Review – Sky Caravan
Gamebook adventures are an art form that seem to go wildly underappreciated in the grand scope of gaming. When I was but a youngster, I was obsessed with the early genesis of these titles, which were called “Choose Your Own Adventure” back in the day. The idea of a book being interactive and allowing me to essentially shape the story as it happened was fascinating, and I spent a lot of money at Scholastic Book Fairs to pick up as many as possible. The different worlds to explore of fantasy, science fiction, and even horror were a delight, and I was thrilled at progressing and finding my ending through good or bad decisions. Yes, I would keep my finger on the decision page and go back if I hit a bad ending too soon, but so did you, so hush.
Later, as gamebooks would evolve to have stats and dice attached, I would continue to enjoy the concept, though they did get a bit convoluted. After all, if I essentially need several accessories with me to read a book, the entire ordeal becomes a bit too overwhelming. Thankfully, gamebooks also existed as software, and I had moved onto things like classic titles (Zork, for example) and MUDS (Legend of the Red Dragon, Afterlife). The idea that graphics were fun and helpful, but not strictly necessary, allowed for more imagination and more excitement to build. This, fundamentally, led to my discovery of visual novels, and the rest is history. I continued to enjoy games that built heavily on telling tales, and didn’t mind so much that my interactions were limited and, in some cases, almost nonexistent.
So I have a bit of a past with these sorts of ideas and games, which is why Sky Caravan drew my attention. Coming to us from Studio Bravarda and Red Deer Games, Sky Caravan is the tale of you in the shoes of a caraveener, a fancy title meaning “delivering cargo across skies and space.” Equal parts cyber and steam punk, you need to work together with your crew to run special packages to different places and entities in order to pay off an unseen force to whom you are deeply, deeply in debt. With Barto (an anthropomorphic anteater chef), Jackie (a partially cyborg mechanics), and Kleber (space douche) on your ship, you must balance fuel, food, relationships, and increasingly difficult decisions in order to make the client happy, stay alive and hopefully get yourself to a good ending in time.
Diving right into the whole mess, Sky Caravan has a delightful and eclectic world that you only really get a small glimpse into in the grand scheme of things. Through careful delegation of the player’s time and interactions, you get an idea of the whole scope through a very filtered lens. You have plenty of anthropomorphic characters walking around of many animal backgrounds, cybernetic enhancements that just feel natural, alien species of different mental classification and respect, and general technology that puts us in a futuristic setting that also feels nostalgic for the sci-fi of the 70s. In a purely coincidental way, this seems to embody the promise of Star Wars; of something that is very far removed, and yet deals with ideas and concepts that are far beyond our everyday.
There’s a level of excitement that comes with your first few playthroughs, even if that means an ending comes prematurely. While you will always start with the smuggling of potentially illegal alien animals to a different location, there are opportunities to accidentally die incredibly early, and the chances to make mistakes and pay for them never relent. You have to keep up your stats in every category in order to progress smoothly, and that’s no easy feat. Trying to push your ship too hard or too far results in a ton of malfunctions and errors, and even simple things can quickly stop the journey. The ability to skip through text does make it easy enough to get back to your last decision tree, and there are enough that losing your life doesn’t mean the game stops being fun.
In fact, these “cheap” deaths are some of the most fun things that happen. You are constantly being asked to trust your crew members, sometimes one over another, which imbalances relationships and affects future decisions. My instinct is to always trust Barto because he’s adorable and very mild mannered, and that definitely got me killed at least twice because he’s a goddamn chef, not a pilot. You know that Kleber will always make risky and often destructive choices, but you sometimes think it’ll be okay because he’s all rugged and knows the dark side of life and things, but, spoiler, he usually just chooses something to get you all imprisoned or worse. Still, you choose them because you are SO curious how you’ll die this time.
Additionally, the soundtrack for Sky Caravan is an atmospheric, tonal banger. You move throughout the universe experiencing so many different cultures and planets, and the music moves right along with you at the jarring clip of someone flipping through the radio to find a station they enjoy. There’s a bit of cohesion when it comes to the ship itself and your interactions with the crew, but there’s enough contrast with the world outside of your delivery vehicle to add real life to the galaxies you explore. The radio analogy wasn’t meant to be derogatory: I adore that everything is so starkly different because that’s the reality of cultures, and I imagine it’s further amplified through literal space travel.
So we’ve got some fun characters and a fanciful world. We’ve got a solid and sometimes spicy soundtrack that really gives the world of Sky Caravan a flair that makes it more Trade Wars than Futurama. We’ve got plenty of bad endings that are fun to get instead of frustrating, and we’ve got a full game loop that, honestly, can be completed in under three hours if you’re cocky. It’s a solid game and could be a wonderful choice for a quick pick up and play on the Nintendo Switch. What’s not to like?
The controls for Sky Caravan are so abhorrent and unintuitive it almost defies logic. When I first started up the game, I legitimately thought the software was broken because I couldn’t figure out what to do. I had to make a decision and no amount of clicking on the icon/disc of my choice made the game move forward. Then, through the process of elimination, I found out you need to push the ZR button in order to make a tray appear, then hold it down to drag an icon into the tray. If that weren’t enough, here’s the icing on it all: the dragging is slow. Almost meticulous, seemingly intentionally upsettingly slow. It feels so damn awkward every single time you have to make a decision.
Now, this shouldn’t be that big of an issue, right? It’s one button, it’s the same button you use every time, and it’s only for when you make a choice. Whatever. But I scroll through text with the A button, which is very natural. I do the fast forward with the Y, which is also natural. The ZR is the trigger finger on my right hand, and I am left handed, and so, implicitly, it is unnatural. This is a game that takes pains to add accessibility options for eliminating screen shaking, text animations, and flashing lights to accommodate people of all walks of life, yet choosing a different button doesn’t exist. Using the touchscreen, which is one of the major points of the Switch, doesn’t exist. You just need to keep using the ZR button for everything.
This, thankfully, is my only major gripe with a game that, honestly, was a surprisingly fresh and excellent experience. This is almost like a clunky yet genuine attempt to reinvent the visual novel approach, and I really enjoyed it. There’s roots that show both the developers’ own game tastes and what they envision for the future. I sincerely hope that Sky Caravan attracts plenty of attention and even acclaim, as it’s both engaging and unique without being purposely obtuse. It’s incredibly approachable, the art style is endearing and the story, while nothing groundbreaking, is a fun romp for any time of day. Players looking for a read-along with flair and panache should absolutely consider a rewarding career in being a part of the Sky Caravan.
A deliciously comic book styled world, the different humanoids, species, and planets that you explore are always worth an extra glance to appreciate the details. Starscapes are particularly great to enjoy.
Already limited in play due to the game concept, marrying the core action to the ZR button was a weird choice, and not including touch screens was even more questionable. Lack of save points except for between chapters would be a death note anywhere but on the Nintendo Switch.
Sweeping, orchestral, funky, groovy, energetic, and ominous – this soundtrack runs the gamut of emotions and expressions in a way that frankly knocked me back on my heels.
The writing and the approach kept me engaged and fully endeared to the crew and their missions. The countdown clock and the fluctuation in feelings and metrics kept me on my toes. I’ve never felt like I’ve done so much while simply reading along, and it was excellent.
Final Verdict: 8.5
Sky Caravan is available now on PC and Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch Lite.
A copy of Sky Caravan was provided by the publisher.