Arcen’s newly released strategy game, Skyward Collapse, throws into the mix an unusual mechanic that is neither win nor lose – more a system where balance is the order of the day.
The game manages to meld together several strategy game tropes such as city building, resource collection and unit production, along with some God game niceties such as deform-able landscape, summoning Gods, boosting powers or resource drops.
The main hook of the game is that the ultimate goal is not to win, nor to lose, but to achieve a delicate balance holding two factions (Greek and Norse) in constant conflict and expansion, encouraging destruction to the point that your score is determined by how much pain and suffering you can cause to these two battling nations! As they grow and evolve, if you manage this tight ecosystem well enough, you’ll earn enough points to progress to the next era, when even more powerful balancing factors become at your disposal.
To win the game, you need to inflate your destructive score beyond the three Ages (determined by difficulty level and turn limit) – and prove you are a master juggler of warring fates.
This balance of conflict between two nations instantly jolted my memory back to an indie title called Fail Deadly. A real time conflict run through phases of timed unit drops, where you have to choose which side to give the advantage to, to maintain a balance of conflict and not let either side overpower the other and set off a nuke.
Skyward Collapse can be considered to be a turn based strategy extension on this initial premise.
The music and artwork are sublime and the game is incredibly polished. The hand-drawn isometric tiles and units are just fascinatingly simple, yet they confer a level of complexity that is indicative of all Arcen Games. What I wouldn’t give for Arcen’s artist to work on Illwinter’s titles (Dominions 3, Conquest of Elysium) – or even help the wargaming community out by designing legible historical sprites for John Tiller’s titles.
The only complaint I can level at the game, regarding it’s art style, is that sometimes when there are lots of units on lots of city tiles, it can be hard to make them out in the visual background “noise” – no matter how exquisite that noise may be.
The game begins at a slow pace, and starts with you taking setup turns of 9 actions to get each nation’s starting city built. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of choice when trying to get a resource and unit centre up and running. You’ll need similar sorts of resources for both nations – it’s usually the quantities of the requirements needed. Your placement of raw resource pumps and the refined goods harvesters doesn’t really matter – other than you’ll want to play your important stuff at the rear. Any attacks will usually come in head on for the first stage of the game.
You’ll want to get the foundation for resource churn going straight away so you can produce units to begin the battle. Since your goal is to get to over 1000 points of destruction by turn 30, you’ll want to get ‘balanced’ combat going early on. The unit producing tiles will knock units out, at a given rate, with a given delay timer – if they have sufficient resources. Understanding the resource chain, and the global raw materials stocks, will allow you to plan what buildings you’ll need to manage production queues.
Combat isn’t particularly exciting, the units simply bump into each other, and the winner disappears, but up the pace of the movement to x4 and it is satisfying to watch this living battlefield unfold. Hopefully, your clashes will result in both armies being degraded in similar quantities. When you overpower one nation, you’ll have to come up with some other way to re-address this balance and compensate. Either by resource and more unit production, or by means of bringing down Mythological beasts to exert their powerful wrath.
As can be seen here, we have a Greek Minotaur ready to smash a Bandit camp that has produced a Trojan horse siege weapon! Since this is late on in the game, we also have a Greek God Apollo on the field exerting his divine presence. And manipulating Gods is the level of awesomeness you reach towards the end of the game (Age of the Gods).
The game is simple enough to play, but can be hard in understanding how your city building choices result in an army that you can successfully balance. Initially, I found myself stalling when I was unsure of what building to place for the best. But after a few attempts you get into a rhythm of managing the resource chains, and pumping out units, that you start to see the bigger picture. This isn’t about city building at all, your city is simply a pump to make sure you have enough attack and defense to hold back the other side!
In fact as the game progresses and you fill up the city expansion slots (each city only has a set number of build slots available and thus your choice of building composition is key to your higher level strategic goal), you are forced to expand further and build new cities. Keeping the production pace up, and turning it up a notch.
Utilizing landscape constraints such as mountains to bottleneck the troops, or cut them off entirely for a breather in the battle. You can also conjure marshes in front of cities, because they confer a penalty to attacking enemy units, or simply smite the very landscape into this air, and punch holes where necessary to channel the action.
Finally you realise that you have to sacrifice some of the cities in a particular order, simply to accrue enough destruction points between the combatants. Here you can see late game cities in total ruin, with the Greeks holding a small last bastion of survival in the upper right, and the Norsemen holding out in the very southern city – just out of view. All the other cities had to be demolished by war to get the points to win!
Overall, the game provides enough of a curiosity buzz to make it worth the purchase. For me, just the Arcen Games brand on the title would warrant a purchase – simply because they always deliver in unique mechanics and interesting games – even if the subject matter isn’t to your tastes.
Skyward Collapse is a solid strategy title, that is just fun to poke around with, watching battles unfold, and having some loose control on how it all plays out. I wish the city building was a bit more than just dropping tiles, but then at the higher balance level it feels complex enough as it is. I wish the combat looked and behaved a bit more exciting – but when you start to see some of the weirder specials kick off like Labyrinth (throws a lot of Minotaurs onto the map – both sides - and lets them “have at it!”) or like Yggdrasil (where clones of existing troops turn up randomly and cause much chaos) – it really does become an exciting fantasy battle of epic proportion!
I’m not sure how much longevity the game will deliver, once you have elucidated a build procedure for both sides, and you have an order of unit dispatch. But there are random events/happenings called “woes” that keep things spiced up, usually dropping world changing factors into your delicate balance, always keeping you on the back foot, trying to juggle the chaos and carnage!
Keep your wits about you, because Arcen has a fierce approach to development after release, and you’ll be seeing lots of refinements and additions to the game in the future, honing it, shaping it, and expanding it into something even better than it was upon release day.
Definitely one for all strategy gamers!