At a glance, Tower in the Sky, from Three Brothers Games, resembles Plants vs. Zombies, with it's vertical positioning of characters, and horizontal advance of enemies. Beyond the battlefield layout, however, there is nothing the two titles really have in common. Tower in the Sky is a strategy RPG that comes close to being in the tower defense genre, but misses key elements. There's an innocence about this game, a charm similar to a newborn deer learning how to walk. The fawn will no doubt learn how to run as fast as its parents, but for now it is feeble and requires more aid than not. Unfortunately, a game can't be scored based on good intentions, and must be reviewed for the state its in when presented to the public. As it is, Tower in the Sky being available anywhere other than a flash-game website is confusing.
Tower in the Sky is available on Steam for $9.99.
Tower in the Sky begins as most Western RPGs do. A small village, a cataclysmic event, an ancient prophecy and a quest to save the world the awakened evil. Even the characters themselves seem bored by this premise, calling the quest "lame" and the idea of someone being the chosen one as ridiculous. Satirizing genres can be a lot of fun, even within the genre itself. However, the basic writing of the game warrants little more than a smirk at the beginning when you first see the characters are aware of the tropes they live with, and have become as unimpressed by them as a seasoned RPG fan might be.
The writing is where much of the stumbling in Tower in the Sky happens. The jokes fall flat, the dialogue tries to be witty but is ultimately lazy, and at the end of the day the story becomes woefully uninteresting. If you want to poke fun of the genre of your game, within your game, great! However, if one of your characters calls their quest "lame," and you don't then try to show the player why that's not true, then you've written something that's, well, lame. Tower in the Sky tries to shake things up a bit in the story, true, but it's a case of too little, too late.
The quality of the writing on all fronts is not witty enough to pull off the jokes and satire it seems to want to achieve. There's ways to fit the developers into your game world, even advertise your Facebook and Twitter accounts if you (for some reason) are so inclined. The laziest way is to simply have the developers standing there, with a computer, talking about how they created the entire world and asking the player, flat out, to visit their social media pages and buy DLC to support them. Support for indie studios is important, and hard to gain, but desperation drives more people away than it attracts.
Tower in the Sky is a deceptively challenging game. Early on things go swimmingly, but quickly things become more intense. New players might be overwhelmed with the required levels of lane switching and cooldown management. A good challenge is always welcomed in a game, in fact it's required for a game to be considered well designed. This game does not have a good challenge. Proper challenge is hard to design, and requires a lot of thought to be put into its design. It's easy to simply make something very difficult and call it a challenge. This does not make for good game design, however. Quite the opposite, in fact.
The strategy elements of Tower in the Sky come into play during the combat. The player makes a team of four heroes, selected from a collection of up to 12 characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Though their differences can be minor, the proper party composition is crucial in overcoming the game's challenge.
Once the party is selected, they are lined up vertically down four rows. Each hero can damage the advancing enemies in their row. Enemies move along the rows, advancing toward the heroes until they are within range, be it melee or at a distance, of a hero and then begin to attack. Your heroes are not static in their placement, but they are static in their actions. Each character has a basic attack and a special attack. Both forms of attacks go into a recharge state after being used. Unfortunately, these cooldowns feels brutally long, leaving you with several seconds where you can do nothing but let the monsters advance unhindered. It will take a lot of strategy to know how best to time your attacks and when to use special moves. In the midst of monsters that move on a timer, not based on what you're doing, this can become overwhelming fast.
Heroes can be moved freely from one lane to the other, swapping places with each other. This ability is the most important move you can make. In any given map, the player will need to constantly swap heroes around, so a hero is never just sitting idle. The movement of this is fluid, but perhaps too much so. There's no distinguishing one lane from another other than where a hero stands and where the enemies are moving. Fine enough when nothing is happening, but in the middle of a battle, it's easy to swap a hero into a lane that you did not intend to move them to. This is a minor hiccup, however, and since swapping can be done as much as you like, it's easily rectified, so long as you didn't waste an attack before realizing your mistake. Again, those cooldowns are very punishing.
Monsters come in a variety of forms, each with their own abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Some monsters require being within melee range of a hero in order to attack, while others can attack from afar, allowing them to pester you sooner rather than later. These ranged enemies can become particularly annoying, as some can attack multiple lanes at once.
Elemental types make up the forms of damage and monster types in Tower in the Sky. The game uses the triangle form of elemental types. Fire is strong against earth, earth is strong against water, and water is strong against fire. Using an elemental type that is strong against a foe causes guaranteed crits against them, and becomes an essential part of your strategy going into battles. Heroes can swap into different elemental attacks based on what weapon is currently equipped. Once in battle, though, equipment cannot be changed, so be sure to plan your gear out based on the enemies that are scheduled to appear.
While ranged monsters can attack from afar, they do so at a much slower pace than compared to their melee counterparts. When a monster manages to get up in your hero's face, they attack at a speed you could never hope to match. Between the time when you take your first swing at one, and the time you can get a second, the enemy has already hit you half a dozen times, and that's if you're lucky. It doesn't help that melee heroes tend to be much slower than their ranged counterparts. This makes using a melee hero almost a hindrance to your performance. However, they act as your last line of defense, should a wave become too much for the rangers and mages in your party.
To help in a pinch, the player has access to three super moves: a massive all-monster-damaging fire storm, a blizzard that freezes all monsters in place for a short time, and a party-wide full heal. Don't expect to be using these skills frequently, however. The fire storm spell you can see charge up, and will be ready for use roughly every three full battles or so. The blizzard and heal spells have set time limits. The area freeze effect takes 10 minutes to recharge. If you want to fully heal your party, you'll have to wait an entire hour after your last use of the spell.
In addition to these super spells, potions will randomly appear on the battlefield that can give your hero a shield, full health, or a period of super fast attack speed. However, how these flasks are acquired can cause problems. When a potion appears, you cannot click on it, drag it over a hero, or save it for later. To use it, you must attack that potion within the lane. Honestly, this makes some sense. It allows you to send a hero to that lane, and immediately use their attack to use the potion and apply it to that hero. There are more problems than benefits to this system, unfortunately. If a potion is on the field, you don't actively need that potion, and there's a monster behind it, you had better waste that potion, because the monster won't wait for you to use it. Shield and rage potions this is fine, as they can always be useful, but health potions, which are the most plentiful, have to often be wasted.
The RPG elements of Tower in the Sky come in the form of stats, experience/leveling up, and gear. Heroes have stats in attack, defense, and basic/special attack speeds, which dictates how quickly their attacks recharge. Gear falls into three categories: weapon, t-shirt, and accessory. There is also a skill tree that affects the performance of all your party members, and tiers are purchased with gems collected in battle. Beyond the mechanics, the setting is your typical Western RPG fair, albeit while trying to poke fun at common tropes found within the genre.
While all heroes in the party will receive the same amount of experience after a battle (though a lot less if the battle was a failure), those heroes that were on the bench get nothing. What happens in RPGs that do this is the player is forced to choose the party they want, and stick with them for the rest of the game. Swapping characters in and out makes the game go on far longer than it should, and requires grinding experience in order to keep everyone at the same relative strength. Grinding is enjoyed by some RPG players, myself included, but only when the game is fun enough to play that I don't mind doing battles over and over again. Tower in the Sky is far from being fun enough to warrant halting progress in order to level up a hero who was benched in the battles prior.
The developers have called the art style in this game "minimalist," but it's more like "early Flash," with movements that are stiffer than the pilot episode of South Park. Everything and everyone is made up of basic shapes and flat colors, occasionally having a gradient effect thrown in for "shading." There just doesn't seem to be all that much effort put into everything. Perhaps it's unfair to say there wasn't any effort put into the art. For all I know, the artist worked really hard to create the product we have available to us now. Even if that were the case, the end product is the same, and you don't get points for trying. When everything looks like a cheap Flash game, it becomes hard to justify paying $10 for the game.
Musically the game does fine. Nothing to write home about, but the tracks fit the setting and play nicely in the background. No one will be buying its soundtrack, but no one will be driven to muting the music all together, unless they have some other music they wanted to play instead. The sound effects also do a serviceable job, even if they sound like royalty free audio tracks, making the game seem even more basic than it already looks and feels.
If it sounds like I'm being too harsh, I don't mean to be, but it's important in a review to be honest, and honestly this game just isn't very good. There's charm there, sparse though it is, and a genuine sincerity to its presentation that almost makes one want to protect it from the harshness of the world, to give it a chance and watch it grow. There could be cult status in this game, assuming there is some deeper strategy to this game than I'm seeing. The "deep challenge" doesn't feel by design, however. Instead, it feels like the challenge was either purely incidental or lazily designed. Either way, the challenge of Tower in the Sky is not properly balanced.
There are good ideas in this game, or at least the semblance of them. Seeds of good design, but that were never properly watered or cared for. When creating a strategy game, especially one that is intended to have deep challenge in mind, it takes more design than what was given this title. If this is what results from Three Brothers Games putting forth all their effort, then another genre, with a smaller scale, for their next game is in order, and I do hope they make another game. Stopping now would be a shame, but continuing without learning from this game would be even worse.
|+ Easy to learn the mechanics||– Challenge is poorly designed, if designed at all|
|+ Wide cast of characters||– Art is amateurish|
|– Writing is subpar, unfunny, and fails at being meta|
|– Some mechanics cause more harm than good|