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Maelstrom is a combination of tactical naval combat, high fantasy, and a Battle Royale format. Despite the strange sound of it, it actually works out pretty well.

Maelstrom is, as I mentioned, a battle royale first and foremost, but one that’s fought not on an island or a massive continent, but rather over the open seas. Players, in either solo or team modes, try to outlast groups of other players and gather as much treasure as possible in the process. It’s a simple premise, but with a surprising amount of depth, if you’ll pardon the pun.

The game opens with a simple but effective tutorial that only falls short in one department: it doesn’t teach you about different ammo types. Each ship in the game has four different types of ammo they can use and learning when and how to effectively use each and against whom will make the difference between defeat and victory. You have traditional cannonballs or iron shot as the game calls it, which damage shields and the ship’s hull. You’ve got chain balls that damage a ship’s sails and hinder its mobility. There’s grape-shot, which hurts the crew of a ship. Learning to use these and most importantly who to use them against is the key to victory. I know I said it already but it’s worth repeating.

Once you’re through the tutorial, you’re given enough currency to choose your first ship and the game offers a few recommendations for new players. I recommend that you start with one of the recommended ships as they’re often the lower difficulty ships. You can always unlock the other ships as you play with in-game currency.

Speaking of which, the game is rather wishy-washy with how well it distributes currency at first. As you play, the gold you find in matches, regardless of whether you win, is yours to keep. You’ll usually net a few hundred if you’re on the lookout for it, and if you’re playing exceptionally well you can walk away with a thousand or even more. Unfortunately, in this game’s economy, that’s a drop in the bucket. The real piles of gold start pouring in once you begin completing in-game quests and leveling up.

Once you’ve got enough gold jingling around, you can do a number of things to increase your ship’s power level. Upgrading its tier adds new features to your ship that can enhance its strengths or bolster its weaknesses. You can purchase Mate contracts which allow you to recruit Mates for your ship. Your ship can have up to three Mates at once, each of which grants you passive bonuses and can be ranked up as you play with them equipped.

Of course, if you’re not happy with the ship or race you’ve started with, you can always buy another one for 10,000 gold. This is one of the more pricey things you’ll have to buy, other than getting into the higher tiers. The most expensive, however, is a Captain. Captains grant your ship a new useable ability that can really come in handy, but they all cost 150,000 gold. Even once the game starts pouring gold on you more generously, you’ll still be saving for a while before you unlock one of these. Unfortunately the same is true of upgrades past ship tier 5; the game becomes a bit of a grind once you hit this tier of power, with some upgrades costing upwards of 300,000 gold or more.

From a gameplay perspective, Maelstrom holds up well. In fact, I’d say it’s my favorite naval combat game I’ve ever played. Controls are simple; manage your forward velocity with W, turn with A and D, and slow or stop with S. Slowing down or stopping gives you finer control over aiming your cannons, which is done by moving the mouse and adjusting the camera. There’s a trident reticle that shows you where you’re firing, and once you’ve fired it empties and refills to show you how long you have til you can shoot again. Each race in the game has their strengths and weaknesses as well, which affect the gameplay. Dwarf ships are maneuverable, and are the only ones that can sail backward. Orcs excel at ramming into other ships and boarding them, which can be a devastating maneuver to pull on a recently crippled ship. Humans are balanced with decent cannon damage and accurate cannons.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a battle royale without a threatening shrinking border! The play area of Maelstrom does shrink, and as it does it creates what’s called Dead Water. The longer you’re in dead water, the higher the chance that a giant sea monster will show up and devour you. Combine this with the whirlpools that generate around the map that will instantly kill you if you get caught in them, and you’ll find yourself in a truly inhospitable place. Of course there are cool tricks you can do with the whirlpools if you’re savvy, like sailing around them with the current to get a huge speed boost and escape a tight spot or pull off a lightning fast drive by cannon barrage. It’s all just a matter of practice and planning.

Of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the in-game shop. Of course Maelstrom has one, but it’s mostly inoffensive. The only gameplay affecting items you can buy with money are the race specific bundles, which include all that race’s ships and captains, the latter of which increase your ship’s power level. Mates and the like can be bought with in game gold as can the slots to equip them in. There are also cosmetic skins included in the bundles which look cool and even include neat particle effects for your cannon shots!

All in all, Maelstrom is a good-looking, smooth playing pirate battle royale that is without question the most fun I’ve ever had with a naval battler, a genre I’m not especially fond of. If you like ship combat and are looking for something new, it’s definitely worth trying out.

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