A chill resource-trading sim that builds and evolves into weird places makes for a good time.
Merchant of the Skies is hard to neatly summarize. The basics are that you fly around a pleasantly pixelated steampunk world in an airship, bouncing between islands trying to buy and sell resources, complete quests, and create factories, all in the name of making money. Maybe the easiest way to classify this game is as a fantastical business simulator, but the moment-to-moment play borrows from all sorts of related genres, whether it’s resource management, tycoon games, or base-building. The end result of Merchant of the Skies makes for a chill experience that has a lot of moving parts almost to the point of overload, but somehow it all coalesces into a memorable and enjoyable game.
The beginning is overwhelming though. You start in the middle of an unmapped world with a small airship and a little bit of cash. The first stretch focuses mostly on discovering the world by flying around and discovering new islands while also buying low-priced resources at one island and flipping them for more money at another. This early loop is nice, but it’s held back significantly by how limited your fuel is on your airship. The ever-plummeting meter has to be recharged at certain islands and if you are stranded in the air, you have to pay a lot of money to get towed to the nearest recharge station. In my experiences, this early part is when I had the least amount of money, so I was bankrupted during this period, which results in a big fine and the threat that going bankrupt again would end your game.
After the first hour or two, the map opens up more as you explore and some of the eccentricities of this world come into play, like the giant fish god that demands you bring water to him, the giants that level up your skills and abilities, the carrot with a top hat, or the octopus DJ that challenges you to a puzzle rhythm mini-game. Other aspects start to rear their heads more as you progress as well. A lot of unoccupied islands can be purchased and then slowly turned into factories to produce resources and turn them into other materials. For example, you can buy a wheat field then build up harvesting the wheat, then making it into flour, and then turning that flour into bread. The various resources intermingle, which can be overwhelming even if the in-game journal does offer a description of how each resource can be made. Information is spilling out of the menus, which, while functional, is certainly not elegant as it highlights the game’s PC origins. For the most part, you can find the answer to your question somewhere in the game, but it might not be intuitive to know where to look. For everything it does well, like let you, at a glance, see resource prices across every shop, there is something it does poorly, like make it easy to, at a glance, see what islands you own and what buildings you have there.
The late game starts to transform into something even more different. At a certain point, that early gameplay loop of buying resources cheaply and selling them for more money almost becomes pointless as you can start your own resource production and then map out routes that can be automatically completed. You can even build up your own mansion on a vacant island.
The most enjoyment I got out of Merchant of the Skies involved just playing around in the world, working to refine my factories and complete quests as efficiently as possible. However for those who long for a conclusion, a series of campaign quests are available, letting you dive deeper into the world that has, well, a giant fish god, a carrot with a top hat, and an octopus DJ. Both the campaign and the more general sandbox play are combined into one mode, which allows you to basically just kind of do whatever you want in this world. Though that’s not entirely true because you always have to be making money to keep your fuel level from zero. I’m of two minds with how restricting the fuel consumption can be. Purchasing bigger ships does help mitigate how often you need to refuel, but the threat of running out of gas is ever present. It almost adds a level of survival to the sky-faring resource management and base-building, but at the same time, it’s at odds with the gentle vibe of the entire game.
Merchant of the Skies has some rough edges, but the overall experience is an engrossing one, scratching a variety of gaming itches at once since it fuses resource management together with tycoon elements and base building. The controls and presentation are a tad clumsy on Switch, but the sense of discovery in this off-kilter world is fun. I enjoyed spending time in this world.