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Page 3 of 6Combat & Companions
While I'll talk a little more about voodoo and gun combat below, it should be noted that specializing in swords (be they rapiers or sabers) is always an option no matter what path you choose, and is always available as a fall-back. Combat is your usual PB fare if you use swords, a fairly simple and intuitive system of timed combinations of strikes, while also being able to parry and riposte an opponent's attacks. Combat with humans is a more involved series of blocks and counter-strikes, while combat with animals usually involves moving out of the way of their charges or kicking them as they get too close. The attacks of monsters and animals can't be blocked, and fights with these creatures usually end with trying to stunlock them with a series of strikes. As you grow more accustomed the game you'll get used to certain opponents strengths and weaknesses, for instance how ghouls need strong blows to help keep them at bay and finish them quickly.
The close combat has been pared down to only one-handed rapiers or sabers, which feel slightly different in use (sabers are heavier and slower). The combat is spiced up by the item you have in your off-hand, activated by the E button. This is alternatively a pistol or a dirty trick item. Pistols are always available, unlike muskets and shotguns, and are single-shot (or for one of them, two-shot) items that take off a lick of the opponent's health if you land a shot (which is determined by distance and your character's skill). Dirty tricks are things like coconuts, sand, or a trained parrot that you set on opponents to stun them. Dirty tricks belongs to the Cunning attribute character development, and while I never used it much it's a nice alternative. Throwing knives and spears round up the bunch, though I really did not see them as worthwhile to invest in.
A rather big deal for both the combat and the story are your companions. They are determined by the story early on, as you travel with Patty and (a bit later) Steelbeard. Once you get your own ship, you have a full crew. There's three companions at first: Patty, a cook and either the voodoo witch or Inquisition sharpshooter. As you travel, you can add a mad doctor whose soul is stuck in the underworld, and the gnome Jaffar, who is traveling to fulfill his gnomish right of passage by finding a valuable item to take back to his village and show his fellow gnomes. Each of these characters is very colorful, not in the least Jaffar, who was taught the human tongue by pirates and uses swearwords as punctuation. You can periodically talk to them about your progress and they will sometimes bring up their own comments in dialog (though they never impact dialog). It feels kind of like a Bioware-lite version of the follower mechanics, with the emphasis on lite; taking along followers or talking with followers are in no way obligated, and there's no like/dislike mechanic, nor any romantic options. Sorry, gnome fetishists.
They do have a significant impact on the game's balance, as each of them is immortal, though they can be knocked out during a fight. I particularly found the sharpshooter Venturo outright game-breaking, as he has infinite ammo for his musket and will take down the average enemy in two shots, and usually draw the attention of the bigger threats like tomb spiders or gorillas to himself. Even though you can only take along one followers, it does make the game significantly easier. The developers seemingly realized the follower mechanic is pretty exploitable, and finds excuses at several key points to separate you from your companions. None of them will travel to the Isle of the Dead, or there's a wall of fire only you can pass. These areas immediately tend to be much harder, especially if you were lax in investing in combat skills as the companion can often deal with the opposition well enough.
I discussed the character system in-depth in my preview. The gist of it is: there are no levels, instead you gain Glory (experience) which you invest directly into attributes. Increasing your attributes allows you to learn passive and active skills from teachers around the world for gold. Your attributes, passive skills and items all function to increase your talents, which then determines things like your combat prowess or your ability to pick locks or convince or intimidate people in dialog.
As systems go, it's a fairly simple but also very effective one. There's no infinite pool of gold or glory, and progression feels natural and fairly well-paced. It's not particularly quick as you do not gain either gold or glory very fast, and you do often have to think carefully on where you're going to invest available points and gold, or whether to save up for the next big update.
The skill system in particular is interesting but underutilized. While the passive ones that simply add to your talent score are rote, there's a large amount of interesting skills to learn as you progress. It offers crafting skills: distilling for healing items, potion making for temporary and permanent boost potions, or sword and gun-making, with sword-making in particular allowing access to high-level, unique weapons, the parts of which you can discover during your travels. It offers thieving and dialog skills, like sneak, pickpocketing and intimidate. It also has a lot of unique ideas on offer: monkey training, where you release a monkey to go into a house and pick up items, 'nuff said, where you end an ongoing dialog by drawing your pistol and shooting the other person (often a solution to a quest or circumventing a fight), voodoo mind control, and more. If anything, the sense you get here is that the designers were adding too many "neat ideas", the consequences of which is most of them are underutilized.