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Skyward Collapse: a brain-bending battle against yourself

Monday, 3rd June 2013 15:07 GMT By Brenna Hillier

The destiny of humanity is in your hands – except some fool gave them free will and the little bastards won’t stop slaughtering each other. This is Skyward Collapse, the hardest game of chess you’ve ever played against yourself.

Since both sides of every conflict belong to you, the best result you can hope for when armies meet on the field is that they wipe each other out totally, leaving no remnants to lay siege to your towns, and that all this happens quickly enough that you can put together a new force ahead of the next barbarian invasion.

You are tasked with creating the world, piecing it together tile by tile as you shape your peoples’ destinies. You control the shape of the land; the industries humanity pursues; and even how they worship their gods. Ultimate power is yours. Naturally, you are a loving a benevolent overlord, and want nothing more than for your mortal children to settle down and produce sausages while you decorate the world around them with mountains and forests.

Unfortunately, ultimate power is nothing in the face of humanity’s bloodlust. It is turn 15 and civilisation has been wiped out. Again.

It all started so innocently. “I love god games,” I told Arcen Games. “Send me a preview code immediately so I can burble happily about Skyward Collapse, for I am certain I shall love it tenderly.”

“Here you are Brenna me old chum,” Arcen replied, or words to that effect. “Enjoy being utterly humbled and made aware of your own shortcomings.”

Skyward Collapse can be thought of as a cross between Civilization and chess, and just like both of those games, it can be hard. Really, really hard. For one thing, your opponent is you, and you, by virtue of years of experience, are an extremely canny foe whose natural inclination is to turn your faction into an all-consuming war machine, jackboots making the board jump and rattle as you slide units around.

Sounds good so far, right? But since both sides of every conflict belong to you, the best result you can hope for when armies meet on the field is that they wipe each other out totally, leaving no remnants to lay siege to your towns, and that all this happens quickly enough that you can put together a new force ahead of the next barbarian invasion.

In Skyward Collapse, you are responsible for the rise of two warring states, the Norse and the Greeks. Each fledgling culture has its own strengths and weaknesses, and what’s really interesting about Arcen’s design is that these idiosyncrasies are asymmetrical. They don’t match up neatly, and there’s no immediately obvious way to keep them in balance; no golden ratio of 2:1 here, 4:3 there, which keeps your hungry little soldiers in check.

In a perfect world, you’d have every resource at your disposal right at the start; you’d do a lot of complicated maths; and you’d arrive at a state of glorious homeostasis, with each side unable to make a significant dent on the other. In the actual world you’re presented with, you have to grow your nations simultaneously, dealing with the imbalances that arise during the process. On top of that, the regular appearance of external foes – barbarians – means you’re constantly striving for growth, building armies and repairing damage. Add to that the random elements of terrain and you can see we’re in a bit of trouble. One miracle in the wrong place and shit goes so far south you have to turn the compass upside down and head back in the opposite direction.

Those who like everything just so will struggle with Skyward Collapse. It’s not a game where you can make a perfect move every round, even with save scumming; rather, you’ll be constantly balancing on a knife edge, hastily patching holes here, throwing up pre-emptive defences there, and watching it all fall apart at an alarming pace. The title theme ought to have been called “headdesk”.

I’ve never played anything like it and to be honest, it’s a bit beyond me; I’m not even very good at Civilization or Age of Empires, and although Skyward Collapse is significantly less ambitious than either of these titles, its very purity makes it perhaps even harder to master, as there’s no room for redundancy.

I keep comparing it to chess, and there are definitely strong parallels in terms of studying viable strategies and thinking several moves ahead, but it’s more like Terry Pratchett’s fictional-turned real board game Thud, in which each faction has different capacities and a full match involves playing both sides. Unfortunately, you’re always playing both sides, and so there’s no respite for you.

I can only imagine the nightmare migraine I would suffer if I tried to take my pathetic beginner’s game into online multiplayer. This is a strategy game distilled down to the very essence of tactical thought; people who are good at this probably see the Matrix when they look at the screen.

If you’re clever, or just think you are, do go and check it out; don’t say I didn’t warn you, though. This is a thinker’s game.

Skyward Collapse is available now on Mac and PC for $5.

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