Out now on PC flies Black Skylands. Developed by Hungry Couch Games and published by tinyBuild, Black Skylands is a third-person 2D indie action game. Take on the role of Eva as she fights off The Falcons, a band of sinister sky pirates who have been capturing innocent people for their own dark ends. It is up to you to fly your customisable skyship to liberate islands whilst you uncover a far more horrifying plot lurking in the shadows. Fight on land, fight in the air, upgrade your gear, and save the world.
I did a preview of Black Skylands quite a while ago and I’ve been working on this review for quite some time. In the here and now I have to say that title is a lot of fun and much improved over that build I played all those months ago. The title is functionally a twin-stick-shooter. With a tight control scheme that is and a novel core concept, there is a lot to love. Though I will grant you the ship controls aren’t as tight as they should be. And that does put a bit of a dampener on what is otherwise a great game with a sweet story. With that said let’s get to the review!
Story – A Treasure Trove
In Black Skylands you take on the role of Eva. The recently promoted Sky Martial. Basically, think a sheriff but instead of a horse they have a flying ship. After the Fathership is attacked by a band of pirates known as The Falcons she sets out on a mission to end their evil ways once and for all. Taking her on an adventure to save people from their tyranny. And later finding herself facing off against strange otherworldly monsters. There is more at play here than what I have just described. But we are barely into the review so I don’t want to lay spoilers down on you.
Those of you who read the preview will know that I wasn’t all that impressed with the writing or story of that particular build. I felt that our lead character was lacking in personality. Character motivations were shoddy. With one feeling too silly to be taken seriously. Thankfully that is not the case here. It is frankly like night and day comparing the story of the build I played and this one. I won’t go on about the comparisons too much as most of you won’t have played it.
Into The Dawn
This story is quite honestly brilliantly well delivered. The pacing is solid. The mystery of everything is slowly unfolded before your eyes. The hidden depths and backstory of our cast are gradually uncovered as your adventure continues. Adding weight behind characters who previously felt rather flat. And granting them a layer of nuance that other writers likely would have overlooked in favour of just leaning on well-worn cliches. However, those layers of nuance aren’t thrown in your face. As they would have been with some writers. Though at that point it would be less nuance and subtext and just text.
There are moments of drama which carry a decent level of gravitas to them. Whilst your mileage with these things will vary I do feel that they hit all the notes that they need to be impactful. I won’t say that it is the most moving game I have ever reviewed here at KeenGamer. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t frequently impressed with how effective the story is. And it probably has the best story of any game I’ve reviewed this year.
Additionally, there are diary entries that you can find hidden throughout the game world which gives you an insight into the history of the world as it is. As well as many of the side missions being fronted by a collection of memorable characters. Admittedly some are better than others but that is always the case with these things. This all works together to build an enjoyable world. The font used is easy to read, and aside from a couple of typos here and there, the delivery of the text is great.
The tutorial text we get is decent. With new gameplay elements being introduced at a gradual pace. And are in environments that give you time to practice them. However, I do think the text is hard-baked into the levels themselves at times. Rather than being on the UI which can make them hard to read. Still, with all that said Black Skylands has been great as far as the text and story have been concerned. With all that out of the way, let’s get onto the gameplay.
Gameplay – Law of the Air
As mentioned in the introduction to this review the core gameplay loop to Black Skylands is, functionally, a twinstick shooter. Move with one stick, aim with the other. All whilst avoiding enemy fire and attacks. Sure, it isn’t literally one. But it practically is at least on the ground. I’ll touch upon air combat in a moment. Throughout your adventure, you’ll unlock a series of new weapons and powers to aid you. Some of these powers will summon turrets, and others will do massive damage over a target area. Though if you’re anything like me you’ll mostly use the shield and slow down powers the most.
The controls on the ground sections are rather intuitive and easy to pick up. Even when new gameplay quirks are added the control scheme remains tight. Based upon this half of the game alone I dare say that it makes Black Skyland more than justify its entry price. There is a certain amount of crafting and resource gathering to be found in Black Skylands. Which I’ll admit that I have mixed feelings on. Collecting materials to upgrade the Fathership as well as your ships and equipment helps to build out the gaming routine.
Build a Better Battleship
And it helps to add to the feeling of progression. You start with what can best be described as a pea shooter and a floating bathtub. Then later you get some serious hardware and a ship to be proud of. But on the other hand, it adds a level of grind which can be a bit much. Especially bearing in mind that the resources in the game are finite; you can’t just farm them as you would in other games. So there is no returning to areas later on to gain the next batch of wood or stone that has spawned.
However, the grind isn’t too harsh. At least it wasn’t during my play-through of Black Skylands for this review. As most of the stuff you need can be found on the islands you are sent to on missions. Or on the way to and from them. Black Skylands doesn’t have an RPG-style level system. Instead, your progress is tracked via a pair of power-level indicators. One represents your power as an individual, and the other represents the power of your craft. Each island you visit will have a value to represent how powerful the threat there is. This helps you to avoid going up against threats that you are too underpowered to face off against. Though in fairness you can force your way through the higher power islands. It will be harder to win though not impossible.
Next Level Piracy
You increase the power level of you and your ship by upgrading them, and by switching to more powerful ships and weapons when the occasion requires it. One of the things I like about how ship upgrades are handled is the fact that upgrades are shared across all your craft. So if you buy a speed upgrade on one ship it will be present on your others as well. This allows you the flexibility to use different ships as the occasion arises.
Ship combat is a tad too finicky for my liking and isn’t as intuitive as it really should be. And lacks a level of precision that I feel it needs. Granted this isn’t helped by the fact the default control scheme makes turning when reversing a pain. Additionally, air combat can take some getting used to. For example, to fire your port and starboard weapons you need to hold down one button whilst pointing the camera in a direction you wish to fire. You can do a quicker fire by tilting the stick and tapping the button. Holding it down feels too clumsy for my liking as one slight move to the left or right will reset the timer. And quickly tapping will give you a far more inaccurate volley. And given how pretty much all your weapons have a cool down this can leave you vulnerable.
Additionally, the controls feel rather floaty. Look, I get that these are flying ships and all. But even with the best handling upgrades, it can still be hard to get around some targets and obstacles. And given how the repair system works this means either trying (sometimes in vain) to avoid fire or having to tank a lot of shots. Even with the force field that you can deploy, enemy fire will chew through your ship very quickly. Sure, having to stop to repair your ship is a novel feature. It helps add a sense of realism and roleplay to the game. But it does mean that repairing during a gunfight isn’t an option. As almost as soon as you finish repairing yourself you’ll likely have taken even more damage.
The issues that I have with the ship combat are regretfully the biggest issues I came across during my playthrough of Black Skylands for this review. Which made some of the latter boss fights that are built around it infuriating. Yes, your mileage will vary. And with some trial and error, grinding, and switching ships you can get around this issue. And depending on the difficulty you’re playing on you may have no issue at all. I did play through on Very Hard so the issues with the controls stand out a little more when you’re playing at higher levels.
However, I must say that whilst I do have issues with Black Skylands I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy my time with it for this review. Because when it is in its full stride it is honestly fantastic and one of the best games I’ve played this year. The core loop is drum-tight. The on-foot combat is brilliant. The sense of progression you get with the upgrades and items you unlock is solid. And when you return to some of the islands you missed to liberate later you feel like a force of nature.
Whilst I do have issues with ship combat, you can get used to it. And just changing a couple of options early on can save you a ton of headaches later. Sure, that Devourer fight is trash. But it gets better after that. And just grabbing the right upgrades and switching ship can help there. I will be blunt. Black Skylands is probably one of the best indie games released this year. There is no getting around it. And when it hooks you it really hooks you.
Graphics & Audio – X Marks the Spot
I must say that in regards to both graphics and audio, Black Skylands does a remarkable job in both areas. The graphics and art style are top-notch. Creating worlds and characters filled with personality and having a distinct charm to them. Aesthetically they are great. In function, they are a textbook case of how to properly build a game world. It is clear as day how to get around the islands. With the layouts of each island being easy to read and follow. While at the same time being great to look at.
The quality of the character design can vary. Our main cast looks great and is much improved for the most part. General NPCs however feel like a holdover from an earlier art style. But that is hardly a problem. The strange beasts and monsters that you meet in the latter half of the game really do look fantastic. The artwork for them has an indescribably creepy quality to it. Some being sharp, chitinous, and insect-like, and others being unpleasantly fleshy. With a colour pallet that makes them look all the more alien in comparison to the islands that you come from.
I will admit that it is hard to review the soundtrack of Black Skylands without just echoing what I said in the preview. I feel that is well produced and a great credit to those who composed and performed it. It adds a great sense of place to everything you are doing and adds to the feel of certain scenes and sequences. And it has a great earworm quality. And I have found the soundtrack echoing in the back of my head in the hours after a gaming session.
As far as new praise is concerned I love how sound effects are mixed into certain locations. There is often a sense of depth to them which I frankly am blown away with. as it grants some locations a sense of realism that is missing even in some AAA games. It is one of those minor things that you don’t often realise. But when it makes itself clear to you. It stands out as being a great element. And helps them to feel more organic and lived in.
Black Skylands was reviewed on PC. The game key was provided by Evolve PR.