is kept pleasingly minimal. There is no doubt that this was a game created with the tablet in mind as its platform of choice.

photo 3Crimson’s free first chapter puts you at the helm of a single ship and tells the story of Blood assembling his fleet while amassing gold and enemies in equal measure. Movement is plotted in turns by dragging a silhouette of your ship (or, later, airships and submarines) to your destination. The silhouette restricts its placement based on the velocity and heading of the ship from the previous turn. While you cannot choose specific targets for your captains to shoot at, the arc and range of your guns are displayed whenever you are moving a vessel. An action menu can be accessed by tapping the wheel icon at the bow of the silhouette where each vessel can select one special tactic per turn based on the crew members aboard. These special actions, such as packing extra powder into your cannons to increase range or using The Lash to double the speed of your cannon fire, are critical to swift success in Crimson. Knowing when to issue a repair order or cut-and-run under full steam is just as important as lining up a good broadside.

photo 5Once all of your moves have been plotted, a tap of the Play button in the upper right corner sets the game in motion. Using a real time “we-go” system, both your ships as well as the enemies swim around in a dance of death firing and maneuvering in real time for a few seconds. After the real-time resolution, you again have the chance to plot your minions movement and special attack orders. In spite of the turn based nature of the gameflow, Crimson’s minimal interface works so smoothly and turns run so quickly, I found myself constantly engaged in the action. There are just enough options to keep the game interesting, yet not so many that  you will sit plotting you next move for more than a minute or two.

Crimson also has a “pass-and-play” multiplayer mode where 2 people pass a single iPad back and forth before watching the game turn unfold. Sadly, this mode feels like little more than an afterthought. The turn resolution runs without warning immediately following the completion of Player 2’s turn and cannot be replayed. This leads to some awkward timing between taking turns and watching them happen. Map selection is a downright anemic, with only two maps being available for multiplayer. There is no online play.

Online leaderboards are tracked using a Facebook logon and can be accessed via There are no achievements and no access to the more common iOS online systems such as OpenFeint or Game Center. Obviously Bungie has something of their own in mind for the iOS platform, but to release a game, particularly one this polished, without achievements in this day and age is inexcusable. A subsidiary of the studio that created, of all things, Halo, should appreciate this fact.

The price? Crimson: Steam Pirates is available for free! Well, the first chapter is anyway. Chapter 1: Voyages is composed of 8 missions that serve as an extended tutorial to the game. Chapter 2 is available via in-app purchase for a measly $2 and delivers 8 additional scenarios.

photo 4I unreservedly love Crimson: Steam Pirates! Be it the stirring pirate music, the striking visuals of my brass lined ironclads, the wonderfully fluid “we-go” simultaneous turn-based strategy, or the mission where I had to seize a French port and capture a dress for a lady pirate captain ripe for wooing, Crimson hits on all cylinders. This is a fresh, original strategy game built from the ground up to support the iPad. It is polished, professional, and generous with its free demo. Crimson is a must have for anyone with the slightest interest in strategy games and access to an iPad running iOS 4.2 or better.

Crimson: Steam Pirates is available now for the low, low cost of free from the iTunes app store.

Reviewer Rating: 5/5 Stars – Excellent5star

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