Developed by Hungry Couch Games and published by tinybuild, Black Skylands is a fantasy action adventure game which sees you taking to the skies in your own skyship. Collecting resources and fighting enemies in a top down perspective as you craft bigger and better equipment.
The game has an almost steampunk like feel to it. This is only reinforced by the way you tinker and upgrade your ship. Along the way you’ll battle vicious bandits and strange monsters on foot and in the air. As far the the core gameplay goes it shows fantastic promise even at this stage. Even if it is still a little rough around the edges here and there.
Black Skylands is in Early Access on Steam and GOG from July 9th.
STORY – CLOUD STRIFE
As it currently stands Black Skylands’s story is a largely compelling and exciting affair. One that is decently written even at this stage. However it is not without a few stumbling points here and there which I’ll get on to shortly. But for now we’ll start off with the positives.
The game’s opening is great. It’s built around the game’s tutorial and it introduces us to our protagonist Eva and the world that she lives in. It’s her birthday, and not only does this introduce a innovative way to show off the the game’s mechanics, it shows her character in a charming and endearing way. And this is all rounded off with a dramatic sting that which really smacks you right in the gut.
It skilfully sets the tone of what to expect both in terms of the gameplay and the tone of the story we are getting into. And it gives the player a great motivation to be doing what they are doing. However, it is when our villain arrives that issues start to arise. Isn’t Black Skylands‘s writing that is the issue, more so its execution; at times the narrative feels disjointed and other times it feels inconsistent.
However, keeping things spoiler free whilst explaining my point, one of the issues is that when we are first introduced to our villain it’s not totally clear what their motivations are. Their villainy comes as a result of a heel turn due to something earlier in the story. However the inciting incident in no way feels as though it justifies what we see during their grand and bloody entrance. And whilst some will argue said bloody entrance wasn’t their fault, they still didn’t seem terribly fussed about it either way.
Later in the story we get a clearer idea as to why they did make the heel turn to villainy. In a flashback to the night of the inciting incident and only a matter of seconds after that cut scene originally ended. Giving us dialogue that honestly should have been part of that original scene.
Learning what we do in this flashback changes nothing; we know they are a villain by this point and this adds no extra depth to their character. And whilst it helps to allay confusion as to why they are doing what they are doing it still feels like information that we should have been seen the night of the incident. Not hours of gameplay after the fact.
Also, there is a weird moment of inconsistency within the story where the protagonist’s younger brother asks you to read your father’s dairy. As it apparently proves that their father is a reckless and selfish idiot. However reading the diary, there is nothing to support that claim. And even if you agree with the brother on this the information therein changes nothing about the story as it probably should do.
Don’t take my criticisms as being a sign the story is somehow terrible. Not at all. Our cast of characters are enjoyable to interact with. And the core of the story beyond the two examples listed above is undeniably compelling. I look forward to exploring more of it as the game is developed.
There is a lot to enjoy with the title’s writing even if it feels it needs a little fine tuning here and there. And I am certain that if the developers wish to tweak it they will do a fine job with it. And besides, Black Skylands‘s gameplay more than makes up for any issues I might have with the story.
GAMEPLAY – A PIRATE’S LIFE FOR ME
There is little at fault with the gameplay of Black Skylands. It is honestly a damn fine game even at this stage in its development.
When on foot the game is functionally a twin-stick shooter. With just enough depth to it to get it a leg up against similar titles and yet is simple enough to not be too daunting to get into. It really is hard to fault it. As any faults or annoyances I have found are just down to the gear you are given early on.
Black Skylands has all the ingredients to make a game that you can easily spend hours exploring and playing within. Honestly, after this I’ll be playing more of it. Once you get the hang of things you long for every possible opportunity to find more places to liberate or more baddies to smash.
The game can be played with a controller or with keyboard and mouse. Though having played both the controller feels the stronger of the two experiences. But whatever your chosen method you can easily rebind keys and buttons as you wish. Which is always welcome.
UP UP AND AWAY!
And of course there is the skyship piloting which makes up a fair bulk of the game. It is honestly something that takes some getting used to; the controls can prove a tad too floaty and slippery at times. Even when you do unlock better ships later on. Though when you do it’s a joy to experience.
It takes a certain degree of skill to get the best out of the ship combat. You can’t just spray and pray and hope for the best. You need to time your shots well whilst avoiding enemy fire to stand a chance of survival. However, that is something you soon come to learn the more you play.
BUILD A BETTER SKYSHIP
There are a vast array of upgrades for your equipment, ships, and even the buildings you construct. Each one helping to unlock more of Black Skyland‘s world for you to explore. Some of these upgrades are done as part of story missions which helps to introduce the mechanics to you. Although sometimes it doesn’t quite feel like you are being told about everything you need to upgrade which can leave you vulnerable.
There is one such moment where you are tasked with building a new ship to reach a new area in the game. But when you do so and then reach said area, you are then made painfully aware that both you and the ship need further upgrades to even stand a chance of survival.
And given that location can contain enemies that can one shot your ship or steal the contents of your ship’s hold any resources you might have had to upgrade the ship on hand (or even survive this onslaught) can be lost. Which can be more than a little bit of an inconvenience.
Being an Early Access title you’d expect a game like Black Skylands to have its share of bugs and glitches. Naturally when preparing for this Preview I came across a fair few of them. Some are minor ones that can be solved by a quick fast travel, game over, or even a quick reset of the game. They are inconvenient to be sure, but are easily dealt with. Others can prove demoralizingly catastrophic.
These glitches tend to appear most frequently around the game’s boss fights. The fights themselves are fun and easy enough to navigate on their own. That is when they work. When they don’t, it can be a nightmare.
In one such fight I had the boss come back from the dead as soon as it had been killed and was unkillable. And in another the boss loaded in without a health bar, and again was made immortal. Quitting and reloading solved the first glitch. That didn’t work on the second boss and the fight wouldn’t load properly at all. As a result I had to restart the entire game again from the beginning. And this was after a good five or six hours of play time. Needless to say I was rather nettled about that.
These glitches aren’t helped by the fact that Black Skylands is one of those games with only one save slot and no way to load earlier states. So when a big bug comes along, your only remedy is resetting and hoping you don’t need to start the entire thing all over again.
Again, bugs are expected for an Early Access title, and I don’t begrudge the developers for some being in at this stage. And by the time you read this I do not doubt the previously mentioned ones will be being dealt with or outright solved.
Even with these issues, Black Skylands still offers a rock solid gaming experience. One that when it is in full swing it is a joy to play and a compelling experience at that. So I cannot wait to see how the game will handle with further development and some of the bugs mentioned being dealt with.
GRAPHICS & SOUND – SOUND CLOUDS
Black Skylands‘s soundtrack has a subtle earworm quality to it; whilst it isn’t something that is instantly catchy it is still something you’ll unknowingly be humming and having echo about your head long after the fact. It is all stuff that sets the tone and the mood for the sequences that is used for. And it isn’t overly showy; the soundtrack isn’t trying to impress or recreate one genera or style over another. It is pleasant and never distracting or off-putting.
Similarly the art style and graphics themselves do the job respectably. With this kind of game what is more important than the character and world designs, which for the record are decent, is being able to communicate all the key information to the player they need to succeed; knowing where projectiles are coming from, knowing how long it is going to take to reload and so forth. Black Skylands does it superbly.
There is never a moment I am getting angry that I don’t know where an attack is coming from or finding myself caught short by being out of ammo. I can time my attacks and nimbly dodge almost all the attacks coming my way thanks to everything being clear and easy to read.
It is really hard to find much fault in Black Skylands as far as its sound or graphics is concerned. Like so much of this title it shows great promise for the future. Even with some of my gripes in mind.
Black Skylands was Previewed on PC. Game key provided by Evolve PR.