What does it mean to be a god if no one will listen to you? Arcen Games looks at this with a bit of humor in their latest release, Skyward Collapse. Here, we play an omniscient, omnipresent celestial being, tasked with cultivating and manipulating two factions that would like nothing more than to see the other eradicated. That's an interesting scenario on its own, but we are further entangled by a godly need for entertainment (conflict) and plagued by natural "woes." To further jumble our troubles, rogue elements including deities and mythological creatures try to spoil our day. In this turn based strategy/god sim, we inherit the intriguing situation of lacking direct control yet commanding plenty of manipulation.
As we begin, the entire world of Skyward Collapse is a small but expandable floating island, represented by an isometric grid of tiles. Both "red" and "blue" factions (either Greeks and/or Norse) have a starting settlement on opposite sides. We're first given a primary building phase to build up the towns for free before resources are a limiting factor. As the deity, we can "drop" items and manipulate empty landscape, but lack the power to directly control living actors. After primary building phase ends, action begins. All the action is played out in turns, where each and any free actors will move of their own accord towards their desired goals. During the early moments of the game inbetween turns, you will be desperately juggling resources and building prerequisites for each faction while looking to expand to new towns. All while a steady stream of warriors will emerge from each town to attack the other side. As mentioned earlier, the primary goal is to keep both sides alive while still causing a suitable amount of chaos (the game ends if you try to be a pacifist).
This is fun on its own, since the Greek and Norse fighting units have different capabilities and balance problems, but that's really only the start of the game. Each playthrough runs at a default 90 turns, with the first 30 encompassing the Age of Man, then Age of Monsters, and finally Age of Gods. Partway through the first age, bandits will begin appearing. Their strongholds can appear anywhere on the map and cause a certain amount of grief no matter where they spawn. If there were no bandits, you could rely solely on barracks/archeries rather than building siege. However, each side will need siege to properly fend off the bandit attacks in a timely fashion. As such, you need to introduce siege to keep a semblance of balance. This necessity will destroy buildings on each side, turning them into ruins that can no longer be rebuilt. Soon, your perfectly planned map turns into chaos, and you need to start reacting to imbalances via town expansions and other methods.
One such method is dropping monsters onto the battlefield to begin fighting for a side. These are generally much more hardy and utilize unique attacks over normal faction units. Dropped creatures are best at holding off a battle point during a temporary imbalance while reinforcements are on their way. However, some have vastly different characteristics than others, so they still require proper knowledge and use. Another method of control is by manipulating the landscape itself, as you have the ability to create or modify land. This can be used to directly control the battle by introducing chokepoints or openings. Certain landscapes can only be crossed by certain units, and you can entirely cut off an army if you so choose (and have enough moves and sufficient score to afford the loss of action). Besides direct battle involvement, landscape creation is also used to create new paths to towns. Each new town has to be far enough away from a friendly town while not too far from an enemy town, in order to continue the culture of conflict. Over time, new land and tiles appear from thin air as part of a continually expanding continent, but players will generally have to use some moves to create their own landscape for new town locations. If one side's need at any time is more subtle or temporary, you can also drop resources onto the board. And finally, once the celestial creatures and gods begin emerging onto sides of the battlefield, you can urge them to action in a sense, by dropping their belongings onto the map. They head over, grab, and activate them, often to extreme effect.
Your first playthrough will be a tutorial, and while helpful, the walkthrough is certainly not perfect. It guides you through pop-up boxes for the first few turns, then leaves you mostly on your own for the rest of a game. I understand that this is the type of game where practice will help the most, but these explanations could be more clear and it could do a better job guiding and directing the player, as some elements can be confusing for a while otherwise. As we well understand (from this site and others), you do have to capture attention quickly and try to leave a strong first impression if you want people to keep playing your game. The main problem here is that the tutorial too quickly, abruptly, and permanently passes off to the gameplay itself, but a full game tends to last around three+ hours. As this is more of an open sim without story involvement, you really have no feedback on what you're supposed to be doing, or if you're doing it right or not. It just continues to play until you either fail or succeed. I personally think it would be better off with a short guided tutorial on a predefined script to show the basics, then a 'first-play' mode with hint pop-ups. In the age when players no longer read instruction manuals (and it appears that Skyward doesn't even have one included), a strong and clear tutorial is a must for complicated games. I'm not saying this tutorial was terrible, but on its own, it does need to be better (and it's a bit humorous and worrysome when a game apologizes for not being absolutely clear).
The overall presentation and delivery is solid without any faults, yet also desperately could use a bit more flash. When you open the game, you're greeted by a well-made comic explaining the concepts and problems you'll encounter along your watch. This was a great idea and does do a very good job to get us involved and interested right off the bat. If the heavenly headaches shown there can be further integrated or connected to a tutorial, I think the learning phase would be perfect. The soundtrack also works well, capped by a nice sweeping vocal/instrumental track on the title screen. In-game landscape appears a bit simple and limited, but they don't have many options, in keeping the randomly generation style along with being mod-friendly. However, I do think units and sound effect design could be reasonably improved to add gravitas and flash. As it stands, units move around motionless, and collide with each other with no feeling of force. I assume this is both to save on animation costs and to simulate tabletop games, but I don't think simple traveling animations or especially basic clash effects with improved sounds would be unreasonable. As it stands, footsoldiers, castles, and even gods battle and fall with entirely no fanfare. It's especially strange when a massive calamity occurs and the every unit immediately disappears or the entire map instantly becomes populated in mountain ranges. A good screen flash and a hearty rumble in certain situations is the least they could add.
In terms of gameplay and longevity, Skyward Collapse will not disappoint if you're able to get past the tutorial segment. It allows so many different ways to customize your strategy and react to different events that you'll surely want to test them as you begin understanding the game and brainstorming. More tools and structures are unlockable as you survive more matches. Co-op multiplayer (not tested) is also included along with the draw of online leaderboards. As this is an extremely open-ended score-based game, players can run wild with their creativity and compete against each other. Higher difficulty levels create many more problems on the road to survival, but they come with score multipliers to encourage their use. Various direct actions also impact your score. I do wish it had better in-game integration with Steamworks or developer leaderboards, with the ability to show comparison data and allow players to mentally compete and make goals for themselves. But the capability is still there in Steam itself, although you must manually browse..
Perhaps most importantly, Skyward Collapse carries tremendous value in its package. We received this as a review copy, and while playing, I was expecting a store price in the range of $10-20. But at $5, you receive addictive complex strategy gameplay, solid modding support, online co-op, leaderboards, and a massive amount of continued support that Arcen is known for. At $5, it's firmly in "why not?" category for most buyers, and seems to be paying off for them. The only other Arcen game I've tried is A Valley Without Wind, and there are definitely similarities that appear as their overall style, along with important creative differences. They seem very capable of continually releasing and working on a number of games across genres, and I'm sure they have a good handle on the Unity-based development at this point. Updates are being released weekly and mini-expansion plans are in the works. Thus, my overall thoughts are very positive. Skyward Collapse has a fun premise and complex gameplay in a semi-casual package that includes a dirt-cheap buy-in and even cheaper upcoming expansion costs for those who love the game.
Free will... why did they have to get free will?