Every once in a while, when I’m not playing the same triple-A, mass-marketed garbage that all good gamers are expected to veg too, I like to check out the smaller indie games that pop up on my steam feed. Typically, that means I’m only playing the other giant indie games that have gotten rave reviews, because I’m a garbage boy who’s scared of putting money down on something entirely new, but every so often, when the moon is juuussssttttt right… I’ll try something completely and utterly “new” that still has an overwhelmingly positive review score on Steam. As long as it’s under twenty bucks. And on sale. And has a cool Airships Conquer the Skies soundtrack.
And over the weekend that game has been Airships: Conquer the Skies.
And I figured that since it’s been a long time since I did an actual deep dive/review on a single game, I was overdue to practice. So without further ado…
What is Airships: Conquer the Skies?
A:CS, which is what I’ll be calling it from now on to save time and sanity, is a 2D steampunk ship building and combat simulator, where you construct airships ranging between tiny to enormous and pit them against other airships for domination of the land and sky.
The game can be split into three distinct “phases”. The first phase, and arguably where the “meat” of the game is, is the “design” phase. In this phase, you design either a new airship, a new landship, or a new defensive tower, by selecting tiles and rooms and “building” one from scratch. It’s one of those “easy to learn, hard to master” sections where the act of actually building a ship is fairly easy: all you have to do is slap together the right rooms, throw on a canon, and you’re good to go… but building a good ship (and making it look pretty) is a far more time-consuming process.
Every ship has a number of things it needs to function: you need some way to fly (unless you’re a landship or building, of course), and some method to propel yourself through the skies, like with a sail or an engine. But that means you need coal, and probably some containers full of water to put out any fires that might happen on-board. You need a bridge to issue orders, you need ammunition to fire guns, and of course you need guns to fire in the first place. All of those things require men to operate, which means you need to have enough bunks to accommodate the sailors who’ll need to man these stations.
Of course, it’s one thing to have all these features. But placing them intelligently through the airship to make sure they’re easily accessible and efficient is important.
You have to balance the necessary with the perfunctory, of course. More cannons means more ability to blast away enemy ships, but it also means you need more men and more ammo. You’ll want a sick bay to help prevent the untimely death of your sailors, and possibly a guard barracks to protect your ship from any attempts to commandeer it… or perhaps you’d prefer a marine barracks who can board and capture enemy vessels on your behalf. Hell, you can even build a full-blown airstrip on the roof of your ship, if you feel so inclined to bring airplanes into the fray.
But obviously, all things are in moderation. And in this game, you not only have to manage the cost of all these extra rooms, you also have to manage their weight, as the bigger your ship is (and the heavier it’s armor is), the worse it’ll be able to fly, being unable to move as fast or as high in the sky as some of the ships you’ll be facing, which could leave your behemoth of a ship out-flanked and out-maneuvered.
From there, things hinge on which mode you’re playing.
If you’re just playing a straight-up battle mode, you can plop your creation on the battlefield (alongside any other ships and buildings you may have designed or taken from the Steam Workshop) and see how it fares against another fleet. Battles in this game are done in real-time, with players taking the role of commander, issuing basic orders to their fleet. While ships will do a lot of small things automatically, like put out fires, fix broken parts, load, aim, and fire ammunition, you have to command the big stuff: a ship’s position, how quickly it fires, if it should be grounded, who should board and capture what, things of that nature. In single-player and multiplayer both, you can adjust the speed of the game, so it moves either at a pretty fast pace, or slow enough that even the most dull-witted commander can figure out their strategy and map things out accordingly.
Just heads up: ships are very dumb when they fly, and if you order your ship carelessly, they can and will crash into each other.
During battle, ships will fire at one another and suffer damage real-time, which is part of the reason why ship layout is so important. Blow out a ship’s propellers, for example, and they won’t be able to move side to side. Destroy however they’re staying afloat, and they’ll drop like a sack of rocks. That would normally afford you some strategic choice, except you can’t actually command where a ship targets on an enemy ship: you can tell them to focus fire on one enemy, but if they hit the cockpit or the turrets or just the broad side of the ship, that basically comes down to luck.
Battles continue until one side is unable to fight, or just surrenders. And again, how quickly a ship goes down comes down to luck, largely. I’ve seen the same design of ship get knocked down in the first few seconds in one fight, while in the next it was firing the last of its ammo as the last man standing, battered and grounded but still in the fight. But that doesn’t mean luck is the sole determinant of victory: a well-designed ship will best their opponents pretty consistently, and being smart with positioning (like keeping the sun out of your eyes) can make the difference between a victory and a defeat.
Both modes are sort of “combined” in the games conquest mode, where you play on a simple map, build armadas, and send them to capture territory. The mode is the definition of simple: there’s almost no strategic choice to be had, outside how brutally to run your empire (more brutal means less money but more security, while the opposite is true for more relaxed rule) and where to send your armadas. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun, though: sending a huge armada to capture a capital city, which will probably have powerful turrets defending it, is still quite the spectacle.
It also adds a few more strategic choices to the broad experience. For example: in this mode, you have to research certain technology before you can use it, which might mean that you have helicopters and powerful turrets, but your opponent has spider-legged landslips decked out in the latest body armor. There are also “monsters” in this mode, such as gargoyles, giant bees, and dragons, which you can send your airships to hunt for bonuses and loot.
Oh, and of course, both this mode and the battle mode can be played online or via local LAN.
Is it good, though?
Well, I’ve certainly enjoyed it, but it’s obviously not without its flaws. Oftentimes, you won’t know a part of your ship is destroyed thanks to how far back the camera is pulled, so when you try to command a ship to a certain point only to find it’s stranded in mid-air, it always feels annoying. There’s a lot of creativity on hand with how you build and customize your ships, but it can also be a clunky, time-consuming process, especially with how terrible the menu is for selecting rooms and parts. Indeed, the menu is the opposite of intuitive, and I’ve had to scan the list a few dozen times to find the exact room I was looking for, or to remember that I don’t have that part available yet thanks to my research levels. Maps are also pretty boring after a while, and with no weather outside the sun to batter your ships, sometimes it feels like a bit waste of potential. And of course, in conquest mode, there’s really no strategic element to the cities you choose to capture: all any of them do is produce a small amount of revenue.
Oh, and boarding ships seem a little overpowered right now.
Still, I’ve had a lot of fun with this game, designing new ships, and seeing how badly they fare to the more professionally designed ships of other players and the computers. But if there’s another game out there that allows me to build a floating airship that runs enemies through with two buzz saws and then incinerate what remains with a giant flamethrower, I’d love to see it.
I mean it. Tell me if that game is out there.