City builders and management games have always been a bit hit or miss for me. Most of them eventually become repetitive, and I begin to tire of the same atmosphere, environments and mechanics while I try desperately to keep my citizens alive. Airborne Kingdom seeks to throw the entire genre upside by having the player build a flying city while simultaneously exploring the open world and completing quests - and succeeds mightily.
In Airborne Kingdom, we begin our journey with an enormous task - rebuild the legendary flying kingdom of old and secure the alliances of the twelve disconnected kingdoms that lay scattered across the land. These kingdoms were once a whole, and now each struggles to stay alive. Beginning with the last remnants of the ancient civilization's technology, your kingdom sets sail for new horizons with a crew of ten tiny, but determined citizens.
I found many familiar components of city builder games in Airborne Kingdom; food, water, coal to run the motor, wood, clay, iron and glass to build and of course citizen happiness. Just as important as the materials, however, are the physics. The pull of gravity will begin to weight down your town as you build, and only by providing more Lift can your kingdom-in-the-making stay afloat. Beyond that, you'll also need to account for Tilt. It is exactly what it sounds like; as you build, you'll need to keep weight distribution even on all four sides, lest your city tip sideways and your little polygonal citizens tumble into the vast below.
Soon you'll have your first row of houses built, and that's when the magic happens. Before you lies a vast open world to explore from the skies, full of resources, wonders, ancient ruins and settlements aplenty. You'll need to keep your citizens happy by providing them with "desires" to plants and streetlights while maintaining the Lift and Tilt of the kingdom. Resources like wood or water are collected from the ground by sending down scouts as you pass overhead, and the rate at which you gather can of course be upgraded through a city-builder staple: a technology tree.
You'll need to be conscious about zoning, too; if you place the industrial district too close to a residential district your citizens will file complaints about the noise and odor. In the most flattering way possible, the entire thing is exceedingly cute. This is as close as a video game will ever get to Studio Ghibli's Castle in the Sky.There's also a robust photo mode you can use to show off your healthily growing kingdom to your friends. Building colors are totally customizable too, and you'll discover new pallets for buildings along the journey that can be applied to building types wholesale to keep a consistency in your town's aesthetic.
Building research centers will allow you to upgrade your town and build new machines to in the pursuit of resources, storage, lift and propulsion, or luxuries. The tech tree is very simple and easy to progress through - research doesn't require any materials, just your time and a few citizens for labor. This means you're always researching, always in pursuit of the next upgrade, and being able to research without any materials got me out of one or two scrapes with total calamity.
I was never worried during the six hour campaign about keeping my people alive; I was simply worried about them leading comfortable, fulfilling lives aboard my kingdom.
When flying past ruins, you can send in a scout to collect relics. These relics can then be traded at any one of the twelve kingdoms for different blueprints for new technology. The excitement of rolling up to a new kingdom, relics weighing down your pockets and checking what new technologies they boast is legitimately exhilarating. After you acquire a blueprint, you can research it and its upgrades at any time to begin utilizing it, again, for free. Additionally, each kingdom will trade materials with you based on cost determined by their local resources - if they're near a forest and far from a mine, they'll value any wood you try to trade them less than coal.
Now, the real kicker; this open world adventure game has RPG-like quests to complete. Upon reaching a kingdom and making contact, you'll receive a unique quest to complete in order to gain the kingdom's favor and have them join your empire. Each quest is considerably different, and only a few of them were "go find this and bring it back." You can pop open your quest log with your map at any time and hold as many quests as you'd like at once, and Airborne Kingdom never tells you exactly where to go, only a general direction. The progression loop is smooth, and I never felt I was progressing or growing too slowly. Each expansion to my kingdom felt earned without me ever having to truly struggle for it.
The dialogue is surprisingly well-written and intriguing, and the depth of the descriptions in the flavor text make me feel like there exists somewhere a thousand page lore document for the world of the Airborne Kingdom. Each place I visited was unique and intriguing, and only the first biome kept the Middle Eastern art style that the game seems to be built around. As I traveled into the swamp I found myself in a fantasy version of North Ireland, and out in the mountain crags things began to look a lot like a dwarven kingdom from The Lord of the Rings.
The map is divided into three regions; the desert, the mountain crags, and the marshlands. The map is divided into clearly numbered tiles that were each hand-designed by an artist, so expect them to adhere to a high design standard; however, each tile's placement on the world map is procedurally generated each time you begin a new game. You'll never see the same thing in the same location twice, and new Wonders, biomes and Kingdoms will appear each campaign as well.
When I interviewed the developers, The Wandering Band, earlier this year, they did indeed note the similarities between their map's art style and the infamous Game of Thrones intro about halfway through development and leaned into it. The art style stays consistent around the many different map features and styles of architecture, and the pleasant hum of the Arab-inspired music keeps things relaxed. Which brings me to my next point.
Airborne Kingdom is not a particularly difficult or punishing game. In my experience, city builders and management games are typically about survival. Airborne Kingdom is about happiness. Keeping your kingdom afloat is extremely easy - keeping it balanced to maintain citizen happiness is not. Keeping your citizens fed and watered isn't too hard, but if you do run out of those resources they do not die - they simply leave to go live in the nearest kingdom. Without the extreme stress of survival on the line, exploration is the focus of Airborne Kingdom, and in that it excels greatly. I was never worried during the six hour campaign about keeping my people alive; I was simply worried about them leading comfortable, fulfilling lives aboard my kingdom. The entire thing is just plain cozy.
My only real issue with Airborne Kingdom is that even my high end PC (RTX 2060 Super and Ryzen 5 3600) was barely chugging along by the last hour. While I was able to hold 144 FPS on Ultra graphics for most of the game, eventually there were too many moving parts on screen and my computer was struggling to keep 20 FPS by the end. I hope the developers have an optimization patch incoming - this game is too pretty to play on lower settings.
Airborne Kingdom is hands down the best city builder/management game I've ever played, even topping 2018's excellent offering Frostpunk. The focus on narrative, lore, quests and exploration puts the management aspects in second while still keeping your on your toes. I was thrilled to be working in pursuit of happiness for my citizens instead of just their survival, and by the end my expansive kingdom put anything back down on the ground to shame. Uniting the kingdoms was just as satisfying as promised, and I recommend Airborne Kingdom as a must-play to any fans of management, sim, city builder or just pure exploration games.
TechRaptor reviewed Airborne Kingdom on PC with a code provided by the publisher. Airborne Kingdom is available on December 17 on both PC and Mac via the Epic Games Store.
- Beautiful, Cozy Artwork and Relaxing Music
- Focus is on Keeping Citizens Happy and Thriving, Not Just Alive
- Ingriguing Quests and Lore Around Every Corner
- An Exhilirating Sense of Exploration
- Frame Rate Drags Heavily at the End Even on High End PC