Review: Airship: Kingdoms Adrift
When you dive into the video game sea, sometimes you can uncover a hidden gem. Other times, maybe not so much. But it’s always an adventure regardless, and in the sea that is my email inbox, I came across something that looked a bit different, yet intriguing.
The media featured what looked like classic sailing ships, but they were sailing through the sky. Airship: Kingdoms Adrift, it was called. It seemed to be mashing up more than a few of my favorite things, what with me being a certified pirate and all. Interesting concept, I thought to myself, let’s give it a shot.
Airship: Kingdoms Adrift released on Sept. 21, 2023 for Steam on PC (and is labeled as “Playable” on Steam Deck), developed by Revolution Industry and published by Freedom Games. And away we go, off into the sky!
The game takes place in a semi-fantasy reimagined Earth-like world where, for reasons entirely unknown and not explained, the land shattered and broke up into many floating islands. It’s kind of implied that a war has something to do with this, but again, it is never explained. Mankind persevered though this calamity and developed airships to allow travel between islands.
Today, the known world is controlled by three main factions – the Aecerlian Kingdom, New Viridian Republic, and Teutonic Confderation, and you will choose one of these as your home nation. However, regardless of which one you choose, as the captain of an airship, you will seek out to join and work for the Silverblum Trading Company. Through a series of events, you will tangle with a band of pirates known as the Free Traders as you freely adventure across the skies at your own pace. The home nation selection seems to mainly determine the ship you start with, as each nation has different ship designs.
The story presented is pretty basic and is primarily intended to set the stage, as this is billed by the developers as a sandbox game. That said, the world concept that comes to life from it seems not terribly unlike that of Skies of Arcadia, just without the deep RPG elements and combat, as this game entirely focuses on ship-to-ship combat and trading.
The introductory story is interesting and it effectively brings you into the world and makes you want to explore it, though I feel like it could use more depth of detail. Early NPC interactions are fully voiced but that drops off partially after the first mission. It’s also worth noting that the dialog is conveyed entirely on a bland screen with just static images of the NPCs and text (sometimes accompanied by voice). Models of the characters, even if only in a window, would have been more impressive.
Man the Guns
The bulk of the game has you piloting your airship, which, with the exception of those from the Teutonic Confederation, look more like 17th-18th century sailing ships than what most people would imagine an airship to look like. Instead these craft are driven by propeller, and apparently kept aloft by something called a mana drive, rather than a gas envelope. Your ship is completely motionless when you aren’t propelling it, so there’s no air currents or turbulence, at least not that I was able to see.
As you explore, whether to trade, carry out missions, or engage with pirates or rob other ships, it feels more like you’re just sailing on an invisible ocean more than it feels like flying through the sky. You sail at a fixed altitude, even though sometimes, particularly around settlements, you may see other ships below you. Being limited to a 2D plane in the sky feels really bizarre and limiting to me. Settlements are always well below you and only show as a big circle indicating where you can land; you must take off and land to visit them to buy and sell goods, repair and replenish your ship, and carry out upgrades.
As far as getting to those settlements, you may want to get a book to read, as it takes a long time to travel from one place to another. You can have time pass at two speeds: Slow as molasses, and ten-times the slow speed, which is still slow in all ways other than when it comes to steering your ship. But most of the time you’re going to want to use the autopilot. Other than a few floating rocks that do seem to do absolutely nothing if you collide with them (???), and the occasional enemy ship, there is little reason to manually steer outside of combat.
Interestingly, when you engage the autopilot, it reports your ETA based on the fast game speed, even if you set the slow game speed, which tells me that they really expect you to just use that outside of combat. In some cases, it took me two minutes (on the fast speed) to go from one town to another, which means at the slow speed it would take 20 MINUTES to get there. I guess the devs wanted it to be realistic? But then why does the game use fantasy elements?
I’ve been griping a fair bit here, but on to where the game excited me the most: the combat. In an interesting twist, the ship-to-ship combat highly resembles that of another somewhat obscure game I’ve actually played, an MMO called Pirates of the Burning Sea, or PotBS (2008). The way you control your ship, engage enemies, and fire the guns is all very similar to that game, and I wonder if they drew significant inspiration from that, given this game also features pirate and non-pirate factions much the same as Airship does.
You can steer your ship, with the range cones of all your guns visible around your ship, and when the enemy is within them, press one button to fire all guns that are loaded and ready. There are a wide variety of weapons you can equip your ship with and, using the ship customization feature, you can pretty freely re-arrange and upgrade things to suit your tastes.
The game doesn’t pull punches, either, as even if you choose the path of the combatant, the first enemies you meet are all pretty even matches for you. It took me numerous tries to complete just the first mission given as the game begins until I got the hang of it, and winning battles was very satisfying. The only issue is, again, you could just as easily be battling on the ocean as you are in the sky since everything takes place on a 2D plane.
I also have to say the game took a fair bit of time to figure out how to play. The first mission is meant as a tutorial of sorts, but gameplay and control is never explained. There’s just a “tutorial” button at the top of the screen that contains general advice about various topics. Other than telling you to press space to fire the guns in your first battle at the start of the game, you are told virtually nothing else. Not how to navigate or use the autopilot, what the plethora of detailed stats in the game mean, nothing. The player on-boarding experience definitely needs some improvement.
Finally, I’d like to talk about expectations a bit. I’m not going to penalize the game much for this specifically, as I realize all of our expectations are different. Given how I felt the game took substantial inspiration for its sailing and combat from Pirates of the Burning Sea, I was hoping that there would also be missions on land and you would control a character in the towns and walk around and such, with a set of skills for combat on foot. “Away missions,” if you will. Unfortunately there are no people modeled in the game and, while the towns look remarkably detailed when you land your ship, they just beg to be able to be explored on foot and you simply can’t.
I will cut Airship slack here since that probably would have put the game more on the order of an MMO like PotBS actually is and the devs probably didn’t have the budget and scope for something like that. But that is something I can respect, even if I definitely would have paid good money to play in this world with these sorts of things in the game (and issues addressed, of course), and I’m sure some players bought into this knowing that it would be all about sailing an airship. But the more I played this game, the more I wanted it to actually be like PotBS, just with flying ships.
Sailing in Style
On the artistic front, I have bizarrely little to say. The visuals… are visuals, I guess. The scenery in towns and settlements is remarkably detailed, as are the ships. But when you’re up in the sky, everything you can see other than the ships looks drastically simplified. The game does offer some impressive volumetric cloud effects, but other than that… there really isn’t much to see, and it’s a bit disappointing. There’s also the fact those detailed settlements make you want to explore them… but again, you can’t.
The ship models look quite good, but they suffer from just being floating models. The propellers spin and there is a greenish wake behind your ship while cruising and taking off/landing. But no crew visible on the ship, not even simple sprites on the deck to look like deckhands doing their work, detracts from the visual experience and make the game feel less alive.
On the audio side, we have a pretty decent musical score, with the kind of music you’d expect from typical RPG towns. Lots of strings and some horns, and nice music while sailing that conveys a solid sense of adventure as you go to and fro. The music shifts in certain situations, such as an approaching enemy vessel. Together with that, we have some fairly decent voice acting for the key characters in the game, who give a better performance than the text that accompanies it, which needs a little proofreading in places.
Arriving at Destination
Airship: Kingdoms Adrift is an odd beast. On the one hand, it offers engaging combat with a complicated system of stats for the ships and their components. On the other hand, other aspects of the game feel over-simplified. The idea of locking airships to a 2D plane in flight is really strange to me and disappointing to anyone who thought flying them was going to be something more than it actually was. I really wanted to explore the locations I visited as much if not more than the sky itself, but you simply can’t do that in this game.
The overall gameplay is quite decent. But the bizarre design decisions regarding flight, settlements, and NPC interaction, coupled with some annoying issues, like lack of fast-travel or tutorials, leave you with with a blend of both fun and frustration that just doesn’t quite payoff in the end. I can see a niche audience for a game like this. But to have a broader appeal, I think Airship: Kingdoms Adrift needed more time in the oven to expand its feature set and create a good on-boarding experience.
Review copy provided by Freedom Games for Steam on PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.