"Skyborn is one of those games that made me think, 'Wow! This should be a hit animated series with action-figure tie-ins.'"
Skyborn is a steampunk/fantasy hybrid RPG from Dancing Dragon Games. Although Dancing Dragon Games might sound new to most, it is actually the upgraded venture of Deadly Sin developer and music composer Phil Hamilton. The Deadly Sin games are still in the Dancing Dragon library and the developer has a cool-looking "Metroidvania" style game in the works whose early screenshots remind me of Strider for the NES. If Skyborn is any indication, the future of this development house bodes well because Skyborn is a polished title that made me excited about RPG Maker-developed games again.
So, who are the skyborn?
The skyborn are a race of winged beings who wield magic and view themselves as the superior race. They won the great war against the humans generations ago and although they were benevolent at first, they've become tyrannical now. The only beings treated worse than subjugated humans are the halfbreeds, whom the skyborn routinely kidnap, torture, and eradicate.
Eking out an honest existence in this steampunk-meets-fantasy world is Claret Spencer- a gifted mechanic. She and her brother Jake have been running the family repair shop since the loss of their parents and life is pretty normal. The story starts with Claret repairing an airship for a wealthy client when some skyborn officials suddenly break into her shop and harass an employee of hers named Corwin. She angrily drives them off and gets back to work, but the hands of fate refuse to leave well enough alone that day. It seems her dear brother has secretly arranged to sell the shop to the aforementioned wealthy client and even offered Claret as a betrothal! I'll give you one guess how Claret reacts and what she does next. A simple life that makes sense is no longer in the cards for Claret and her forced entry down the proverbial rabbit hole takes many twists and turns before culminating into a satisfying ending.
The story is not some convoluted Xenogears-esque epic that will break your brain, a poignant drama like To The Moon, or one of those groan-worthy JRPG tales that feign depth by making the obvious seem profound. It's just a well-told, rollicking JRPG-style story with engaging (albeit archetypical) characters and some cool steampunk atmosphere. Sure there are some typical JRPG storytelling issues, like people joining Claret's party five seconds after meeting her, but I didn't mind them because I was having so much fun.
The fun times can last from 8-12 hours depending on the gamer. A speed runner who avoids optional content will probably blow through the game in a single weekend. A more patient gamer who likes to stop and smell the roses will have a longer experience. The game is, therefore, perfect for gamers with busy schedules. I enjoy a 50 hour epic as much as the next person, but not when it requires a 2-3 month time commitment due to my busy "real" life and when play time feels artificially padded. I'd rather have an amazing 10 hour experience that leaves me wanting more than a humdrum 50 hour one that I can't wait to shelve. Skyborn clearly falls in the former camp and I'm left wanting more adventures and misadventures of Claret and company.
The skyborn look pretty with those shimmery wings.
The game has a strong sense of style, but the visuals themselves are a bit of a mixed bag. The crown jewel of the graphics is the full size character portraits accompanying dialogue. I'll just come out and say it: Claret is a very attractive heroine. Imagine if Chrono Trigger's Lucca grew up into a knockout adult, and you have Claret. Even better is that characters' expressions change depending on what they're saying, making the art lively and animated. The other character art is beautifully drawn as well, although I still hold a personal bias against skimpy, midriff-exposing "armor" on female warriors. They're cool characters if I look beyond the chainmail bikinis, but I still say if the boys can have fully protective armor then so should the girls.
Claret's sprite is also quite detailed and has some nice animations. Her party members' sprites are unique, but NPC sprites are the same ones as those used in Deadly Sin: Shining Faith and Lilly and Sasha: Curse of the Immortals. So while the NPC sprites look nice, I've seen them before. One aspect I miss from the Deadly Sin games is the large and fully animated battle sprites. I get the feeling the developer wanted those in Skyborn but couldn't enlist that sprite artist. To partially make up for that, the heroes' facial portraits change expression during battle when their HP is low. I also would have also liked to see glossier and more original enemy art to really punctuate the stylish anime look of the game. I liked the original portrait art used for the optional "uber-boss" battle but the generally stock enemy art just wasn't cutting it for me.
Skyborn's world is comprised of a blend of original and stock tilesets from both RPG Maker XP and VX. The steampunk environments look great and have a distinct sense of style. On the other hand, the more fantasy oriented and natural environments look more stock. The best blending of original and stock resources is in the menu interface. The interface is VX stock, but the effort to decorate the box borders, mouse pointer, and incorporate a scrolling background in the main menu is great. I feel that most RPG Maker games don't put enough effort into making their interfaces look anything beyond bone stock, so this gets a thumbs up from me. The only issue I have with the interface is that when "instant" text is selected, sometimes text scrolls too quickly when characters say a mouthful very quickly (i.e. when Claret spews a litany of airship damages to a client.)
But you'd best not toy with them...
The gameplay is 2D turn-based JRPG gameplay done well. Towns and dungeons are nicely laid out and invite exploration. As with Eternal Eden, enemies are visible and do not respawn once disposed of. This makes any sidequests in previously visited areas more pleasurable because there is no needless combat. I rarely do sidequests, but the "one and done" encounters in Skyborn made me actively seek out sidequests and engage in more thorough exploration. As a result, Skyborn is one of those rare RPGs that made me wish for additional sidequests. I also explored to find shiny nodes throughout the towns and dungeons that give nice EXP boosts to the party. This reward proves more valuable than useless treasure when venturing off the beaten path.
The turn-based battles are paced well and contain the developer's signature "threat" feature. The more a character hits an enemy, the more his/her "threat" bar increases, drawing attacks to him or her. This takes some of the randomness out of the typical dice-roll nature of turn-based battling and makes battling more about strategic skill and less about luck. There is also a turn-order display like that in Final Fantasy X so players know when a hero or enemy will take action. While, yes, the battle interface is an RPG Maker default interface, the layout is more streamlined and ergonomic than in, say, Prodigy of the North: Akatori which utilized the same interface.
Skyborn offers three difficulty levels that can be switched on the fly. Normally, my lack of time and patience has me select "easy" so I can play mostly for the story. However, there were times I found "easy" a little too easy so it was nice to switch to normal or even hard whenever I felt like it. Sometimes I would play on "easy" to clear out a dungeon then switch to normal or even hard for the boss. Some RPGFan readers may find the game generally skewed easy, but the optional content outside of the main story provides a nice challenge. Even on easy mode, optional dungeons and the battle arena provide a challenge that keeps players on their toes.
Anything else I should add? Oh yes, forging and augments. Weapons and armor can be bought in stores the old fashioned way, but since the protagonist is a mechanic, she can turn raw materials found throughout the world into weapons and armor at a forge. Raw materials are in finite supply so use the forge wisely. Weapons and armor (for head, chest, and arms) can be given added traits with materials called "augments" in a simplified version of Final Fantasy VII's Materia system. For example, augmenting a ruby to a weapon increases the character's strength stat or augmenting a nerve root to armor provides immunity to poison. Each weapon or piece of armor can only carry one augment at a time and if you wish to replace augments, the one already attached will be destroyed. Therefore, place rare augments with caution.
The only gameplay aspect I am not completely satisfied with is the lack of airship flying. The airship in the game looks fantastic and is an important part of the story, yet I never got to experience the joy of airship flight, even as a mini-game like the Kingdom Hearts Gummi Ship. Okay, the game works just fine without airship flight and I prefer not to see games try to shoehorn needless gimmicky elements in, but my personal bias favors RPGs where I can pilot vehicles around the world.
...or you'll get an earful!
Those familiar with the Deadly Sin games know that Phil Hamilton is first, and foremost, a music composer and his games are a vehicle for his compositions. Although Skyborn's compositions sound more streamlined than his more technically complex earlier work, they fit the game's atmosphere like an airship mechanic's work glove. I could try and explain the various aspects of the music, but what does it matter? Good music needs no justification and the music here is good. The only sonic aspect that would truly take this game over the top is voice acting. I could easily envision Mel's (from Aveyond 3) voice actress portraying Claret very well.
So, should you associate with the skyborn?
Skyborn is a game that offers a level of refinement and quality superior to most RPG Maker-based games costing $5- $10 more. I never really thought of it as "a mere RPG Maker game" except when I had to write about the technical aspects of it in my review. Even then, it still exudes a sense of style all its own and transcends its humble roots in some ways. Were I to ONLY compare it to other RPG Maker games, its score would be about 5 points higher; but I respect it enough to look at it beyond the blinders of that niche and put it in with the "bigger boys." A good game is a good game and Skyborn is one of those games that made me think, "Wow! This should be a hit animated series with action-figure tie-ins." I'd watch a Skyborn animated series on television and buy some action figures, for sure.