One instance of the proverbial slap in the face is going into a game knowing it’s not going to be that great and finding out you were absolutely right. This has been my experience with Sea Trader.
The name of a game can tell you a lot. Sea Trader is, not surprisingly, all about sea trading. Beginning on a map of South China (and later gaining access to other areas), you sail to different cities and buy/trade goods. That’s it. That’s the meat of the game. I could end the review right here. Okay, there’s actually a little strategy involved. You have to watch how the prices of certain items vary from city to city. You can also receive leads from the taverns as to where you should be focusing your attention. If the city of Guangzhou undergoes a drought, food items will sell at unbelievable prices there. On the other end, if Shanghai is producing too much silk, you can pick that up at 100 “tael” per unit and turn around and sell it for 900 taels at another city. So what do you do with all this money? Buy upgrades, of course! Not only will you have to periodically repair damages to your ship, you can upgrade your speed, power, defence, and storage. As you travel across the world map, you will have frequent (and random) encounters with pirates, other traders, coast guards, and even sea monsters. Through these interactions, you can sell black market items, find rarer items, or get into serious trouble.
This isn’t like Sid Meier’s Pirates with sword fights, real-time ship battles, and ballroom dancing. Sea Trader does everything automatically through menus and icons. You do not get to walk around the harbours or travel the ocean at will. You select where you want to go or what you want to do, and a menu pops up. Even battling pirates play out like a turn-based RPG. It gets kind of boring not being able to do anything.
I haven’t played a game this static since the days of text-based adventures. The only movement comes from watching your boat travel across the map to other harbours. A game of this nature doesn’t need flashy graphics to get its point across, but Sid Meier’s Pirates works on a similar atmosphere and demonstrates much more pizzazz. If anything, the lack of animation keeps the game moving along at a quickened pace. It would get irritating to have to watch the same elaborate scenes every time you made a trade or battled a ship. Be thankful for that.
As much as I like menus, I can’t play a game that relies solely on them for very long. The most I can stomach of Sea Trader in one sitting is about 20 minutes. The game can last much longer than that, however. The key word here is “can.” Though you can choose to play one year, three years, or 18 years, it’s all the same! It’s all a bunch of repetitive trading. Games like The Sims and Harvest Moon handle repetition in a much more engaging way. Sea Trader is not that engaging, but it does have its rewarding moments, like when you just made over 30,000 taels by selling a stock of silk. This is a perfect game to carry with you and play in short bursts whenever time prohibits something more intricate, but I wouldn’t let it take precedence over WarioWare, Harvest Moon, Denki Blocks, and just about any other “minute” game.
I realize I didn’t say much about this game, but there really isn’t anything to say. Sea Trader is very, very, very simple. This outrageous simplicity begins to make the game feel like a waste of time. Going from harbour to and swapping goods with the occasional five-second pirate run-in are mechanics better suited as small but detailed extensions of a larger structure. I’ll give the game some credit, because scoring a major trade is a rewarding business, and racking up virtual money is always a pleasure to some degree. It isn’t pleasurable enough for me to recommend running to the nearest Gamestop and ordering Sea Trader by name, however. There isn’t enough here to make it worth it. Skip this one and play Risk with the family. You’ll feel better about yourself. I promise.