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  • Writer's pictureAaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza

Review: The Brew Barons by Lifetap Studios (Launch Day)

Our most extensive review to date



Seaplanes, salty pirates, brewing experiments and business management - The Brew Barons is an indie flight game with an identity all of its own. It has been a long journey for this striking blend of entrepreneurial aviation adventure from Lifetap Studios. With two developers working on it consistently for over four years, release day is finally here! As of March 1st, 2024, The Brew Barons is finally available for public purchase on Steam.


Lifetap Studios was not contacted about this review ahead of time, this is not being made using a free copy of the game and the points of view expressed here are not controlled in any way. This review does not contain major story spoilers. 


REVIEWER NOTE

My experience with The Brew Barons starts as early as the closed alpha demo in December 2021. I chose to support the Kickstarter campaign as a mid-high level backer in February 2022 using my personal funds to support the game monetarily. Both because I was personally interested in the project and to secure a close beta copy before the game’s eventual public release for Skyward Flight Media use. While I do strongly support this project, my extended time with it does give me a realistic view of how this game has changed over time and the efforts of the development team and the testers. 



DEVELOPMENT

Lifetap Studios, the development team behind the game, was formed by a pair of ex-developers from Relic Entertainment. Diccon Yamanaka and Rob Hartley worked at Relic from 2012 to 2019, which would see them work on titles like Age of Empires 4, Company of Heroes 2 and Dawn of War 3. During their time at Relic, Diccon and Robert had a growing desire to make their own game. Eventually, work on some side projects would lead to them taking the plunge and establishing their own studio. Of these side projects, a work in progress game called “Drytail Runners”, was briefly made known publicly in September 2018. Though, a Reddit post from Lifetap Studios does indicate that the concept has been played around with since as early as 2014. Drytail Runners would be a forerunner to The Brew Barons. 


Early development screenshot from The Brew Barons.
Reddit screenshot showing early concept development.

The first screenshots and videos of The Brew Barons were posted to Twitter in May 2021, with more detailed discussion about how the game’s looks and flight model happening in online communities, like Reddit. From the beginning, inspirations from Porco Rosso - a movie from the well known Studio Ghibli - were touted by Lifetap Studios. Its aesthetics alone were enough to grab the attention of a wide audience outside the flight focused main demographic. 


The February 10th, 2022 launch of the Kickstarter campaign with a public playable demo would become a milestone for the project, with the Kickstarter campaign being fully funded by March 9th, 2022. Since then, Lifetap Studios has been heads down, focused on development and closed beta testing with their backers leading up to the release of the full game on March 1st, 2024. 


I’d like to take a moment and say that Lifetap Studios has been rather active with closed beta testers since at least the end of the Kickstarter campaign. Their consistency in listening to suggestions, but mainly addressing bug reports and pushing hotfixes within two days or less, is an impressive example of their willingness to act on feedback. In their Discord server, the developers remain engaged with their customers addressing questions, but most importantly the bug reports. Even now, hours after release, the developers continue to investigate potential rough spots in the game. 


WORLD SETTING

The events of the game happen in a fictional, but familiar world. The timeline can be equated to the Earth’s 1930s, with plenty of tailoring for the sake of more engaging gameplay and interesting visual designs for vehicles and building architecture. With no paved runways in the islands, naval vessels and seaplanes are the primary means of travel and transport in the region. 



The story unfolds in Adly Bay, an archipelago of small islands located south of two large nations on the nearby continent that have a history of conflict with one another. Adly Bay is surrounded by the arm of one of these nations to its east and a large island to its west. The islands in Adly Bay vary in size and have unique geography. Generally, they are scenic locations in their own right. Each island is a potential host to its own unique towns, seaports, monuments from the past and of course ingredients that can be gathered to brew various types of drinks. The islands are surrounded by beautiful clear ocean. In some areas, the ocean is so clear, wrecks from long ago can be spotted from the air and be salvaged for valuables. 


The brew barons - the player and their patchwork crew - started a brewing company in Adly Bay, despite the presence of the brew pirates. Described as “backwater bootleggers”, these pirates operate a plethora of armed vehicles. Including dirigibles, warships, submarines, and fighter-sized armed aircraft to maintain indirect control of the islands by always presenting force, while profiting from their intimidation by forcing the inhabitants of Adly Bay to purchase their low-quality alcoholic beverages. These pirates are so well established, it would take a significant effort to dislodge them. 


Screenshot from The Brew Barons.
Pulling into the dock of a potential customer.

The brew barons start their adventure with two members, a shoddy seaplane that can barely float and a multi-level headquarters building. The first level being a seaplane hangar, the second level being the brewery and the third level being a bar for direct sales to patrons. This building is the core of all player operations in the game. 



OPEN WORLD, OPEN STORY 

As a game, The Brew Barons truly is an open world experience. There is no predetermined path players must follow, unless players were to choose to play the tutorial at the start of the game. But even after that, it is up to players to define their own path. With no time limits, objectives and a blank map full of islands with no names and no information, players start their game by wandering. Technically, players can completely ignore the starting location and immediately go to the outer islands to see what is happening. The only thing that would slow them down would be the aggressive pirates and some ingredients not being harvestable because of the starter equipment, but that is a fix money can buy. 


Random encounters and mini-missions make up the bulk of events between ingredient gathering and delivery. These include quick air battles with pirate gunships, requests from local aviators to knock down pirate signs, save burning boats and interdict other pirate related efforts. There is a lot more than that, but those are good examples. Completing these tasks gives players parts to build more complex equipment in the future, currency and increased notoriety in the public eye. The higher the reputation of the brew barons climbs, the more business comes in and the more new bars and customers are willing to purchase your products. 


The Brew Barons screenshot.
Dousing the fire of a burning ship.

Though there is an end goal of removing the influence of the brew pirates and there is a presence of “boss” characters that represent different branches of the brew pirates, there is not an order they must be completed in.


Players decide their own game path. Whether it is more business focused, exploration based or combat heavy, having this much freedom lets players progress at their own pace. Furthermore, with there being no multiplayer reliance, there is not a danger of the game going stale because the player population went down.


Using myself as an example, my strategy is a long-term gameplay style. I spend a few sessions prioritizing contract fulfillment and aircraft upgrades, some sessions on exploring and gathering ingredients and others focused on taking the pirates head on, prepared to repair battle damage. Whether it is over the course of a week or a month, I found my own rhythm to enjoy the game over time without feeling an external pressure to finish my play through in a few days. 


Example of The Brew Barons map interface.
Example of the map interface.

WATER BOOST FAST TRAVEL

Lifetap Studios has opted to not include traditional fast travel; the type where players select a location on the in-game map and are teleported there within a few seconds. Instead, a game mechanic called Water Boost was implemented. When the boost is activated, the player's aircraft greatly increases in speed while being propelled by a stream of water from the rear of the aircraft. Water capacity can be refilled by flying above the ocean’s surface. Water Boost is designed to be used to shorten travel times between the islands. 


I am someone that has very deep, mixed feelings on the concept of fast travel in open world games. I can understand wanting to maximize time in game by not being forced to travel long distances every 30 to 60 minutes. But is that not the point of playing an open world game? To enjoy the scenery and possible encounters of traveling through the world? Personally, I am supportive of this pseudo-fast travel choice as it does not break up the gameplay experience.


The Brew Barons water boost.
Water Boosting at high altitude.
CHARACTERS

In this section, I will be less focused on the non-player characters that run the bars of Adly Bay, but more focused on the characters that can be recruited to join the brew barons. At the start of the full game’s campaign, the player can select two characters. Each character in this game has positive and negative traits while they operate the seaplane, but also have passive abilities that can be utilized in the business aspect of the game. 


The Brew Barons character selection.
Example of character roster selection.

While a character may have some decent abilities that assist in flight, they may be better suited for helping with accounting, aircraft repairs, investment, brewing or working the bar. Even the best pilots could have valuable non-combat skill sets that benefit the long-term success of the business, which further supports high paced flight operations.


My favorite example of this is a military officer from a nation on the mainland using the barons’ operation as a way to gather intelligence on what is happening in Adly Bay. They take note of every customer, every conversation and every purchase as a part of their military job. But at times, reviews of their prowess as an attentive bartender appear in the local newspaper, further bolstering the good reputation of my operation.  


The Brew Barons newspaper.
Good bartender? Little do they know!

The characters that can be recruited to join the barons’ operation are met in bars spread throughout the islands in the bay. They are there as patrons for various personal reasons and can be talked to about their backstory and their interest in joining your business. 


The Brew Barons screenshot.
The moment a brewer joins the barons.

Some members of the brew barons can be paired together for story based side quests. These adventures can take players into known places in the islands, secretive locations and places… you would have to experience to believe. 



As these characters grow closer by flying together, they can overcome some of their inherent negative traits, which are then turned into positive traits. Their side stories also break up the usual gameplay loop and have dialogue only available during those events. 


The characters are voice acted using a combined method of voice acted lines by humans, entirely AI voice trained and AI only lines. During my time with this game, I have yet to experience any deeply awkward or jarring conversations that are too robotic to be believable. I have heard a few iffy voice lines from time to time, but honestly nothing too bad. With a limited budget that Lifetap Studios has mentioned, this sounds like an odd approach to fill the requirement, but overall I think it works fine.



THE BUSINESS LOOP

The crossover of a business management game combined with a flight arcade action game still buzzes my brain a bit. The exotic seaplanes used for delivery and combat may be the lure that draws players in, but when those aircraft need fuel, repairs and upgrades, it is all about the money. 


If you were to break down the business game play loop to its most basic form, it would be: secure customer contracts to gain money for operations, gather ingredients, create contracted drinks, deliver product to customer, reinvest customer payment into operations, perform operations (exploration, gathering, combat, etc.), repeat. 


The inclusion of business management is a bit of a double-edged sword. It is both one of the more important parts of this game to help it standout from other flight arcade titles, and one of the bigger hurdles that players must adapt to early on.




INGREDIENTS

Ingredients can be gathered by using the aircraft itself or equipment on the aircraft. By using the onboard water cannons for example, things like apples, grapes or honey can be shot from spawn points (trees, flowers, etc) then gathered by the aircraft by flying through them or near enough to them. Some ingredients have special gathering conditions, like the ever elusive Whispy Wheat that rides wind currents or harder to gather ingredients that require upgrades to water cannons or water bombs to forcibly remove them from the soil. Remember that harvested ingredients will take time to regrow and ingredients will be used in high counts of 20 to 80 units per brewing attempt, depending on the recipe. 


The Brew Barons gathering ingredients at night.
Gathering ingredients at night.

BREWING 

The brewing process is most likely the most open-ended part of the business aspect. First, recipes must be created from scratch or gathered. A constant positive side to brewing is that whether it is a failed creation or a successful creation, the recipes are saved for future reference. This is an old data point from July 2023, but since then this game has “over 360 craft-able brew outcomes derived from the 34 collectible ingredients”. Recipes are vital. 


The Brew Barons example of recipe book.
The Brew Barons example of recipe book.

The discovery and refinement of recipes can be done in three ways. First, the most straightforward method is to focus on contract brewing. Potential customers give players suggested recipes with their order requests. As the orders are fulfilled, these recipes are kept in the player’s recipe book. Players can then stick to those recipes or experiment using them as a guideline. Second, the free form way (dare I say more traditional?) would be players taking guesses at recipes off of the top of their heads, brewing them up and just seeing what works through trial and error. This method requires the highest amount of ingredients available, as it is highly likely there will be many failures. Finally, it is possible to find recipes out in the world. Whether it is finding them in sunken ships, abandoned cargo or floating in bottles on the ocean surface, there is a decent chance that some of these recipes could be four star or five star quality recipes. 


After ingredients and their exact amounts are selected for brewing, the amount of yeast is added manually by the player. Depending on the drink contracted or desired the yeast is adjusted and the type of brewing method, distilling or fermentation, defines what type of drink the final product will become. All of this is explained by the user interface during the brewing process. 


Once the product is brewed, its quality, monetary value and the original name of the drink is automatically determined. From here, the decision to throw the product away or package it for sale is made. 




PACKAGING, SELLING 

Whether it is one-star slop or a five-star signature drink, the product can be packaged with a custom design and a custom name. There are a handful of bottle designs, bottle caps and labels available in different colors. There is also the ability to upload custom labels into the game to represent your 'brand'. This may seem like a minor detail, but being able to do this makes the experience more personalized. 


The Brew Barons screenshot of bottle design.
A custom named product with an uploaded logo.

Assuming the product was brewed for a contract, this is where it should be loaded onto the seaplane and carefully delivered to the customer. Though, there is a secondary function that should be considered. There is often overstock created after brews are made. This overstock product can be sold at the player’s bar for passive incoming over time. This is something that is especially important in the beginning of a play through in this game. 


BAR 

The player’s bar has an obvious primary function and a good secondary function. By keeping the bar stocked with quality drinks, customers come in for service while the player is away flying. This passive income helps offset the need to focus on contract brewing as much. Its secondary function is patron gossip. As customers come in, information about how the customers enjoy the players bar and the happenings in Adly Bay can be learned by talking to them. Some notable customers give more detailed information on pirate operations, warnings to the players and offer money for services - like gathering ingredients and trading them for money. 


The bar is customizable in overall bar design, which does affect the sales of certain types of drinks. Some designs are more complimentary to certain types of drinks in the eyes of the customers. This is explained in the user interface beneath the bar design. Chairs, lights, wallpaper, floor design, metal trim and bar name are all customizable.


The Brew Barons early bar layout.
An early bar layout.

THE FLIGHT MODEL 

This is something that was once a bit of a point of contention. Since my time with the 2021 demo, I have noticed a few tweaks and regular discussion about the flight model of The Brew Barons in its Discord channels. With this game both appealing to long-standing flight gaming enthusiasts and wanting to expand its reach beyond that, the flight model had to be tuned correctly. A helpful diagram from the Kickstarter campaign shows where its flight model presents itself.


The Brew Barons Kickstarter diagram.
Kickstarter diagram

Aircraft in The Brew Barons use physics driven airfoils and buoyancy driven pontoons. While these are not study-level representations you would expect from a dedicated flight simulator, their characteristics are a noticeable part of the gameplay. Players familiar with flight games will notice that some modifications have been made for ease of use for less experienced players. Not a bad thing, but an observation. 


In my opinion, in the earlier demos, there was a time when aircraft of The Brew Barons felt slightly more flight sim-lite than arcade. Their overall weightiness was heavier and more concern about how aircraft were maneuvered was taken into account. I think this may have been more of a hurdle for newer players than I understood at the time. After a few years of feedback on Steam and more feedback directly to Lifetap Studios during the closed beta period, an interesting compromise was made. 


Even in the starter aircraft, control inputs are snappy, with momentum of movement in roll and pitch inputs stopped almost immediately. This makes an aircraft easier to fly for newer players. Though, mistakes can still happen if players make hard turns or dives that are too ambitious for their aircraft. One of the biggest threats in and out of combat is the aircraft stalling while maneuvering, especially when the average altitude that gameplay takes place in is so low, recovery can be difficult because of lack of altitude. Players experienced with flight can still break out all of their best moves and skill sets during combat or low-speed, low level flying regimes. Though it would be dangerous for someone new to flight to do this, I often find myself at extremely low speeds doing coordinated turns in compact areas to speed up my ingredient gathering. Rather than make multiple high speed passes where I do not collect too much, these lower speed loitering turns allow me to maximize my collection time and burn less fuel. 


While it is not possible to destroy the player’s seaplane to the point it will never fly again, it is possible to damage it so badly you will go into debt to repair it. In flight, specific parts of the aircraft can be damaged as well. 


The Brew Barons is playable with keyboard-mouse and game pad - admittedly, the game pad seems to be the best experience for me. But in an effort to further appeal to flight simmers, the game is also compatible with more advanced controllers like flight sticks, throttles and rudder pedals. This was a positive decision to keep flight simmers engaged by letting them utilize their hardware investments.


COMBAT 

While the brew pirates are more than willing to employ machine guns, cannons and smog against the players, Lifetap Studios has maintained the unorthodox choice of having players use non-lethal means to defeat the pirates. Default “weapons” include water cannons and a water bomb, with more advanced weapons being, missiles, torpedoes and water jets - all water based in their nature. The idea is that rather than fatally harming the pirates themselves, the vehicles and their weapons would be disabled, still completing the objective of lessening their combat power. Since they are water based weapons, rather than rely on carrying live ammunition, players can simply fly above the surface of the ocean and gather water to replenish their stocks. That is an unusual choice, but it still works in gameplay. 


The Brew Barons screenshot.
Moments before entering combat.

Unlike combat focused flight arcade games, weapons must be unlocked by purchasing specific equipment and installing them onto the aircraft. You are not able to carry four different weapons at a time to become the one-aircraft-air force some people may be accustomed to. Planning out efforts to combat large groups of pirates will take equipment coordination. 


The brew pirates have a range of vehicles they use for combat. They deploy seaplanes, warships, submarines and dirigibles from sizes that are similar to the player’s seaplane to massive vehicles that can be seen looming on the horizon. The large vehicles, which are often considered “boss fights” have unique abilities to deploy smaller enemies to defend themselves or have specific ways they must be disabled to defeat them. While spraying down a smaller seaplane will eventually be enough to disable that, it will take highly upgraded weaponry to even damage the boss vessels. 


In The Brew Barons, combat is not just about potential weapons used by the player. Aircraft performance and parts of the aircraft are also a factor. Via aircraft customization, there are some parts that are optimized for combat - with reduction of damage, increased weapon performance, increased armor and even more quirky options like having the aircraft absorb incoming fire reducing their impact damage while adding to the aircraft’s weight the more it is shot. Pontoons that retract do decrease the aircraft’s hit box. There are so many ways to approach making a “combat build” in this game, I’ll stop the explanation here before I get in too deep. 


As pirates are defeated, they drop currency and parts that can be used to construct more elaborate equipment, like heavy aircraft designs. Exploits of the brew barons’ victories are also told through Adly Bay, further increasing the player’s notoriety and driving up sales. 


Just remember that you may make the pirates “pay” for putting holes in your aircraft, but you will pay out of pocket to repair those holes yourself. Be careful to not remain engaged in combat so often you empty out your bank account.


The Brew Barons combat damage.
Catastrophic combat damage.


AIRCRAFT CUSTOMIZATION 

This is another subject that is easy to overview, but hard to not get lost in the weeds with. You really have to play this part of the game yourself to grasp it well. Customization of the seaplanes in this game look as simple as different wings and canopies that provide changes in aircraft performance