Humans have always been a warring race. Whenever two different nations have met it has always ended in a bloodshed. We all enjoy games where you build up massive armies and obliterate the opposing faction to the Stone Age. Now Arcen Games is trying a different approach on the matter of splitting each others skulls with their latest game, Skyward Collapse; rather than creating massive armies and directly combating each other, you're trying to maintain a balance between the opposing fronts while they're trying to wipe each other off the face of planet. The concept sounds pretty weird so let's have look at how well they've adopted it into a game.
The story (if you can call it that) starts when two different factions, the Reds and the Blues, are constantly on each others throats and the Creator grows tired of this. Your task as the Creator is to try and maintain a balance with these two factions, making sure they both survive and prosper. The only hints of the storyline are a few (supposedly) hilarious comic strips at the start of the game but the lack of a proper one isn't really an issue and doesn't keep you from sitting in front of your rig, playing that legendary 'one more turn'. The game can also be played cooperatively with up to 8 players using the IP protocol or via LAN.
At the start of a new game you can select from various different map types which all offer a different challenge; you have a simple map with only grass and hills for an easy challenge up to a map filled with lakes that calls for a more defensive gameplay. You can select the colors (factions) for the two ancient nations battling each other; the Norse and the Greek. The Norse rely on their immense mythological creatures and powerful gods while the Greek are more focused on military might, using siege engines and cavalry for example. The game has a tutorial and a sandbox mode along with regular difficulty setting which ranges from easy to expert and affects the score multiplier. The tutorial in Skyward Collapse is rather unique; you can actually lose it! You can also set the Woe frequency from trivial to insane and the score requirement (which can also be set to 'off'). We'll discuss these later.
The game is a turn-based strategy game where you play both, but control neither, sides of these warring factions. The concept sounds insane but it actually works; during each factions turn you can construct buildings, remove or insert new tiles on the map, summon great mythological creatures or use direct actions to alter the world. Once you've finished both factions' turns it's time for them to act, applying the thing that has led the human kind to a road of destruction; free will. During this phase the AI moves each faction with only one goal in mind; the total destruction of the other faction.
The very first turn of the game is called a Setup round where you have 9 action points (AP) to set everything up. Each action takes a certain amount of AP; placing a new tile or constructing a building takes 1 AP while repairing a building might take 3 for example. The remaining APs stack and 3 more are gained during each turn. The various buildings in the game contain the basic stuff needed for a nation to thrive; you have butchers who make food from pigs and smithies that create weapons from iron for example. The dependencies of these building and resources are logical and more buildings are granted as you gain more score in the game. The military units in the game are automatically created on the appropriate buildings as long as you have the necessary resources.
Along with buildings and resources, you can place new tiles or remove old ones on the world map. These tiles include basic terrains like hills and mountains and each tile has unique properties; hills for example are slower to traverse but grant a defense bonus to the unit standing on it. Each turn random tiles are placed on the map to keep things rolling. Other things that you can spend your 'hard-earned' APs on are direct action commands which include things like repairing a building or upgrading a unit, summoning mythological beasts like elves or minotaurs on the map or placing tokens. The mythological beasts are gruesome war machines which can easily annihilate an entire army so placing them should be only used as a last resort if the other faction has grown too powerful. The tokens include power-ups for units that collect them or game-changing effects that can really turn everything up-side down. There are also special god tokens available later in the game but we'll discuss these later on.
To not make the game overly simple, the gameplay is divided into three Ages; the Age of Man, Monsters and Gods. During each Age disasters called Woes appear which affect the gameplay tremendously; one Woe might make all military units passive for example, only attacking other units if they randomly collide. During the Age of Monsters, bandit keeps randomly appear on the map. This makes the game interesting since you're constantly aware of how many turns there are left until the bandits keeps showing up, making preparing for it crucial. And if this isn't enough, during the Age of Gods both factions receive gods which possess awesome powers. These gods are familiar to anyone who's ever read about the history; you have Thor and Apollo for example. The gods don't do anything else but stand around unless you place a god token on the map. Placing the Hammer of Thor on the map for example makes Thor move to that tile, attacking every unit on the way. Each token has special properties which are activated when you place it on the map or when a god reaches it. These include some pretty extreme stuff like the removal of all military structures from the map (this includes bandit keeps so you can easily use it to your advantage).
Now you might be wondering to yourself "Why not just build non-military buildings and isolate the capitals with mountains?". The answer is scoring. You get score by destroying units, buildings, bandits and by placing/activating tokens so an evenly matched military force on both sides is a must if you desire to win the game. On top of this (depending on your difficulty setting) you must also reach a certain score at the end of each Age or you'll lose the game. The game also requires that each capital and bandit keep is connected so you can't simply remove the tiles that connect each factions' capital. You win the game if both factions have at least one capital left at the end of a certain amount of turns. This ain't an easy task; I won my first game (took me 5 hours) with the blue faction only having a single capital left with no units. This of course makes winning the game extremely satisfying; I haven't felt similar feeling of accomplishment for ages while playing a game. And that's saying a lot.
The game uses the same graphical engine as the strategy portion of A Valley Without Wind 2 so the requirements are very low; a 1.6GHz CPU, 2GB RAM and Windows XP ensure the game is playable even with a cheap notebook. The game has no graphical options and the graphics themselves are simple. There are basically no animations in the game (unless you count the ridiculous way units die as an 'animation') and the sounds are extremely simple. The music sounds horrible but that's why we have WinAmp.
I had mixed feelings about this game first; the overall feel and look of the game scream "Low-budget indie flop" but once you begin playing the game, it sucks you in. For a mere 5€ ($6/£4) you get hours and hours of entertainment and a feeling of accomplishment rarely seen in a modern video game. Skyward Collapse is one of those games you hate to love; it keeps you sitting at your rig, playing that 'one more turn' until the morning sun (or recently awaken offspring) snap you to the real world. Highly recommended for anyone.