The Brew Barons (Demo): First Impression
Updated: Sep 22, 2022
Launching from the dawn-soaked sea as night turns to day, with a fresh batch of brews in the cargo hold and distant islands holding unknown potential... this is what "adventure" is, isn't it? Somewhere between the regional airline flights and dodging surface-to-air missiles, the sense of story-like adventure is often missing. There is a shortlist of old and bold titles that dared to fly out of the familiar air corridors of the aviation genre. The Brew Barons from Lifetap Studios feels like it is of the same vein.
My first impression of this game comes after roughly 14 combined hours of gameplay between myself and Santiago "Cubeboy" Cuberos, a second member from Skyward Flight Media. We played both the February 2022 demo featured at Steam Next Fest 2022 and the non-time limited December 2021 closed alpha demo.
SETTING AND STORY
The Brew Barons puts anyone familiar with flight games into an unusual situation from the start. It begins in a broken down, wingless seaplane that must be slowly floated through a beautiful seaside town to its new home. Starting a flying game without any flying indeed resets expectations coming into the story.
The scenic archipelago provides a memorable backdrop for the story and gameplay. Every island looks like it could be part of a resort, looking equally beautiful during its shortened day and night cycle. The ambient life - cars driving, people walking along walkways, planes flying through the air, boats sailing - further adds to the setting.
With the level of technology inspired by the 1930s with some influences from Hayao Miyazaki's Porco Rosso, the propeller-driven seaplanes can show off their full capabilities. Being able to land anywhere there is enough water drives home the sense of adventure.
While there were some minor references about things happening in North America, there isn't enough to fully explain what's happening in the grand scheme of things - which is fine. What matters the most is the immediate task at hand: founding a brewing enterprise successful enough to run an organization of dastardly pirates out of business and out of the region.
It should be noted that the tutorial is actually pretty long. There is a decent amount of content to learn before the player truly knows all the essential parts of the game. Players are walked through the controls and most of the game mechanics while meeting the first characters of the story and potential customers. Learning how to brew, repair the aircraft, buy upgrades, open a bar, design that bar, bottling your first product, and load up the bar for its first customers; the tutorial doesn't really end until the first brewing contract is completed. Fortunately, all ingredients, contracts, and money earned during the tutorial are retained by its end, making it worth the time.
AIRCRAFT AND FLIGHT
Flight can be summarized as a toned-down flight arcade model. The flight model is physics-based, with certain values tuned to make gameplay enjoyable. For example, while crashing an aircraft is still possible, the player either respawns back in their hangar with the damaged aircraft to begin repairs. A quick reset to an air restart is permitted if the aircraft accidentally touches down on land.
But the planes are still represented as prop-driven aircraft. Zoom climbing thousands of feet in a few seconds, 9G turns, and high-speed sustained flight is not an option. When gathering certain materials needed for brewing, planning a low flying pass incorrectly is even more deadly than anything the pirates could throw at you.
While water landings are frequent, landing at speeds that are too high or descending into the water too quickly can cause damage to the aircraft. Even somewhat rough landings may not cause a wing to fall off, but the damage will accumulate, causing frequent repairs. Players quickly learn the limitations of their aircraft, even with performance-boosting upgrades.
Speaking of which, there are eight categories for upgrades and customizations: fuselage, wings, pontoons, engines, propellers, equipment, ornaments, and paint. Changes in engine performance, maneuverability, high altitude performance, increased ingredient gathering abilities, and new gadgets. The parts can be purchased, built from recovered blueprints, and salvaged from the ocean.
THE BUSINESS ELEMENT
One of this game's most unusual and appealing aspects is running a business. The three branches of the business element are: ingredient gathering, brewing, fulfilling contracts, and managing your own bar.
Ingredient gathering has been gameified enough so that players can use their aircraft to fly through wheat fields using their propeller to chop up wheat. Grapes, honey, apples, potatoes, and other ingredients can be gathered by firing high-powered water guns to knock their ingredients into the air for gathering.
Back in the brewery, existing recipes and newly acquired recipes offer a guide for types of drinks that can be created, but the player is free to try concocting anything they can think of. I made a few original recipes that were horrendous, but sometimes I got lucky enough to make a real keeper! All drinks can either be discarded or packaged in customizable bottles to either be delivered to customers or stocked in the player's own bar.
Contracts are very straightforward. Flying from island to island has the chance to find new seaside towns with bars that are open to business with a new supplier. They provide contracts for specific drinks in certain quantities and of certain qualities. Brewing those products and delivering them on time and to specification is a way to preserve contracts and keep the player's income stream strong.
The player's bar can be customized in different themes, floor plans, wall types, floor types, wood stain, metal stain, chair type, stool type - heck, even smoking and not smoking. Patrons enter the player's bar with new insights into the local culture, story-related information, and other encounters. The patrons will be ordering any drink players keep stocked.
While it is somewhat difficult to reach this level in the timed February 2022 demo, the longer play sessions from the 2021 closed alpha permitted me to get to a point where I had a thriving bar and brewery stocked with my own products. This allowed me to spend most of my time exploring and pursuing the story with income passively coming in. I still made it a point to visit other towns and fulfill contracts to further expand my business area as that advances the goal of running those pirates out of town, but the sense of urgency to constantly run multiple brewing contacts at once from customers was very low.
I was very concerned that the business element of this game would weigh down the gameplay and player's choices so much there would not be a way to effectively pursue the story. This was not the case. For those not used to business management, it sounds a bit daunting, but it's simplified enough to where after brewing your first drink, the system to brew everything else is the same, with the only difference being ingredients and the number of ingredients used per recipe.
Of course, the pirates aren't going to take being removed from their self-proclaimed territory without intimidation and combat. Rather than weapons, players will be combating them with non-lethal tools like high-powered water cannons to damage their aircraft and even water rockets. But the focus is on disabling the plane and not killing the pirates wholesale. Combat, when it appears, is still exciting, but this conscious decision from the game developer maintains the overall fun feeling of the experience without taking it to a dark place. A respectable decision.
Beyond the business and tense standoffs, exploring the islands has a lot of extras with it. Listing them off as bullet points may be the easiest way to summarize it:
Water landings allow players to sleep on the water for many hours to recover pilot fatigue; no need to return to headquarters all the time. Pilots can also be switched and emergency services like refueling and towing are available.
Salvaging sunken ship wreckage with an aircraft-mounted wench allows for recovery of equipment, blueprints, brewing recipes, new ingredients, crates of money, and more.
Fishing for sealife to add to recipes.
Finding new land-based ingredients only available on certain islands.
Finding new towns, shipyards, and other places.
Discover notable locations that come with snippets of lore that help expand the player's understanding of the world.
CONTROLS, CAMERAS, FIXES
Since the closed alpha demo, one of the most prominent problems was in the tutorial. It would occasionally bug itself, making it almost impossible to complete the tutorial, requiring a restart from the beginning. This is something I had happen to me as well. However, I've yet to have this happen to me during a few playthroughs of the February 2022 demo, where I intentionally did the tutorial to see if it would break. Do note that there are comments on social media and elsewhere saying this still happens occasionally.
The default camera of The Brew Barons fits perfectly for this game. For reference, I'll call it the Cinematic camera. It focuses on the horizon and provides easy sweeping views needed to see the lay of the land, coordinate turns for landing or ingredient gathering, and generally take in the scenery. However, this camera was not that great in times of combat or when sharp vertical maneuvers were needed. Maintaining a visual of where the aircraft was going became very difficult. After receiving feedback, the developer added a second camera option toggled with a button press that slowly repositions and locks the camera directly behind the aircraft, giving it the familiar third-person view seen in most flight arcade games.
Control-wise, I think that this game is better off with either a gamepad or keyboard and mouse controls. As I've mostly flown with a gamepad, I'll focus on that. The default controls for gamepads are undeniably a bit odd. Some functions are bound to rather unusual buttons - this has been a sticking point for some people. A more refined default gamepad layout would be beneficial here, but everything can be rebound to the player's liking. I advocate for always setting control bindings before ever playing a game, so I may be biased in that aspect. Some parts of the control setting menu may need to be reworded, but this is overall minor.
Flight sticks or Hands-On Throttle And Stick (HOTAS) controllers do work, but only devices that use a single USB are recognized. According to the developer, advanced HOTAS with multiple USBs are currently being researched to get working. This also applies to players attempting to use rudder pedals, HOTAS, and head tracking simultaneously. In my opinion, not a huge deal since the overall experience was better using a gamepad than when I was using a Logitech X52 or a Thrustmaster T.Flight 4.
With its mix of arcade flight action, approachable business management, an adventurous story, and a fine balance of gamification, there are genuinely not that many titles out there that can match this game's unique energy. I've genuinely had a fun time with this demo, primarily because of how far off of the beaten path it is. The creativeness of what the developer is doing with this title is wonderful.
I do recommend trying the time-limited February 2022 demo a few times. Just to play the tutorial, play while skipping the tutorial to explore and another tutorial-skipped playthrough to focus on the business management aspects.
For those interested, the Kickstarter campaign is active until March 12th, 2022 with the public demo still available as long as the Kickstarter is active. Our interview with the team developing The Brew Barons is also available for further information.
About the Writer
Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
Co-founder of Skyward Flight Media. After founding Electrosphere.info, the first English Ace Combat database, he has been involved in creating flight game-related websites, communities, and events since 2005. He explores past and present flight games and simulators with his extensive collection of game consoles and computers. Read Staff Profile.