This title manages to overcome many of the issues that it could have faced and really raises the bar for what I'll be coming to expect from indie JRPGs and titles using the RPGMaker engine. Of the indie old-school RPGs I've played thusfar, it is the best title of that sub-category that is available on Steam right now and excels in every area, exceeding all my expectations. Though this is going to be quite a glowing review, I'll get into some of the downsides toward the end.
There are largely original assets in terms of graphics- an original, rarely-explored Steampunk setting to explore, well done full-screen character designs, and a bunch of animations and effects that add more immersion and personality to the cut-scenes. It all ends up comparing favorably to retail classics. This is one of those titles where you can just look at the screenshots to see if it will be pleasing aesthetically, the actual game does not deviate far from that though unfortunately many of the dungeon areas fall into the typical types of rainforests, caves, mines, etc. Battle graphics are quite simplistic. I greatly enjoy the character designs which seem like a curious blend of Eastern and Western ideas.
As for gameplay, there are enough nooks and crannies to the systems that it better resembles early PS1 RPGs like Grandia or Wild Arms rather than NES/SNES RPGs. The battle system is reminiscent of Grandia with multiple gauges and turn order being dictated by a character's speed stat and also by a weight stat, based on how many items they have equipped. There are some unusual ideas here, such as physical offensive characters having an "energy" gauge that fills up and makes more of their abilities accessible and a "threat" gauge that affects which character will face the brunt of attacks. Buffs, debuffs, and status effects are also available very early on and relevant quickly during battles. The most noteworthy thing about character management is about halfway through the game and again 3/4 of the way through, you receive special items that allow non-linear character classes. For example, a character can choose to learn high level healing OR offensive magic so your choices can accommodate your play style.
There is a weapons and armor crafting and customization system along with the option to use multiple weapon types such as guns, dual-wielding swords, etc. In addition to seeking out treasure from dungeons you also seek out resources to create much stronger versions of the weapons and gear you'd buy from the shops in town. There is a battle coliseum and super tough optional enemies that add a few hours of gameplay.
Dungeons are well-designed areas rife with very simple puzzles to work out. Towns are attractively intricate in design but have little to do beyond speaking to some NPCs, perhaps accepting a quest, and checking out the shops. This is perhaps an overly relaxed game in terms of complexity, but also a fast-paced one, which is a huge factor in its enjoyability. I would recommend choosing hard difficulty though my first playthrough (clocking in at almost 9 hours) was on medium.
The menus are polished and a handy quest log can keep track of where you're at and what you're to do next (this could have been useful for so many old-school RPGs..) lack of cursor memory is my only complaint with the menus.
Music is excellent, the original soundtrack sounds very reminiscent of earlier JRPGs but with enough technical merit to avoid sounding generic. The story is similarly exceptional- usually I expect these homages to old RPGs to come across more as fanfiction than an original story but Skyborn's writing may even exceed (or at least manage to bypass) limitations of both its peers and forebears. There are no issues with translation here, since the story is originally drawn up in English. Didn't catch any grammatical errors, it just seems also at a high standard of quality and the first hour alone is brimming with excitement. The characters are lively, amusing, and mature in their actions. Those who dislike the slapstick that is common in more lighthearted RPGs will likely find this title appreciable.
The story takes place in an alternate, very steampunk-inspired universe where there are three races- humans, the winged Skyborn, and the unfortunate half-breeds that are at the bottom of the hierarchy and face violent discrimination from both groups. There is another race to speak of, but I'll get on with things. The heroine, Claret, works at a mechanic shop until she finds herself caught between an escalating conflict between humans and the very powerful Skyborn who are seeking to enslave and decimate the other races. She's a plucky but strong and capable heroine who isn't over-the-top; rather, she reacts very relateably to the unfolding story and does what she can to help. From there the conflict becomes more chaotic and both allies and enemies are not as they may seem. Some entertaining twists along the way.
Flashbacks with gameplay portions and specialized artwork to match add an extra bit of attention to detail in the story and help flesh out the characters. It's not the most original storyline in the world and I wish there were just a bit more character interactions since quite a likeable group is assembled, but it is one of the high points of Skyborn overall.
Now for some of the downsides- this game's standard price is $15 and is about 8 hours long. Almost $2 per hour. Give or take a few hours if you wish to thoroughly explore each of the minor quests and grind out levels for a tough optional boss. That is still a lot to ask for a short title, and especially for a short title with as many old-school sensibilities as this one has. Absolutely worth the time if it's on sale. Even though I loved it, I can really only recommend this title at its full price wholeheartedly to someone who is looking for an old-school indie JRPG that performs exceptionally in its class.