Part of this, I feel, is the eternal problem that comes with professionally critiquing games. In any other situation, you can just stop playing a game that you don’t enjoy. When you’re obligated to play it, however, it exacerbates any minor flaws into grating issues and leaves you with an even more negative impression. Nitpicky molehills become game-breaking mountains.
Thanks to this all too common critical phenomenon, I could list plenty of nitpicks about Skyward Collapse. Minor things like how the game doesn’t have a save option when you quit, just a warning asking you if you remembered to save. Or a tutorial that tells you to do things, then explains that you should never do this in a real game. But listing every minor nitpick would be an incredibly lazy, unfair and pretty useless way to critique Skyward Collapse. Instead, it’s better to look at why the theoretically fantastic premise falls short for me in practice.
But what exactly is Skyward Collapse? I’ve talked about feelings enough that I should probably list at least a few features. In short, it’s a mixture of a god game and a 4X strategy. You are a creator, given total dominion over a small floating landmass for three distinct ages. There are two tribes there, one Norse and one Greek, and you need to keep them both alive, despite the rampant hatred they have for each other. You can place buildings, resources, mythological creatures, artifacts and new land tiles for either side, but you absolutely can’t control their units. Essentially, you’re playing as the referee in a game of Civ, which is a wonderfully creative approach to a genre that doesn’t see a lot of major innovation.
“…despite the interesting ideas behind it, playing Skyward Collapse is a lot like playing Civ against yourself.”
In theory, you could just prevent either side from recruiting a standing army by refusing to build barracks, but plenty of bandits and supernatural woes means that both sides need at least a bit of protection. There’s also a score requirement that means you have to let both sides whale on each other and drop a few buildings before the end of each age. Sometimes, you’ll be backed into a corner and need a mythological creature, a god placed band-aid unit that is massively powerful, but quite expensive.
The crux of the gameplay comes from the fact that the sides are unbalanced. The Greeks have an inherently better mortal military, but the Norse have superior mythological units. Keeping both sides perfectly equal in terms of resources simply doesn’t work, so you have to use your brain to make sure neither sides gets an edge over the other.
This all sounds pretty good, right? Well, it is pretty good, but somehow, most of my games ended in apathetic abandonment, rather than a decisive victory. When taking a hard look at each of the games I played, three main problems come to mind. The first is that, despite the interesting ideas behind it, playing Skyward Collapse is a lot like playing Civ against yourself. There’s no way to surprise the enemy, because you are the enemy, and you’re required to counter every strategy you throw against, well, yourself. This makes sense because of the whole balance thing, but it doesn’t make for a very exciting tactical experience and leads directly into the second problem.
In any strategy game, saving up for and plonking down a powerful unit is a tangibly exciting moment. Getting an arch angel in Heroes of Might and Magic. Building a tank in Civilization. Unlocking the dreadnought in Endless Space. In Skyward Collapse, however, a powerful unit for the red team means a headache to clean up for the blue team.
Instead of being excited to place a minotaur, I dreaded it. Again, this is something that inherently comes with the balancing gameplay, but it makes me wonder what would have made for the better game. Would Skyward Collapse be more enjoyable for me if it was more derivative of traditional 4X? Maybe, but the outstanding premise was what attracted me in the first place. It’s quite a puzzle.
The third issue, which is probably the most outstanding one, is the numerous band aid balancing solutions. There are a lot of ways you could break the game in Skyward Collapse, but arbitrary rules prevent most of them. For example, you could just place town centers as far away from each other as possible, except that the tooltip has a boggling number of restrictions on placement. A town center must be more than five squares from any town, more than eight squares from any allied town and fewer than eighteen squares from any enemy town, which leaves just a thin sliver of green legal placements in most matches. The score requirement is another, ending the game early if you don’t gather an arbitrary number of points that are only awarded for pointless destruction. It can be turned off, thankfully, but doing so is the equivalent of setting it to an easier difficulty.
“I find playing the game itself more stressful than fun.”
Another cheese strategy would be to destroy every land tile between your rival cities, but again, the tooltip stays your hand by stating that all town centers must be connected to all other town centers. I get why that is, because otherwise, you break the game, but I’ve always found that a game with so many arbitrary patchwork balancing side rules probably should have the core rules retooled.
Now, it’s hard for me to draw the line here. Are these objective problems with Skyward Collapse, or is it just not clicking for me? There’s a lot of stuff I like about the game too: the introduction comic from Nick Trujillo is rather amazing, the way you unlock more complex buildings with each win is a good metagame addition and the soundtrack is great. But really, it comes down to the way that I find playing the game itself more stressful than fun. Perhaps if the balancing gameplay sounds up your alley, it will click for you. Of course, at the rather inviting price point of $4.99, it’s not much of a risk to try it for yourself. I just can’t help but feel that there have been alternatives in both god games and 4X that, if not necessarily better, are more fun than Arcen’s mash-up.