‘Airborne Kingdom’ review: a beautiful, skybound city-builder that’s a touch too pleasant

Unite the lands with a flying clockwork fortress

Airborne Kingdom offers a compelling fantasy. A flying city-fortress, you rise from sand-covered ruins, using ancient tech to lift your settlement up into the clouds and propel it onwards.

From the air you’ll survey a vast territory. A sprawling landscape-as-map that recalls one of Jorge Louis Borges’ most famous short stories, ‘On Exactitude In Science’. Like the story, the world of Airborne Kingdom is a cartographic one – taking place upon a map so large that the scale is essentially 1:1.

The land below your kingdom is laid out on beautiful mosaic tiles, while far off at the edges you can make out the parchment of the universe curling in on itself. Your city, lightly coloured, with elegant, tapered arches, domed roofs and cupolas, recalls the architecture from the Islamic Golden Age. The themes of the game – rekindling ancient knowledge, and the flourishing of art, culture and science – are also reminiscent of the historical era.

Airborne Kingdom
Airborne Kingdom. Credit: The Wandering Band LLC

Unlike most city-builders, your kingdom isn’t tethered to the ground. From the starting ruin you’ll venture out and discover islands of interest among the wastes. Your goal is to find other cities, forge alliances and grow your settlement into a great empire. In order to keep your flying kingdom operational, you’ll need to stock up on resources.

Coal to feed the engine’s fires, food and water to keep your citizens working and timber to build with. From your hangar, sets of gliders will shoot out to collect the resources, swooping down to mine for minerals, chop wood, gather food and suck oases dry.

It’s a simple loop – gathering what’s in the area before moving on in the hope you’ll come across more on an as-needed basis. In your explorations you’ll also come across other small settlements, who will either supply you with astonished citizens or give you new sets of paint and coloured metal to customise your buildings with. Larger cities take more encouragement to join up, giving out simple quests to complete. There are also ruins out in the world, which you can plunder for relics and then trade in for building blueprints at the larger settlements.

Airborne Kingdom
Airborne Kingdom. Credit: The Wandering Band LLC

High above the clouds you’ll need to balance various elements in order to keep your inhabitants happy. As you hoover up more stuff from the world below you’ll want to construct warehouses for storage and industry in order to attain better quality resources. The downside is that these buildings need to be kept separated from housing blocks, or you risk angering the masses.

Building your city is simple, with structures snapping onto roads. This is complicated somewhat by having to, quite literally, balance your settlement. If too many buildings are constructed on a single side, your whole kingdom will begin to tilt, angering inhabitants and eventually causing them to abandon you. As you grow in size you’ll need to construct additional fans to keep your city in the sky, and crucially, things like oars and propellers so the whole thing doesn’t become so bloated and heavy that it begins to crawl across the skies rather than soar.

Airborne Kingdom is a pleasant thing. A gentle clockwork kingdom that’s light to operate and as calming as the white fluffy clouds you sail by. Its genial nature does however raise some concerns. Like much of the Steampunk genre, there’s the issue of representing kingdoms, empires and industry as benign elements and never fully exploring their horrors. Your floating city travels the continent re-connecting lesser settlements, cajoling them into joining up.

The gentle aesthetic hides a darker ideological framework, and I think that’s something worth bearing in mind. Like so many strategy games, things tend to slip into the realm of instrumentality, exploitation and centralised power. Your kingdom is all-encompassing, and it’s easy to see your inhabitants as tools to be used, and the land as a container to be continually dipped into – strip-mined, deforested and sucked dry.

In many ways, Airborne Kingdom is the floating equivalent to the city of London from Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series. Underneath all the airy grandeur is a primal hunger – to consume, absorb, become big.

Airborne Kingdom is now available on PC and Mac.

Our Verdict

There’s no doubt Airborne Kingdom is a beautiful, ethereal thing. It’s easy to toy with, to fuss over the perfect grid-plan or the colour of your little houses, while your floating behemoth sails across the game’s resplendent map. It’s actually perfect holiday material. Gentle, soothing, meditative, and never as complex or fiddly as your city’s clockwork inner workings might suggest. But there’s also a danger of switching off, of letting the pleasantness wash over you entirely, and wash away the trickier issues of playing empire.

Pros

  • Interesting flying-city concept
  • Beautiful, elegant visuals
  • A calming and meditative experience
  • Strategically simple, but with just enough flexibility and customisation

Cons

  • A little too pleasant, whitewashing the darker sides of empire-building
  • Not really enough strategic depth to be replayable
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