Games

'Airborne Kingdom' Is a City Builder That Makes You Take a Break

Not a phone in sight.
January 22, 2021, 2:00pm
ABK Hed
'Airborne Kingdom' screenshots courtesy of The Wandering Band

Even by the standards of the city-builder, Airborne Kingdom is a game more about vibes than challenge. That might be a weakness but honestly, I've started to think that's the game's greatest strength. It's certainly one of the reasons I've found myself playing it a lot. Whenever I've found myself wanting to play a video game, but mostly just want to fuss with something pretty without a lot of pressure, I've taken to the soothing, placid skies with my flying city.

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Airborne Kingdom has a lot of the gameplay pieces of a survival-oriented game like Frostpunk or an economic puzzle box like the Anno series. You control a giant flying city that's more "kinetic sculpture" than typical steampunk, and you soar above a giant mosaic landscape looking for cities and villages in the wake of some long-ago calamity. Everywhere you go, you find cities who need you to help rebuild some critical infrastructure of locate a lost community, but these quests are never very hard. You sail your city through the clouds watching the sails and propellers turn below while your little low-poly citizens walk to work and back home.

Most of the basic resources are scattered below on the ground, and at night you'll see flocks of small hang gliders swarming like fireflies around thickets of berries and coal deposits, returning with more supplies as your city churns onward. Your city runs on coal but beyond that, most what you'll make is secondary goods: clay becomes adobe bricks, quartz becomes glass, cotton becomes canvas. You'll have far more than you need for constructing parks and shrines (oddly enough, giant towers topped with gramophone speakers), so you can barter with the locals as well. There's always the risk that you'll run out of critical supplies, but they are so plentiful on the ground that this is unlikely. The game does a good job of making me feel like I'm leading a great expedition into the unknown, but it's generous enough that it's not actually hazardous.

That sounds kind of dull when I write it down. I usually like the friction of a more demanding building game: Frostpunk is only a little more complicated, but scarcity and unpredictability make it just difficult enough that I've had to play every scenario at least twice to figure out the right approach. That's not Airborne Kingdom. But it's a game that, at anything short of the fastest speed, is wise enough to create downtime where you have nothing to do but watch the world float by and stare at the play of light across your model-like city. Wandering Band, the game's developer, have created a lovely, sparse soundtrack that perfectly complements the visual style and turns the whole experience into an unusually meditative one. I'm not sure I'd be able to have that relationship with the game if it were more interested in forcing trade-offs or putting me in situations where I am surviving by the skin of my teeth. 

Eventually, as with anything, I'll have enough and move on to other, probably more intensive, games. But I can't deny that Airborne Kingdom has been a perfect not-quite-idle-game to quickly slip into a calmer, less frantic headspace.