Friday, 6 June 2014

Skyborn (Video Game Review)

Of all the games we have reviewed on here, Skyborn is an unusual release. Along with being created on the RPGMaker system with only basic assets, it very much feels like a proof of concept. Much like the original Zone of the Enders, you can tell there's a good game in there with brilliant ideas behind it, but with more money and time something truly outstanding could have been made. It's satisfying, and Dancing Dragon clearly knew exactly what they wanted to create, but so much feels like it's trying to prove what they could do with some more resources.

Set in the steampunk post-war world, the magically empowered winged skyborn hold dominion over the land. Working as best she can under their occupation, mechanic Clara Spencer attempts to make ends meet by repairing the various airships which humans use for transport. However, when her brother not only sells the shop but marries her off to the noble born Sullivan, things start to become a little more complicated...

As with many RPGMaker series, the overall feel and style of Skyborn seems to be trying to capture the classic feel of older RPGs. Much like the original Golden Sun titles, there is great deal here which feels as if it is attempting to emulate the style of the first six Final Fantasy titles, and it's definitely to the game's benefit. It retains that same kind of charm in the visual appearance and direct simplicity of the writing. While hardly dumbed down or particularly extensive, the story itself is strong enough to hold your attention and keep your interest, leaving enough room for your mind to wonder about the rest of the world. There's more than enough there for hints, suggestions and fan theories to keep you invested, but it never feels as if it's lazily written.

While much of this relates to the locations and races of the Skyborn universe, this also carries over to the characters as well. There's nothing especially deep or overly complex about them, but what you do get is enough to make them interesting and likable. Clara is primarily a viewpoint character, but she has an interesting family history she needs to uncover and is distanced from some of the true injustices within the city. Sullivan is seemingly rich and smugly arrogant, but this is revealed to at least in part be a facade and he harbours deep hatred which can cause him to act irrationally. These elements are well used, and they're never over-exaggerated or pushed to the point where they become whiny or irritating.

It also helps that the story knows how and when to progress certain details about the history of the world. There is always something new happening right up to the end, and as soon as one revelation is made, another plot thread to be explored is promptly introduced. If nothing else, it's enough to keep you going until the final cut scene to see how things pan out.

It's definitely a good thing that the story holds up as well as it does, because without it the game doesn't have much to offer in terms of combat.

While not exactly bad, the combat of Skyborn is undeniably basic. A big part of this comes down to the presentation, with little to no combat animations (Read - Static Images) and some fairly obvious character classes, all of which feel as if we've seen them a thousand times before. While a few do have some slight variations on them, it's not enough to really step up above the usual tank, healer, caster, crafter mix found in so many other games. While Skyborn's agro system does offer some slight differences, with glass cannons in particular having to carefully time attacks, it's not enough to stand out. Even by the end, after a few class changing options are added, there's never really enough to make it stand out. It does still feel surprisingly basic despite the obvious thought put into the moves and spells available.

What does seriously help the game in this regard is the crafting and augment system. Various dungeons offer a multitude of new minerals and gems to outfit weapons with, or craft entirely new items, which can give you a big edge. Along with saving money which can be spent on potions and necessary resources, the right combinations can boost weapon strengths to truly outstanding levels. One notable example from my own playthrough was a pistol crafted and augmented for Clara shortly after returning from the desert, which proved to be more powerful than any shop bought weapon from there on. 
This might sound like it would break the game, but the high amount of resources required to create one decent weapon or set of armour means you will only have one truly powerful item. Furthermore this, along with the giant treasure chests, helps to give the game a little more longevity as you attempt to hunt down raw materials littered throughout dungeons. This said, much like the combat the crafting system itself is fairly basic and it won't blow anyone's mind.

Additional elements which help to add longevity to Skyborn is the extra content which can be hunted down. The various cards required to help unlock an additional secret dungeon beneath the city are littered across the entire game, meaning you need to spend considerable time and effort hunting them down. Even ignoring that however, the tournament which unlocks superior equipment and an elaborate crafting shop is something worth repeatedly coming back to and will take a few more hours than the main game. Even then the game still offers a few sidequests to complete for those who want to explore the city.

What actually makes the game really stand out are two quite interesting details which are not featured in many RPGMaker titles. Even ignoring the well drawn and presented character art which appears in conversations, touches have been made to certain areas with rolling fog, insect swarms and solar effects which help make the environments feel more alive. It's a small element but it seriously helps bolster the sense of vibrancy and the visual appearance of each area. Admittedly, even without those however, the game does look brilliantly colourful and captures the classic fantasy feel of older RPGs despite the basic assets utilised in their creation.

The other strength of the game is the music, which is a definite cut above the competition. With a sweeping orchestral quality which eschews the traditional chiptunes, each one adds far more atmosphere to the locations. There's never a point where it feels emotionally dissonant with what is going on and quite often they prove to be surprisingly catchy.

Skyborn is decent enough for what it is, but it won't set the world alight. Again, so much here does feel like a kind of proof of concept and it definitely comes across as basic at many points. That said, there's still enough here to like and very few real mistakes are present in its gameplay or plot. It'll keep you going to the end and it's just about enough to justify its price.
The group I would actually reccomend this to the most are those who lack the time to play full blown JRPGs these days. Clocking in at ten to fifteen hours in total, Skyborn is far from lengthy and a quite casual play, but that will work for people too busy to spend over sixty hours on a single linear JRPG title. If that sounds like it suits you, then give this one a look. 

Besides, what would you rather have? Ten hours on a cheap title with classic charm to it? Or a hundred on an expensive, plot hole ridden release with a character as soullessly unlikable as Lightning?

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