Developer: Arcen Games
Playing God would be all lightning bolts and rainbows if it wasn't for that pesky free will thing. The fact that mortals can think for themselves is one of our most wondrous traits, but for the creator, it's probably a right old hassle. We're rarely had a God Game that fully takes free will into account, so it's probably high time that those innovative mortals over at Arcen Games gave the resurgent genre a killer overhaul.
On a basic level, Skyward Collapse puts you in control of two factions on an impossible floating continent. The
Reds Greeks and the Blues Norse both need a God to build their infrastructure, creating a selection of resource-producing buildings and the workmen to refine them into finished products. As the creator, you can use your divine powers to place buildings or change the world itself; adding hills, lakes and mountains to the landscape as floating tiles lock into place. Your two civilizations must then thrive in a hostile world and eventually achieve greatness against the odds.
This might sound like a traditional God Game, but the studio behind AI War and A Valley Without Wind never play by traditional genre rules. So here's the twist: both factions must go to war. Neither must get wiped out. And you have no direct control over their actions. Skyward Collapse is a thoroughly bizarre, massively counter-intuitive and absolutely wonderful new perspective, in that your arch-enemy is ultimately yourself.
Turn-based strategy fans should be familiar with the structure. You'll use a limited amount of action points per turn to place buildings - usually either resource generators or artisans who refine the raw materials into usable products (e.g. pig farms and butchers - you'll get the hang of it after about half an hour) - or alter the landscape with a palette of different landscapes. The floating continent is more than just a striking visual hook, in that tiles can be summoned out of thin air or smashed into nothingness, giving you full control over your fragile creation. A brief setup phase grants you some free time to construct a blissful nirvana before all hell quickly starts to break loose.
Once the infrastructure is up and running, both the Greeks and Norse act independently; automatically building units with the sole purpose of wiping the other faction off the map. Forces move and engage on their own initiative; unpredictably assaulting the foe or defending their townships. You have no direct say over their movements, but thankfully, you're able to work in mysterious ways.
Keeping the balance is key to ensure that your warring tribes never manage to utterly destroy one another. Units can be rush-built at huge resource costs to stop the scales from tipping too far, while mythological beasts can be fielded for either side. These terrifying monsters (drawn from both Greek and Norse mythology) run rampage over the map, but cannot be commanded, thus potentially shattering the fragile equilibrium. Demi-Gods can enter the field with massively powerful long-term effects, drawn from a random pool. Resources can be dropped where they're most needed, or tiles smote out of existence.
More canny players will learn to use the environment to their advantage, creating impasses and obstacles rather than escalating the conflict more than entirely necessary. We're using the same skills as traditional God Games, just applying them in a totally radical way - and maintaining balance rather than achieving domination. It's fun, involving and definitely speaks to your inner sadist from time to time.
"But Jonathan," I hear you ask me as my worry lines thicken deep enough to shelve jewel cases, "why bother building a barracks in the first place?" That's a good question, dear reader. After all, if neither faction has an effective fighting force, surely peace and love will reign supreme? I must admit that this was the first thing I tried, but sadly I only tried it once. Arcen Games have this angle covered.
First of all, the Greeks and Norse aren't alone on the map, rather they share the real estate with a dangerous selection of marauding bandits who grow in power with each elapsed turn. If the factions don't have enough military grunt to defend themselves and exterminate these rogue elements, their civilizations will quickly fall in the mid-to-late game. More profoundly, however, each match is split into several 'ages' that each have a score threshold. If you can't beat them, you lose the game. Points can only be accrued through military victories on each side, meaning that to win, you'll have to ensure that both sides are constantly warring without ever wiping each other out. Though an obtrusive and overtly 'gamey' contrivance, these mandatory points barriers do a fine job of keeping you on the aggressive - ultimately against yourself.
Finally, woes add yet another layer of unpredictability to the proceedings: sweeping events and modifiers that totally change the state of play. Whether natural disasters are annihilating your units or forcing them to rove aimlessly around the map (amongst other devastating effects, such as outbreaks of militant vegetarianism), these mutators can turn a calm equilibrium into miserable shambles, and prefaced a few turns of panicked preparation before they take effect.
This exquisite razor-edged balance makes for a totally unique experience, a breath of fresh air that's quite unlike anything you've ever played despite boasting broadly familiar mechanics.
Maintaining the balance is tough, of course, sometimes brutally so. Even on the easier settings, you'll still come a cropper when bandits grow out of control or a woe decimates your armies at the least opportune time. Perhaps units won't engage in the way you assumed they would, an elf moving out of position or minotaur unpredictably causing havoc beyond your initial plan. Free will can be a right royal pain sometimes.
In many ways, Skyward Collapse is a game where failure is absolutely an option. Every defeat, while aggravating, gives you a slightly better understanding of how each monster and faction thinks, earning you high scores and personal experience (not XP) to carry forward into the next game. Like chess, it's very much about playing and growing in skill rather than necessarily winning (and there's certainly no shortage of pawns to move about the game board). Thanks to the massive degree of randomisation and unpredictability - both in terms of the starting level design and the AI - replay value is off the charts here. The fun/£ ratio is enormous, especially when you consider that it only costs £3.99 and a dozen extra buildings are waiting to be unlocked throughout multiple playthroughs.
More to the point, discovering how everything can go from perfectly balanced to utterly insane is part of Skyward Collapse's unique charm. Save often, but not too often, to enjoy each collapse to the full.
Presentation-wise, Skyward Collapse favours an eyecatching colourful visual style that does a reasonable job of differentiating between the two factions and features some expressive sprite art. However, the interface itself is rather ugly and workmanlike; it does everything you need it to in a purely functional fashion, but lacks any faction-specific flair or style. Production values play second fiddle to concept and gameplay (from the menus to the game itself), which might deter some players, but is absolutely acceptable for an inexpensive download from a tiny studio.
A tiny studio who, if history has taught us anything, will even find time to update and patch Skyward Collapse in line with player feedback over the coming months. I don't know how they do it.
- Revolutionary new perspective
- Strong turn-based mechanics, surprisingly helpful tutorial
- Practically limitless replayability, each playthrough is totally unpredictable
- Ugly GUI has substance but no style
- Can be very brutally tough and occasionally confusing despite reasonable tutorial
- A little rough around the edges (but costs £3.99, remember)
The Short Version: Skyward Collapse presents a killer twist on the standard God Game formula. If the novel premise grabs you, expect an inordinate amount of randomised replayability for a paltry four quid.