I love old-school RPGs. Give me a Dragon Warrior, a Final Fantasy or even a Fire Emblem and I am the sheer definition of joy. This sort of turn-based RPG has come upon tough times, though, since the RPG genre as a whole is trying to shift away from my favorite feature. Any modern RPG worth its salt – say, Skyrim or Dragon Age – has some kind of real, live combat and incredible graphics to enhance the feeling of immersion. I love these modern RPGs as well, and I would be the last to criticize the way the genre is going, but I often do have nostalgia for a simpler, more pixelated time.
Enter Skyborn, an RPG with a traditional heart and a modern feel. This game has some very innovative and well-done features, as well as some that leave a little to be desired. Today, I want to look at both the good and the bad.
#4 Skippable Encounters
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of old-school RPGs? “One true love” and “borderline fetish” are what come up for me, but if you’re a tad more moderate in your thinking, it’s probably “the grind.” Yep. Old-school RPGs often involve a lot of grinding, both for experience and gold. You typically end up running in circles in an open field while various creatures materialize to serve as loot piñatas, which, frankly, looks ridiculous.
You killed them all, you sadistic bastard! How will we get experience now!?
Skyborn recognizes this as a problem, and chooses to fix it with a neat system. Rather than simply having random encounters, the game has visible creatures patrolling around each dungeon. If you touch them, you’ll have a battle, but if you avoid them, you can simply pass by unharmed. This allows those of us who are masochistic completionists to slay every living thing and grind to our heart’s content, while it allows people who aren’t as fond of the grind to dodge it entirely.
Hey there little fella...
#3 Exploration Rewards
No grind? Awesome. But now, you might be thinking: “if I skip all of the encounters, I’ll be weak and I won’t be able to beat the game!” Fear not, dear reader! It turns out that the designers thought of that.
The maps in the game are all reasonably large and complicated. Like any good RPG, a lot of these large areas are purely optional, and if you want to rush through them to your objective, you certainly can. Most designers just throw chests with loot in optional areas to encourage exploration, and the developers of Skyborn do this as well. However, there are also exploration nodes littered around, which, when stepped on, provide the player with a large amount of experience. In this way, the developers have given players a viable alternative to simply grinding, and given us completionists something extra to think about, too!
If only this wall wasn't here...
#2 No Backtracking
Speaking of map design, Skyborn is excellent in this department as well. Sometimes, the old RPGs were cruel, and this cruelty was often demonstrated fully in dungeons. You would fight your way through several long and complicated floors of random encounters and puzzles, activating levers and beating mini-bosses along the way. You finally slay the boss. Two of your characters are dead, including your healer, and everyone else is low on mana and health.
And then they make you walk back the way you came to get out.
Skyborn – and, to be fair, many other less draconian RPGs – happily avoids this problem. Most of the dungeons in Skyborn eliminate all forms of backtracking, not only with bosses, but with those out-of-the-way goals, too. Often, when you find an exploration node or a chest, there’s a one-way ladder or teleport pad to take you right back to the main path. You always tend to feel like you’re making progress and following the right path, even if you’re consciously heading off of it.
I might not know how to get at these chests for now, but I do know that when I ultimately find them, I can easily hop back onto the main path. Thanks, random one-way ladder!
I’ve talked about a lot of cool features here today that I think are innovative and give a positive player experience. However, the real achievement in Skyborn, without any doubt, is the plot. The plot of Skyborn is rich and moving, with its fair share of surprising moments. It’s compact, too – my playtime through my first game was about 6.5 hours, and in that time, a fully-fledged world with a history, multiple cultures and social stratification emerged. Given that my favorite RPG of all time is probably Dragon Warrior VII, which carries an average playtime of 100+ hours – without any sidequests – I was pleasantly surprised by all the designers could pack into such a small package.
In a game with such a well-developed back-story, you would expect most of its informational aspects to also be well developed. In many RPGs, you can find a book or an NPC laying around that tells you something about how the game’s systems work, like crafting or combat. In Skyborn, however, there is a particular lack of information about the skills your units use. Although there are basic descriptions, there are no real definitions to be found for effects like ‘blindness,’ ‘clear mind,’ or even ‘paralysis.’ Yes, some of these concepts are common to a number of RPGs, but they all tend to work differently. Paralysis in some games means that the unit is slowed, but in others, it means that they can’t attack sometimes, or even at all.
Most RPGs dodge this problem by telling you the effects of a move right when it happens. Although it made us all die a little each time, the phrase “Pidgey used Sand Attack! Pikachu’s ACCURACY fell!” tells us something that Skyborn doesn’t. Since Skyborn’s combat system isn’t text-based, but is rather based on numbers and symbols popping up, there’s no real way to understand what your abilities are doing until you’ve used them many times. RPGs are about choice, and making players feel smart for being strategic with their choices; nothing is more destructive to this feeling, I think, than having abilities with seemingly random and arbitrary effects.
Since we’re talking about things that are ill-defined, it’s difficult to not mention the crafting system. Skyborn's crafting system looks neat, and shows a lot of promise. It’s a simple formula: Find metal, go to a forge, and create an item of proportional power to the metal you used. Easy, yes?
More like "Gear of your completely random happenstance."
Easy perhaps, but completely half-baked. When you are first given the prompt, you can select either weapons or armor. From there, you select either a type of weapon, or an armor class (light, medium, or heavy). Then, you select whether you will use 100%, 200% or 300% of the amount of ore you need, with the promise that more spent equals a better item. And then it ends. Once you select an ore amount, there’s no preview screen or confirmation dialog. Rather, a piece of gear springs into existence and you’re stuck with it whether it’s useful or not. It isn’t random; it is a predictable formula. The problem is that nothing exists in the game to tell you what the results will be beforehand. The net result is a lot of wasted ore, in my experience. Many times, I tried to craft something that I hoped would be useful, only to find that what I currently had was far superior. A simple preview screen would fix a lot of the problems here, but as it stands, the crafting system is temperamental and provides mixed results at best.
In most RPGs, the combat system is the thing that keeps you coming back. You’re going to see it an awful lot, and so as a developer, you’d better get it right. Skyborn, as I’ve talked about, has a lot going for it in the skippable encounters and alternate experience department; this probably led its developers to think of the combat as less important in the grand scheme of things, and frankly, it shows. Badly.
The system itself might have problems, but it's also ugly, too. We can't forget the ugly.
Combat in Skyborn often feels random and meaningless. In the same area, one group of enemies may be trivial, but another might be difficult enough that it could be a boss fight. Additionally, boss fights rarely feel like boss fights, especially in the early part of the game – They are short and mostly harmless, unlike some of the random encounters. That said, sometimes, the boss fights are so difficult by comparison to the surrounding fights that they don’t make sense. In one particular instance, I was clearing the regular encounters effortlessly and without even taking damage, but the boss of that same area decisively killed my party 5 times before I got a very lucky string of critical hits and blocks and ultimately won. In general, the combat isn’t especially hard, but its frustrating inconsistency and randomness left a very bad taste in my mouth.
Skyborn has a lot of very innovative features to make its extremely compelling story more available for the average player to enjoy. That said, it does that at the cost of some of the most important features in the turn-based RPG genre. Whether that trade is worth it is up to you; either way, though, if you get the chance, give Skyborn a try!