English pirate Edward Lowe had a reputation for cruelty, not least because he was unpredictable.
No one could forecast how the world's most notorious pirate would respond in any given situation. One day he might find the grace to let a seized ship's crew live, while demanding their execution the next. It made him a scary force with whom to reckon.
Plunderland is consistent in its creativity and quality, yet equally unpredictable when it comes to combat. Like the infamous Lowe, you just never know what you're going to get from one moment to the next.
Ready to jibe
It's a fearsome quality for a game that does an admirable job of condensing the plundering and pillaging work of a high seas criminal into tilts and taps on your iPhone or iPod touch. Tilting your device moves your ship, whereas sliding a finger away from the hull and lifting it from the screen fires a cannonball.
These basics see you through three campaigns and a Survival mode in which your only goal is to seize plunder and make it to the end of each side-scrolling stage with your ship intact.
Beginning with incursions against native islanders and developing into an all-out war with the British empire, there are plenty of targets for your cannon fire notwithstanding visitations from the creatures of the deep.
Sending islanders and British naval officers to Davy Jones's locker isn't the primary objective - it's amassing treasure. Sinking ships nets you gold, as does literally shaking down island villages. You can also dig for treasure, flicking away locals if they happen to intrude upon your plundering.
Knots in the line
The wonderfully tactile gameplay makes Plunderland feel fresh and energetic. It's clear that developer Johnny Two Shoes approached the design thoughtfully, taking care to utilise the touchscreen and accelerometer in meaningful ways. Yet, the controls aren't always predictable.
Whenever the screen becomes crowded with ships, people, objects, and aquatic animals, maintaining control over your ship and its crew is difficult. Placing an overboard pirate back onto your deck, for example, is pretty tough to do when the surrounding waters are filled with British sailors, islanders, and coins. It's common to pick up an enemy and deposit him on your ship instead of your own crew.
Equally as tricky is firing cannons. Calm waters give way to chop and stormy waves that make aiming troublesome. This is intentional and any difficulty firing upon enemies is rightly challenging. However, it's irksome that the targeting system toys with your aim if you move while attempting to fire at the same time. Most battles require firing while stationary, then quickly moving to evade enemy attacks.
Letters of marque
Such annoyances are incidental to the positives of such a hands-on interface, not to mention the larger issue of the game's structure and balancing. Plunderland isn't a tough game, yet the difficulty ramps up in such a way that you're forced to repeatedly replay levels.
Facing a fleet of powerful British ships or strong sea monsters requires upgrades that cost more money than can be earned in a single play. Even if you manage to collect every coin, a single run through the first two campaigns is barely enough to purchase a ship. Hauling in enough plunder for badly needed boosts involves replaying levels.
This unstated repetition is a greater tax on Plunderland than any perceived control nuisances. Any replay ought to be voluntary, not tied to progress. It's unfortunate that progress is slowed in this way because there's so much to like about Plunderland. It's charming, energetic, and a little unpredictable, but worth playing.