Review: Merchants of the Sky

By Dave Neumann 17 Feb 2014 0
Meanwhile, on the island of Sodor... Meanwhile, on the island of Sodor...

Upon loading Merchants of the Sky for the first time, you’re met with a rather beautiful 3D world consisting of islands floating amongst clouds. As the tutorial began, I realized that, not only did it look good, but it’s also a city-builder. City-builders are one of my favorite game genres, and I was very excited.

The tutorial abandoned me after an only vaguely informative couple of minutes, and my excitement waned. Now what? Scanning through all the menus in the game, it appeared to be huge. Tons of goods to manufacture? Yep. Dozens of buildings to build? Yep. Technologies to research? That too. Maybe everything was going to be all right.

But that laundry list of city-building ephemera didn't really matter. Merchants of the Sky puts on a good city-building facade, but underneath it’s a very simple game that, in the end, doesn’t come close to scratching that SimCity itch.

A new game of Merchants of the Sky begins with your airship hovering above 6 islands in the sky, and you’re charged with parking it on one and building a colony. Your airship is loaded with stone, steel and tracks to build. Yes, tracks. By the time you’re done, you’ll have laid enough track to make Sir Topham Hatt blush. Riding the rails, are little cargo and passenger trains zipping around picking up and delivering goods and your docile peasants. There is no way to control the trains: no switches or sidings, no loops and no double track. Once built, trains just zip along on their merry way, slowing down only for other trains or for loading/unloading.

Trains connect to resources like iron, stone, sand and oil, and carry those good to your factories or warehouses. Factories make simple things like clothes and furniture up to more complex goods like plastics and microchips. These goods are things your people want and will buy, which fills your pockets with sweet, sweet cash. Demand for these goods is triggered by how many people live in your colony, and, once built are indistiguishable from each other. You get no advantage from building electronics vs. clothes, it's just depends on how many people you have and what they demand.

There was a peaceful town called Rock Ridge. There was a peaceful town called Rock Ridge.

That’s all fine and good, but it takes away a strategic staple of city-builders, which is population control. Most city builders would require you to have a source of higher-end goods in order to attract more people to your city. Without those goods, your city will stagnate and population will remain constant or drop. Part of the strategy is determining when to build these industries. If you build too soon, before you’re ready, they tend to be a drain on your economy as you stockpile goods that nobody wants. Too late and your population plateaus. There’s none of that in Merchants. In fact, when you build a house (which only costs stone, no manufactured goods are required) you automatically receive 5 workers. So, in theory, you can spend stone and push your population as high as you want. Of course, there would be repercussions, as your population’s happiness drops if they are unemployed, if they can’t get goods they want, or if they wait too long for a train. Managing these, however, was incredibly easy and I never had my population’s happiness drop below 90%, and it was at 100% for a vast majority of the time.

The concept of the separate islands, each with their own colonies, comes right from SimCity 4 where you have adjoining cities that you can use as trade partners. Each colony is its own little kingdom, and the only thing connecting your colonies together are your airships that will transport goods between them. This is needed as the desert and snow islands are the only islands with oil and desert islands are your only source of sand. So, if you need to make goods that use those, you’ll need to either transport those resources or finished goods to your other colonies. This is handled pretty well, with the ability to automate your airships, which will fly between all your colonies based on what import/export levels you’ve set at each one.

Technology research is also handled well in the game. There are 8 different technologies, each with 5 levels. The technology ranges from simple things like making your trains run faster and unload quicker, to irrigating desert islands so you can grow food there instead of having to airlift it in. The rate of research is controlled by how many labs and universities you have built and, unlike everything else in the game which is kept separate for each colony, your technological discoveries are shared amongst all your colonies. This definitely makes setting up new colonies easier, but also might make it too easy. For example, the technology to irrigate the desert island it the level 3 Agriculture tech. Why would you even try to colonize a desert island before you’ve researched this? It really makes the desert and snow islands no more difficult than colonizing a lush, green island. Starting a new colony with slow trains and the inability to create my own food might have added a bit of challenge to the mid-game.

And yet, unemployment remains at 0%. And yet, unemployment remains at 0%.

That’s really my main beef with Merchants of the Sky. It’s so easy. There’s literally no challenge here at all. The main reason, I think, is the lack of scarcity. The islands are literally covered with mines and, as far as I can tell, they never run out of goods. So, once you build an iron mine, it will produce iron for eternity. Add to that a completely static environment, and you can stockpile goods like like you're jacked on moonshine and it’s Y2K all over again.

When I say static, I mean that there is no randomness. Once you build an economy that is even remotely in the black, you can just let the game run forever and it will happily just keep filling your warehouses and wallet. I seriously had zero steel (because I went on a building binge) and wanted to buy a Research Center which needed 80 steel. I just sat my iPad down and went and talked to my family for 10 minutes, came back and built my Research Center. So, not only wasn’t I challenged by the game, but I was forced to talk to my family. Seriously? That’s at least -1 star. I’ve played 3 different games so far, and I’ve yet to come close to running out of money, having my people angry with me, or be remotely challenged. The game pretty much runs itself.

I don’t want you to think Merchants of the Sky is terrible. It’s not. But it’s not a game at this point. It’s like building a train set and watching it go. And it is a very pretty train set. They really did a job with the art in the game (although I’m annoyed that Research Centers look like giant microscopes…really?), and watching your little trains zip around can be entertaining by itself. I can definitely see kids getting into this game, and it’s simple enough that they shouldn’t have a problem building some nice colonies. When it comes to decisions to be made and strategies to plan, however, it’s on par with Mr. Ludo.

Review: Merchants of the Sky

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