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Skyborn (PC) artwork

Skyborn (PC) review

"*Rage Against the Machine plays on a nearby harpsichord*"

Skyborn is not a grand, lengthy, "big budget" RPG by any stretch. Its campaign should last most experienced players around ten to twelve hours, and its offerings mostly consist of familiar features and mechanics. And yet, despite its lack of grandeur, it happens to be a delightful title that's well worth experiencing. Again, it reminds us that the individual qualities a game uses don't matter nearly as much as how they're utilized...

For instance, it gives us a compelling reason to keep the ball rolling with its protagonist, an airship mechanic named Claret. The first few minutes waste no time in establishing her as a relatable lead, where she stands up to her pushy brother and a wealthy fop (Sullivan). We also come to realize right away that Claret is among the more disadvantaged citizens in her own hometown simply because she's human. In her society's hierarchy, winged humanoids called "Skyborn" sit at the top and enjoy all of the benefits and privileges, while humans mostly dwell in poverty. This comes as the result of a war between their races that transpired ages ago, with the Skyborn emerging victorious. We thus see Claret as the underdog in the this tale, positioning her as a future adversary of a corrupt system.

As it turns out, homo sapiens are not the lowest on the food chain. Human-Skyborn hybrids receive even worse treatment, as they're often beaten or imprisoned simply for existing. The systemic racism in their world has gotten so intense that a resistance movement sprouted up as a measure to protect hybrids and potentially win freedom.

And as you might've guessed, Claret is unknowingly about to join their rank...

Strip away the racial tones and you have an abbreviated version of Final Fantasy VI, which is also a steampunk RPG in which a female lead joins a rebellion against a cruel empire. Hell, other references to the Square game crop up quite often, such as battles against beasts called "behemoths," or a segment where the protagonist plows through legions of soldiers while riding a magical mech.

Though similarities exist, Skyborn stands on its own feet thanks to its well developed party. Claret and Sullivan comprise the early members of the group, and are later joined by the hybrid Corwin, the mysterious Chaska and the renegade Skyborn Alda. We see Corwin first as an oppressed hybrid who later turns oppressor himself when he meets Chaska, mostly because one of her arms is a monstrous claw. However, as the two travel together, we see a dynamic shift in Corwin's personality, while also discovering more information regarding Chaska's origins and why she possesses the taloned hand.

The game never reaches super cinematic levels of storytelling, and that's just fine. It presents enough narrative to give context to the action, but also takes an extra step to liven things up. In accomplishing this feat, it thankfully doesn't wrest control from the player too often, and spins and entertaining yarn to boot. Cutscenes remain pretty short, decked out with well written dialogue that's very casual and not overly poetic. It's nice to see a story-driven game that isn't too in love with its voice for a change.

Like any other short, effective RPG, Skyborn also sports mechanics that keep the pace snappy without detracting much from its finished product. For one thing, you practically fly through most battles because of a combination of mostly easy opponents and quick, streamlined combat. Unlike Square's flagship franchise, this title doesn't try to wow you with flashy spells or gimmicky features. It's offers a straightforward, turn-based battle system that consists mostly of the usual commands, including "fight" and "skills/magic," with encounters that typically end in short order.

However, the game utilizes one function we rarely see: "threat." Whenever one of your characters damages the opposition, their threat level rises. Whoever has the highest threat score becomes the target of your foes' offense, save for multi-target nukes and the like. This feature gives strategy a slight boost, as it allows you to take your enemies' attentions away from your weaker characters who might be mages or healers (e.g. Corwin, who learns restorative magic). Of course, things might not always work out the way you want, especially when your most defensive character doesn't consistently put out the highest damage ratings, so you still need to consider if some powerful attacks are worth landing. You don't want to leave someone like Claret open to an attack at a time when she can't withstand them, even though she can blast the daylights out of one monster before perishing.

Obviously, not every creature you come across is going to let you trounce it. Late campaign enemies come with hard-hitting skills and instant death blows that tax your magic points or resurrecting items, while other foes soak up enough of your resources to send you doubling back to a restoration point, inn or item shop (assuming you can reach one). Even still, you'll mostly find the challenge factor on the easy side until you reach the adventure's conclusion, when you face the toughest of the required bosses. Although the lack of difficulty might sound like a bit of letdown, you also have to consider that encounters are set and your opponents don't respawn. Because of that, you can't grind to make yourself more powerful, and thus the game needs to remain somewhat balanced, if not a little on the easy side, and it thankfully accomplishes that end.

Unfortunately, victories hinge at least partially on how you build your characters, but the game doesn't offer much depth in that realm. Granted, the functions you receive are at least adequate, but could've been executed more effectively. For instance, there are three different armor classes, and anyone can use them. Sadly, there isn't enough variety in armor to fully flesh out the concept, and it comes across as a half-hearted attempt to broaden the game's party building features.

Thankfully, you can craft and augment equipment as well. The former of these functions, sadly, only allows you to build goods that you can just as easily buy. On the flip side, that means you can save money or acquire a few pieces of armor early, but that notion only rings true a couple of times throughout the campaign. Bear in mind that there are only four different crafting items, so it's not like the mechanic is fully developed.

Augments, on the other hand, do a lot more in regards to aiding your characters, either by adding significant stat bonuses to equipment or granting them special effects that can help you graciously in combat. Some of them are as basic as boosting strength or agility, while others give you a huge advantage (such as doubling your weapon's effectiveness) at some kind of a cost (like adding weight to the item, thereby causing an ally to act less frequently in a fight). As you can tell, augments are a fine addition, but it's a shame crafting didn't receive the same treatment.

Ultimately, Skyborn is a worthwhile, albeit somewhat flawed, RPG. It mainly succeeds by arranging familiar elements to create a fresh and exciting adventure, though it's missing the epic feel that longer roleplayers exude. Still, I'm reminded again that a lack of over-the-top cinematic elements is not necessarily a snag, and that a title of this nature can still deliver without them. No, not every game needs to radiate the production values of critically acclaimed titles or Hollywood popcorn fare to be worthwhile. They just need to make the assets they have work effectively, and Skyborn soars in that department.


JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Staff review by Joseph Shaffer (September 10, 2020)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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