Review: Merchant of the Skies
Review copy provided by developer
I am a huge fan of trading sims, which leaves me forever lamenting the lack of them on Steam. The Patrician and Port Royale games have provided me many thrilling hours of buying low and selling high, but beyond them the few offerings there are tend to be overly complicated or poorly balanced. Merchant of the Skies caught my eye immediately with its soft, charming pixel art, and after playing several fevered hours I can say that interest was well-rewarded. This one falls on the simpler side of trading sims, but if you’re not looking for charts and production chains then this one will provide all the coffee-break mercantile action you need.
You begin as every other video game merchant does, inheriting your business from your kindly uncle. Gifting you a tiny airship and some coin, he sends you forth into the vast blue skies to make your fortune and find your way in this lofty world. The many ports and islands all float high above the clouds, for whatever reason, but that doesn’t change their need for produce, lumber, and spices. As you explore the world you’ll ferry goods between ports for the best prices, complete jobs for the many guild houses, and in time purchase your own islands to produce locally-sourced goods to sell. You’ll also come across the stranger features of the world, like shrines to giants and a ruined lighthouse that may point the way to an important secret.
One of the things I love about Merchant of the Skies is that it boils down the trading sim structure to the most basic essentials. The dozens of ports in the game have just a few features to keep track of, namely shops to trade at, guilds to take missions from, and rechargers to power your airship. Some islands also have shops for new airships, airship upgrades, and crew to man bigger ships or your production buildings. There’s no running around these islands, they’re essentially fancy menus for trading and upgrading. Every island trades in just five goods, and there are four price states for goods (that I’ve seen) from Very Expensive to Slightly Underpriced. These are constant and are logged in a helpful chart for you, so all you really need to remember is where the best deals are and what day of the five-day week those shops restock on.
Trading is simple enough to start scoring you big paydays almost immediately, and guild missions are either letter or item deliveries, where you have to source the latter yourself. This will get you into ship upgrades very fast, and production buildings soon after. The many untamed islands of the world can be purchased, allowing you to build port facilities and production centers there to generate your own goods. This will be important if you want to follow what passes for the main quest, which requires tons of resources to reconstruct that lighthouse I mentioned. It’s not required, of course, you can stick to buying low and selling high indefinitely, but with as simple as the simulation is it’ll probably hold your interest about as long as a phone game. Setting up your own industries is a much bigger endeavor, and pretty rewarding when you have mines and sawmills humming away as you cruise the clouds.
The adorable presentation of the game allows for some of its most effective moments, like when you first discover the Majestic Carrot or the Mysterious Hands. The oddities of the world add significantly to the atmosphere of whimsy, and give the game a hook its gameplay might be missing. One of those oddities is a bit of a strange choice for gameplay, though – an island in the far corner of the map where you spend skill points earned by leveling up. Skill points can unlock dramatic improvements for your character, but no matter where or when you earn them, you have to take them to a specific island to spend them. I could see this changing over the course of Early Access, but it’s honestly not much more than a minor inconvenience. They better change all of these confusing, generic island names like Seahold, Seapole, and Goldpole, though.
The only point really against Merchant of the Skies right now is a lack of content. I’ve played a few hours and all I’m really missing right now is the end of the lighthouse quest. The trading is a wonderfully chill experience, and building an industrial empire is fun enough, but that’s the entirety of the game at the moment. With more of a story to follow and a greater variety of goods to trade (there’s about a dozen basic ones and then another dozen refined ones) this could easily be a game I could lose hours and hours to. For right now though, it’s absolutely worth checking out if you enjoy the chill side of trading sims. You’ll get plenty of that, a little bit of management, and a giant singing carrot to hang out with, and surely no one is going to pass that up.