The Devil You Know

Skyward Collapse Screenshot

HIGH Getting past the first score gate with a grand melee in the last three turns of the first age.

LOW Losing because almost the whole map turned into mountains just as my cities got going.

WTF A bunch of guys on foot can't cross mountains, but a giant siege engine on wheels can?

Skyward Collapse asks its player to take on the role of a mighty demon, sworn to maintain the world in a state of war for all eternity. For three ages, he must torment mankind with the endless misery of constant war, balancing the bloodshed and destruction so that neither side of the conflict wipes the other out. Only if the ground is soaked with enough blood and tears will he be victorious.

It's not billed to the player that way, of course.

Skyward Collapse is an odd little turn-based strategy game where the player controls the building but not the movements of both sides of an ongoing war. The player chooses where each civilization's 5×5 towns will be placed on the game's isometric rhombic grid, and what buildings will be in them in what arrangement.

Once units start coming out of those buildings, however, they do whatever they want.

While the player can exert some control by altering the landscape of the constantly-growing field of play, doing so drains actions he could be using to enhance his cities. The core idea here is actually quite clever, and maintaining the balance of power under these conditions poses a fair challenge.

The game is divided into three "ages," and the player has to meet a score requirement at the end of each to continue (or, in the final age, to win). The only way to score, however, is for units to die or buildings to get destroyed. I suppose it's obvious that I found that representation distasteful.

Skyward Collapse adds to the challenge with "Woes," which are random events that can cause most of the map to turn into mountain terrain, or all the units to wander around aimlessly, or giant monsters to appear everywhere. Bandit Keeps full of non-aligned units also form frequently, sometimes quite close to towns, and can pose a serious danger to the civilization balance because their units tend to be seriously overpowered.

The mighty bandits and deadly catastrophes mean that most of the time the game's civilizations are endangered more by the environment than each other. To meet these threats, the player has the ability to summon magical creatures and objects for either side, some of which can unleash the power of ancient gods worshiped by the denizens of his tiny world.

The gods and monsters come from Greek and Norse mythology, because these are the only civilizations available (a Japanese civilization will be available as a paid expansion). While each has an impressive array of specific units, unique monsters and appropriate deities, most of the buildings are nonspecific, which gives the towns a samey feel. This is compounded, especially in the early game, by the fact that no matter how different the buildings look, the resources and support buildings needed to produce specific units are pretty much the same. As a result, most of the towns end up being pretty similar.

The endgame suffers from a complementary problem. Once the production of units is well and truly going (and especially if the sides really are evenly matched) there's not a lot for the player to do. In most of my games I spent the endgame fast-forwarding as much as I could, only making adjustments when a town was in serious danger. The AI sometimes has curious priorities—I once watched a massive army parade peacefully past a minotaur that was destroying their city—but it generally works well enough that there's no need to interfere by altering the landscape.

This means that of the game's three ages, only 1.5 or so end up being interesting. The foundational work of making the first towns is too similar, while the player's role in the final conflicts is too passive. That compounds the unpleasant premise of Skyward Collapse with somewhat boring play. Not only did I have to be incredibly evil, I didn't even get to have fun doing it.

The core idea of a balancing a strategy game with limited player control is intriguing, but I found the execution of that idea, and the representations it used, unsatisfying. Arcen has made an ongoing and admirable effort to keep tweaking the game (although some patches have rolled out insufficiently tested), but I'm just not sure that anything they can do will address the essential dullness of its opening and closing phases. Rating: 5.0 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on a home-built Windows 7 PC equipped with an Intel i7 processor, 8 GB RAM, and a single Radeon 6800-series graphics card. Approximately 11 hours of play was devoted to single-player mode.

Parents: As of press time, this game has not been rated by the ESRB. Skyward Collapse features quite a bit of violence, but as attacks are not animated and there's no blood, it's far from graphic. Certain buildings constitute an alcohol reference, but the game doesn't glorify drinking or anything. Overall I feel the game would be rated "E" for everyone, but young children and pre-teens may find it too frustrating.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You should be absolutely fine. There's no dialogue and no essential sound cues.

Sparky Clarkson
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