Review: Skyward Collapse

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It’s not hard to find games with great ideas and poor executions. Having a great or unique concept is only the first step to translating that into a great game, and the path there is rarely clear or easy. That’s what I was expecting going into Skyward Collapse, based on what buzz there was surrounding it. But what I got was something far more engaging than that, something that filled its concept out and gave me plenty to do with it. It’s still not a perfect or even great treatment, but it’s enough to keep me playing.

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In Skyward Collapse you are some kind of divine force, overseeing a world coming together piece by piece. There are two burgeoning societies in this floating realm, pulled straight from tales of Greek and Norse antiquity. They don’t particularly care for each other, though, and given the chance they will wipe the other out as quickly as possible. Your charge is to help them BOTH flourish, without annihilating the other… at least for a time.

So yes, the hook here is turn-based strategy against yourself. Every turn you have three actions you can perform for the red side, building structures or casting god powers, and then three actions for the blue side. Once you’ve taken all your actions the little mortals take over, producing their own militaries from the resources and structures you help them set up, and then marching out to murder each other. You have nearly no control over units once they are produced, aside from some basic rally and upgrade powers. That means the challenge is not found in battle, but in the logistics supplying each side.

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The overly clever readers among you may have already raised a finger to interject, supposing that you could just NOT produce soldiers from either side and live in forced harmony. It’s not that simple, of course, because each game takes place over three eras of lots of other shit happening. Bandits, warlords, and monsters can (and will) emerge from the forests and caves of the world to destroy the towns you’ve worked so hard to grow. There are also woes which strike the world every dozen turns or so, inflicting plagues, disasters, and other horrors that may need a military to deal with. And then from the second era, literal gods descend to the continent to take a hand in matters themselves. Rounding things out is a scoring system that gives points for conflict and destruction, and you have quotas to meet to reach future eras and win the game.

You can’t get by without building troops and defenses for your towns, and as situations spiral out of control you can dig deeper and deeper into your bag of frankly ridiculous divine tricks. On a basic level you can upgrade key units, bless your settlements with emergency resources, or lay new tiles of land to benefit the side in need. Once you get more established you can drop mythical creatures like minotaurs and valkyries to bolster your armies, or divine blessings that provide huge bonuses to the troops that reach them (and we’re talking like 100x damage or 5x attacks per turn here). And then there are special tokens and god powers with global effects, like cloning every unit on the map, dropping 20 invulnerable minotaurs randomly, or annihilating every unit in existence.

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Your insane god powers are the real highlight of the game, and also what illustrate Skyward Collapse’s greatest weakness. In my first game I combined those clone and minotaur powers with another one that returned dead units and filled the entire map with mythical murderbeasts over the course of five turns. It was wild and hilarious but obviously I lost the game as they razed all of existence to the ground. And that’s the problem… to win, you have to work as hard as you can NOT to let things get that wild. Your score targets require you to foment conflict but not TOO much conflict, lest one side get out of control and destroy the other. To succeed you have to hold back as much as possible, only expanding your forces enough to handle bandits and maintain the balance, and that’s disappointing in light of all the ridiculous chaos you could be sowing.

Add to that the fact that most of your time is spend building towns and managing resource quotas, and the game can start to drag once you’re taking long turns to plan out new settlements or calculate how to distribute blessings to make a pitched battle a draw. That brings me to my one big knock against Skyward Collapse, that games are just too long for what they are. The standard game length is over a hundred turns, where each one could take five minutes or more to plot out necessary developments. I don’t mind the challenge of balancing conflict, in fact that’s what sucked me in, but it gets tiresome after three hours in the same game. On the bright side, there are a boatload of options in customizing your games and shorter eras is definitely an option everyone should explore there.

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In the end, Skyward Collapse turned out to be a great idea that works well, just not perfectly. Its flaws are big enough that they should give people pause, but specific enough that they won’t spoil the game for everyone. It’s also a really nice-looking game, with some excellent landscape and building art and decent enough units that make it one of Arcen’s most attractive titles to me. The soundtrack is oddly jazzy and relaxing which works better with the theme than I expected, and surely made it easier to while away hours building cities to be razed. Skyward Collapse isn’t for everyone, but if you think it might be then it’s definitely worth a shot.

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