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Professional-quality! ...As RPG Maker projects go.

As a note, this is a review I originally wrote and posted on my personal blog, which is typically read by exactly one online friend and involves brief reviews of the games I've been playing lately. The review was written in terms of the broad range of games available in the commercial market, but the star-score I'm giving it on here is in context of the type of games posted on rpgmaker.net.


This is the first actual, professionally-sold game I've played that was made using an RPG Maker system. :o I picked it up as part of a Humble Bundle for RPG Maker (I now have RPG Maker VX Ace as a result of that too, although I doubt I'll make serious use of it anytime soon). In a way, I want to be optimistic about this sort of game development; it feels good to think that the sort of system I've been mucking around with for the past decade could be a commercially viable way of making games. On the other hand, these games are oceans apart from the quality level and mechanical originality possible by making games in lower-level systems. If you want to make a tile-based 2D RPG, with maybe a few extra gimmicks if you have somebody with enough programming knowledge to pull it off yet who isn't working in more advanced areas, great, but I wouldn't want to live in a world where such games dominate the market. X) A healthy fringe market for enthusiasts of such games wouldn't be bad, but I have to imagine only a few very talented and driven developers could carve out a good living in that space. Which, in a way, isn't so different from the game development industry as a whole. c.ca

Anyway, on to the game itself. Skyborn is a pretty typical old-school JRPG-style experience. It's set in a Final Fantasy-esque world of magic combined with technology that can do just about anything but has to look like steam engines, where humans live under the subjugation of winged humans (though they'll deny any connection) called skyborn. The main protagonist is a plucky wrench wench who "purchases" an airship without consent in order to escape a business-arranged marriage to an upper-class industrialist's son, only to discover he was on board when she made off with his craft. Then it turns out he's the leader of a resistance movement against the skyborn, and she gets swept up in the quest to rescue oppressed human/skyborn half-breeds and other victims of skyborn supremacy. Along the way they pick up her childhood friend who was secretly a half-breed with magical talent, a cute monster girl of mysterious origins, and a skyborn femme searching for answers about why her race is the way it is. It's not a mind-blowing story, but it's entertaining enough and keeps you looking forward to the next plot progression.

The game relies heavily on many of the default assets provided by RPG Maker VX Ace. Most of the monsters and attack animations are straight from the generic bin. Given that the default assets fit with the type of story Skyborn is telling, that's not entirely a bad thing--why spend time and effort creating original assets when you already have generic ones and you could be spending that time polishing more important parts of the game, you could say. Of course, it probably did limit their design choices in some ways, and it means anybody who's ever played any other game using those assets isn't "getting their money's worth" by seeing new pretty assets. ;) The main thing which the developers made original are the main characters, which each have several professional-quality portraits showing different expressions during dialogue. There are also a few boss enemies with original sprites, for which they did a decent job matching the style of the default assets so that seeing them isn't too jarring.

The combat system does have some fresh and interesting ideas. The skills all appear to be original, and they interact in strategic ways. Of particular interest is a "threat" system which governs which hero will be targeted by single-target attacks from the enemies. This makes defending a tactically important option, since you can know which hero will be facing the assaults next and you can reduce your damage taken to a fraction of what it would've been. The trouble, of course, is that if a hero just stands there defending, their threat level will soon be surpassed by the other heroes who are out there dealing blows. X) They also treat MP as a percentage rather than a plain number, so a given spell/technique/whatever costs the same percentage of a hero's reserves to use whether they're doing it at level 1 or level 100. This helps keep all the skills that are learned relevant regardless of how high in level the heroes grow. Of course, this only works because the heroes all have unique skills, so their costs can be tailored to the number of uses the particular hero should be able to make of them. I may adapt this idea somewhat to Forgotten Gates, by which I mean I'll make the MP stat range increase with levels by a smaller proportion than other stats, say doubling or maaaaybe tripling when you reach level 50 rather than being six times what you started with. That way the more magely combatants can be given more spell uses under a formulaic cost system and all of them can endure more uses as they grow stronger, but not to a runaway degree.

As a side note, I found that the combat in this game was brain-dead easy until I switched the difficulty level to hard. How exactly this difficulty adjustment works, I'm not sure; it doesn't seem to be a provided feature of RMVX, but I've seen it in the menu of other RMVX games, so it's probably a generic add-on somebody developed. The game doesn't seem to be properly tailored to work well at all difficulty levels, because it was great playing on hard up until the third-to-last boss. It seemed impossible to beat her at first, but after many attempts and accidental discoveries I finally did work out a strategy that allowed survival and attrition against her. That was exhilarating, though even then I had to try over and over and get lucky for it to carry me all the way through. Then I found the last couple bosses, which really were obviously impossible at hard. :P

Finally, there's the layout of the game world. It's pretty standard JRPG-style semi-mazes for the most part, with occasional switch-controlled barriers. The locations in an RPG usually function mostly as a pretty place to explore and a container for combat encounters, after all. Well, some of the places in Skyborn, particularly enclosed ones, feel pretty believable and enjoyable that way...others not so much. In particular, there were a few areas that consisted of irrationally-shaped bridges over impressive backdrops. Seriously, they were meandering and branching trails of wooden slats impossibly suspended over giant ravines. X)

Bottom line? If you're a JRPG enthusiast, this could be worth picking up on sale, but it's really barely more than a high-end hobbyist game.