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‘Merchant of the Skies’ Is An Experiment That Will Fly or Dive

Experimental games have always been a complete gamble when it comes to public reception and Merchant of the Skies will be no different from that long-established directive…



Merchant of the Skies Review

Developer: Coldwind Games | Publisher: Coldwind Games | Genre: Strategy, Trading | Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Linux, macOS, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One | Reviewed On: Nintendo Switch

Experimental games have always been a complete gamble when it comes to public reception and Merchant of the Skies will likely be no different. With its resource management emphasis, tycoon elements, and building mechanics all housed under the same roof, this is a title that will fly high or dive fast depending on whether players can find entertainment in its slightly complicated–albeit easy to grasp–gameplay loop. Merchant of the Skies is an intricately designed game that does not often fall short in quality, but that still doesn’t mean it’s something everyone can pick up and enjoy. It may not have been my personal cup of tea, yet I still found many aspects to appreciate in its fascinating structure.

The premise of Merchant of the Skies is explanatory by the title alone. Your uncle has decided to give you an airship alongside a small sum of cash in hopes that you will sail the skies to become a successful merchant. Your main objective is to make massive profits through selling or trading resources, bank interest, and many fetch quests asking you to retrieve items or help build specific structures. With the income you acquire you can buy up floating landmasses and continue to help small-town islands expand to their utmost potential. Interestingly enough, there is only one real obstacle within the game: yourself. For a title that heavily emphasizes trading and resource management, there are surprisingly no pirates, monsters, or con artists constantly waiting to intervene and send you into a spiral of bad income decisions. There are occasionally threats that can bring with them some consequences, but for the most part, the whole world relies directly on your actions to evolve. Every NPC is out to help you in some way within their haphazard economy.

Fetch quests and resource management are what the main gameplay loop mostly revolves around, but there’s an enjoyable story and some appealing customization mixed in as well. For better or worse the gameplay loop never attempts to dabble into anything else; if you don’t like what you’re reading so far then there is a high chance that Merchant of the Skies will absolutely not be for you. For the entire game, you will travel by airship from island to island always looking after the same three specific quirks: your fuel gauge, the ship’s item storage, and most importantly the total gold count (gold is the universal currency of the game).

Recruiting crew members to speed up and enhance long processes, gaining experience, buying useful tools, upgrading your ship, and everything else you can imagine is all dictated by the coins you collect. Strategy and advance planning are the only ways to become a successful globetrotting entrepreneur as on the spot thinking will likely end in disaster. You need to learn how to ration spending and selling accordingly when it comes to both resources and time. If you manage to go bankrupt for a specific amount of in-game flights, the consequence is the ultimate punishment: your save file is deleted. There are no second chances. Your business either thrives or fails miserably.

However, once you get adjusted to its changing trade cycle, things only get exponentially easier. In fact, Merchant of the Skies isn’t particularly challenging in general. That said, for a title with such a simple premise and concrete gameplay, it manages to hold itself back by stumbling on some basic mistakes that drastically hinder the overall experience. Fuel, or rather energy as the game calls it, is painfully short during the opening hours and the gauge is all-around difficult to grasp. Travel often feels more of a hassle than it ever should be, which is a major problem considering that this is a title that’s constantly keeping you on the move. Luckily, one of these problems is solvable since you can upgrade your ship with more cargo room for energy and single-use batteries. Still, without properly researching what the energy gauge means and when not to fly, players will be burning through cash like there is no tomorrow. Merchant of the Skies just never takes the time to properly explain its core mechanics.

It’s not just the energy system that takes time to understand, however. The whole user Interface system itself is largely confusing and often times players scour through multiple menus to find what they are looking for. Oftentimes the menus have either too much going on or too little. Why is it that the quest log never tells you what items are required for a fetch quest involving building a structure? Even aesthetically it looks rather unpleasing as text and icons are practically scattered all over the place. There is just far too much going on at once on-screen with even more crammed inside menus. There are quick actions you can utilize, but they still don’t help the majority of the problems that the user interface presents. The greatest negative, though, is that Merchant of the Skies boasts a painfully short soundtrack.

The game only has a few tracks that constantly repeat on loop for less than a minute at a time. Worst of all, every time you leave a location songs restart, meaning that for the majority of your journey you are going to be hearing the same two songs popping in and out constantly. With how often players have to location hop, this small flaw can become an absolute nuisance. For a game that you are arguably meant to sit down and play for an extensive amount of time, I can only assume most players will be turning down the game’s volume and playing their own tunes long before they can manage to clock an hour of in-game time. It seriously is the most lacking and irritating aspect of the entire release. This is a feature I would have expected out of an Atari or flash game, not something modern. In contrast to its sound design, the title does at least have an appealing pixel art style that always feels alive and moving. It’s never anything mind-blowing or notable in the bigger picture, but some of the creatures and high-value ship designs deserve your attention. The turtle cities fit outstandingly with the game’s natural backdrop, and one can’t help but wish it catered more to its crazier fantasy elements.

Merchant of the Skies is a passion project that targets gamers with extremely niche taste. It attempts to focus on making methodic gameplay fueled by what is fundamentally resource grinding into an addictive race against limits. Being an experimental title that relies on player taste to keep it afloat rather than established tropes or trends undoubtedly makes this a unique experience, but it’s a risky purchase for the average consumer. Like modern trading in the stock market, this is a purchase you will either win or lose with; there’s no middle ground. While I personally didn’t enjoy my time spent with Coldwind Games’ big release, I do wholeheartedly see its value. At the end of the day, Merchant of the Skies is the type of flight that audiences will probably find flying through cult classic territories in the future. You will either be bored out of your mind roaming the uncharted cloud sea or hooked on its promise of adventure capitalism.

Creative writer, NXpress Host, and Games Editor. I have always held a high interest in the fields of professional writing and communications. You can find me with my head deep in the espionage genre or in a kayak upstream. I’ll always be first in line for the next Hideo Kojima or Masahiro Sakurai game.