Sea of Thieves: A Pirate’s Life Review

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E3 press junkets tend to be a publisher’s nightmare with regards to leaks – Microsoft being one of the prime candidates.  So I was elated when one of their conference’s biggest surprises was Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean universe crossing over to Rare’s popular pirate game.  The Games-as-a-Service (GaaS) model didn’t help Sea of Thieves when it just started, but there’s no denying the tremendous sea legs three years later.  With this free full-blown expansion, A Pirate’s Life, new energy is coursing through its sinews in a way few other titles can match.

A new guest has settled at every outpost.  Known only as “The Castaway,” this mysterious sojourner with a familiar Caribbean accent has made a tent separate from every other trading company.  Her origins are unknown, but you might be able to place that voice.  Along with her come five Tall Tales, mini-campaigns mixed in with Sea of Thieves’ always-online PVP world.  She beckons you to find the famous Captain Jack Sparrow in the hopes of preventing Davy Jones, Captain of The Flying Dutchman, from conquering these oceans.

New Horizons

Pirate's Life Ship
Ahoy there!

One of the crucial aspects Rare wanted to capture was incorporating the theme park ride into the overarching game world.  For those familiar with this game’s rules, that can be worrisome with the potential of other dastardly pirates wanting to interrupt your game.  Fortunately, a couple of Tall Tales take place in a first-ever PVE locale while others are tucked away from nearby islands.  This mix-n-match goes far in convincing you how intertwined these previously disparate worlds have become.  It’s solid world-building.

Naturally, how much you enjoyed Disney’s quintology will likely determine your enjoyment.  One of cinema’s most affable knaves, Captain Jack Sparrow, plays a central role here.  How he perpetually vaunts his abilities while casually slurring through the dialogue is what made him so offbeat and fun.  From the dress to demeanor, there really wasn’t a film character like him before and voice actor Jared Butler adequately captures that attitude; plus, he avoids Sparrow’s diminishing returns that’d been built up from the later films’ sub-par screenplays.  A video game provides a better return to form than Hollywood at this point.

Outside of connecting with the movie franchise, A Pirate’s Life succeeds at capturing the theme park atmosphere.  Each new tale feels like the ride’s moving dioramas: the endearing pulp adventure comes to life within each scene.  There’s also potential for replayability with friends too.  Along with optional collectibles, you may miss part of an action setpiece because you were distracted by a fight or something else.  Scanning portions of this world to see any stories these ghosts reveal is part of the fun.

Best Tall Tales Yet?

Pirate's Life Enemies
The Coral Reefer Band

Considering how often online-only GaaS games tend to be bland stories, I came away surprised with this woven yarn.  By holding steadfast to the foundation Rare had built with previous Tall Tales, it’s so easy to get sucked into more world-building that effectively alters The Sea of Thieves forever.  You can also tell these writers simply had fun with this opportunity.  The writing blends with the broad strokes of the ride’s playfulness, the array of enemies feel suitably daunting, and it feels like a succinct story.  Though not to the same level, it’s closer to Curse of the Black Pearl than At World’s End.

Ah, but these Tales bring more than a story.  There’s a pleasant amount of gameplay additions – the most yet within an update.  Ever since The Hungering Deep, the first expansive update three years ago, Tall Tales tend to emphasize more work than following a red X on a map.  Accomplishing brief puzzles or platforming tasks was necessary to score the loot.  This expansion doubles down on such expectations.  The modest variety in plot-progressing conundrums, along with a few ancillary ones tucked away, are often well-incorporated into the world – even if not being difficult.

You don’t notice how meager your plate is until seeing a buffet platter for a few dollars more.  That’s how I’d describe on-foot combative encounters until this expansion arrived.  Sure, different skeleton types can vary tactics; and yet, seeing these creatures of varied sizes feels so refreshing.  Sharks aren’t your only water-bound basic enemy either.  Devious sirens will gladly swim towards you for a quick skewering if you’re not careful.  Land-based enemies include pirate phantoms & three ocean crawler variants: the melee/ranged eel-ectric hybrid, the medium-sized crab, and the brutish hermit.  Their dynamics bounce off each other, both within this expansion’s quests and in regular Sea of Thieves too.

Some Rum To Clean The Dirty Water

Pirate's Life Jack Sparrow
Not all treasure is silver and gold, mate.

All is not perfect though, especially with respect to technical issues.  Many of the worst segments are found in Chapter Two.  Not only does it get long-in-the-tooth with various puzzles and longwinded swimming portions, but it’s also peppered with weird design flaws that need polishing.  Acting as level segments, bubble thresholds would occasionally lockout a friend who’d fallen a bit behind until a story or combat scenario had been completed.  Another current qualm is the sporadically reliable pulley system.  There were several nefarious pullies that demanded insane precision with the left thumbstick to raise or lower a platform.  I have no idea how such a simple mechanic as pulling a rope demanded a blood sacrifice to properly function.  This weird annoyance circled back in on itself so often that I started laughing every time I had trouble.

Such obnoxious issues never invade the wonderful presentation, however.  Similar to the upgraded enemy list, these artists flexed their collective muscles in standing out from the more expected island template found across the base game.  The City of Tortuga, colorful subterranean caverns aplenty, and so on, Rare’s story-focused level design results in some of the series’ best thus far.  The locales sell the adventure.  On top of the previously mentioned Jared Butler, the other voice actors adequately sell their roles too.  But one of my favorite inclusions are lines from the ride replicated here.  The raspy “Dead Man Tell No Tales!” blasted through an old speaker system put a smile on my face.  It’s not simply the fastidious technical sophistication; it’s the abundance of care that shines through.

Assessing an aspect like value tends to get dicey for “free” expansions like this; after all, I’m no stranger to stern assessments on stuff given to me.  What’s buoyed the main game’s usual price point ($30 retail) for so long is the boatloads of free content.  It’s one of the few GaaS success stories.  Keeping this ship afloat is the expected Battle Pass & other purchasable cosmetics.  Needless to say, Disney goodies – even digital ones – don’t come cheap.  As cool as dressing your ship as The Black Pearl would be, you’re practically rebuying the game again to have that privilege.  Even the less-steep Jack Sparrow & Crew costume set will cost $10.  Rare’s getting too tongue-in-cheek when their Pirate Emporium is pulling some underhanded tactics.  Take what you can, give nothing back!

They’ll Create Sea Shanties From Our Adventures!

Pirate's Life Horizon
The closest parking spot isn’t necessarily the safest.

Veneration courses through every artery of this expansion.  Despite the rough waters at launch, Rare has continued improving Sea of Thieves’ hull for years now.  That’s now culminated with a collaborative effort that spring-boarded more creative level design and greater enemy variety.  I teased about this being “the best crossover I’ve ever seen,” and it could’ve been up there were it not for some pesky issues damaging my appreciation.  It’s weird to seem picky with a free expansion, but that comes tied with some new pricey microtransactions.  Taking away these complaints, A Pirate’s Life is still a pleasant shot in the arm for this series and among 2021’s best expansions.


TechRaptor reviewed Sea of Thieves: A Pirate’s Life on Xbox Series X with a copy of the DLC freely downloaded by the reviewer. It is also available on Xbox One & PC.

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