As with any new game, I sat down to Skyborn with my arguably self-righteous checklist in hand: a checklist inscribed in gold leaf and laminated. To my surprise, the first five minutes of Dancing Dragon’s new release gave me opportunity to tick off a good few points already (in whiteboard marker of course- lamination means the checklist is wipeable, for re-use). Female protagonist? Check. Female engineer protagonist? Check. Solidarity between different races? Check. With a bead of sweat running down my forehead, I made my way through the next 6 hours, praying I wouldn’t have to wipe off any of these ticks (ability to retract approval is another perk of lamination).
All in all, Skyborn is made for fans of BioShock Infinite and Howl’s Moving Castle. Set in a city run by the upper ‘Skyborn’ race, you play Claret Spencer as she uncovers an underground movement fighting to liberate the ‘half-breeds’: the lovechildren between Skyborn and humans, who are oppressed by their superiors. Everyone loves a good resistance story. Charming music, good humour and roleplaying format combined, it’s blindingly obvious that Dancing Dragon are infatuated by Pokémon, and work with a ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it’ design plan.
Combat is here what you’d expect: a static battle sequence where you combine complimenting skills and attacks, using the different pals you accumulate on the player’s journey. This is refreshing if you’re usually inebriated with first-person shooters, but we can’t exactly call it original. There were even multiple ‘Zubats’ in multiple caves; thankfully, each ‘Zubat’ is easily acknowledged and avoided by speedily rushing past. So at least some lessons have been learned. One innovative feature is the opportunity to go up a ‘class’ at certain intervals of the game. This allows each playable character to specialise their combat styles, keeping the learning curve moderately steep and ultimately engaging throughout. The player also has the option to craft and augment their own weapons and armour, which is a nice touch.
With seemingly endless mazes, side quests and items to collect, the game keeps the player keen. As you’d expect, though, this can be infuriating if you have the attention span of a swan. Some elements of the game seem also seem a bit unfinished; often paths suddenly stop with no end, and entering a door from either side may take the player to different places every time you pop through. Yet the controls are simple, and with such a tried and tested format, nothing takes away from sheer, immersive enjoyment. The finale is a well-rounded affair, if a bit trippy, and Anita Sarkeesian herself would give a solid nod at the conclusion.
Trying not to be too biased from a feminist perspective, I would still argue that Skyborn is so immeasurably safe in all aspects, it must be self-conscious. Much in a ‘Mum’s roast dinner’ kind of way, you know exactly what you’re getting – almost to the point you could guess the entire story progression from the outset – but this often means our human natures are trusting and open to any slight differences that may be introduced. Changes here involve the portrayal of both believable women, and the ever-believable issue of racial inequality. These here can be tackled on the ‘inside’, so to speak. And in a format enjoyable for any age, the safety net created by Skyborn is a great example of how the game industry can be both radical and conservative in it’s approach to challenging the status quo.