Black Skylands: A Skypunk Adventure
I’m always a little nervous to try out Early Access games. They can be buggy, and can end up biasing you against the final product. Of course, the opposite can also be true – they can be good enough to keep you excited for the end product. Black Skylands from Hungry Couch Games is one of those games that somehow falls somewhere in the middle. Billed as a skypunk open-world/sandbox/action-adventure-top-down-shooter, Black Skylands makes some lofty promises.
A Brave New World
The story of Black Skylands is solid. Earth is no longer recognizable, now made up of a series of floating islands only reachable by airship. Life is largely peaceful for these floating communities. Players take on the role of Eva, a member of the Earners. Her father makes a strange discovery – he’s captured a strange creature that’s part of a species known as The Swarm. Convinced that the creature is actually peaceful, he shows it off, only for an accident to occur. The game leaps forward at this point to seven years in the future, and the peace has been shattered. The Earners are under attack from the Falcons, another tribe of humans, while everyone is also under attack from The Swarm. It’s up to Eva to find a solution to both problems. It’s an interesting enough story; perhaps not anything groundbreaking, but certainly enjoyable.
Jack of All Trades, Master of None
With a mashup of so many genres, you’d expect the gameplay of Black Skylands to be its biggest draw. But as is, it’s… clunky. There’s somehow almost too much going on. After a devastating attack on your home island, you’ll need to rebuild nearly from scratch. Which starts off fun – you’ll first gather materials to build a farm, where you can plant seeds to grow crops. Unfortunately, building from here quickly becomes tedious. To build facilities such as the Factory (which will let you refine certain resources) or the Workshop (which lets you upgrade your weapons), you’ll need to find certain resources such as wood or stone. Since you won’t find these on your home island, you’ll need to set sail in your airship to scour other islands for the necessary materials. Some materials will show up on the map, which will help you narrow your focus down, but other materials can only be found by blasting open the strange floating rocks that litter the sky, and it feels largely luck-based which ones will have the materials you need. Additionally, once you gather a material, you then have to walk it back to your ship and store it in the hold, or put it in storage if it’s available on that particular island. This also has to be done one at a time, which can be a bit of a drag.
You’ll Fly, But Not Gracefully
I was extremely excited about the airship aspect of Black Skylands. But, much like the building and resource management/gathering, it’s a mixed bag. Exploring the huge world in your craft is quite enjoyable, but the controls are clunky. It was really difficult to find a decent speed that wasn’t full throttle or accidentally reversing. I also had a really hard time docking with other islands without causing small amounts of damage to my ship. Turning and maneuvering take a lot of finesse and practice.
You’ll also need to master air combat, which is simultaneously fun and frustrating. Because you’re in an airship, when you fire your cannons, there’s naturally recoil that makes your ship swivel – it’s quite nice that they’ve applied Newton’s Third Law. However, it feels like the enemy is able to maneuver significantly easier than you, and having to stop to repair your ship so that you don’t get destroyed is fun at first, but it is another mechanic that gets more frustrating the more you use it. Especially because you have to have a repair kit on hand to patch up your ship, which takes up room in the (limited) cargo hold.
Fun Combat, But Needs Some Rebalancing
Combat isn’t just limited to the skies. In order to progress through the game, you’ll need to liberate islands that have fallen under the control of the Falcons. Once you disembark, you’ll be able to explore these small floating islands, often having to fight enemies in order to progress. Like everything else in Black Skylands, the combat is fun until it’s not. You can roll through bullets to avoid taking damage, which is handy and welcome. You can also equip up to three different guns at a time, and it’s easy enough to cycle through them. Perhaps my favorite thing you can do, though, is use your grappling hook to snag enemies and send them hurtling off into the abyss below.
You can also get up close and personal and perform a melee attack, which is quite handy for when you inevitably run out of ammo, as your weapons don’t hold many rounds at first. Where combat gets bogged down is the boss fights. The difficulty spikes in these fights are significant, and it’s all too easy to run out of ammo in the middle of the fight, leaving you with nothing but your weaker attacks. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be stuck redoing the boss fights multiple times until you get your rhythm, which means replaying the dialogue leading up to the boss fight every. Single. Time. Additionally, you’ll have to frequently go back to defend your islands from falling back into enemy hands, which quickly gets tiresome.
An Absolutely Gorgeous Game
Black Skylands undeniably has an amazing aesthetic. Gorgeous, lovingly rendered pixel art in all of its glory sets the stage. Character dialogue brings up character portraits that are just dripping with pixelated charm. It doesn’t really feel like a cheap tug at those nostalgia heartstrings, either. You really can feel the love this team put into every carefully placed pixel, and it works extremely well for this game. The music is solid, too, matching the mood and atmosphere of the game when necessary. While no tune particularly stood out to me as memorable, it was nonetheless enjoyable.
There’s a lot to like about Black Skylands; gorgeous visuals, solid combat and exploration mechanics, and plenty of world to explore. Unfortunately, everything it does starts out fun but quickly gets bogged down, becoming more slog than anything. Keep in mind, Black Skylands is still in early access. I think they have a real opportunity here to fix some of the more glaring flaws. All the bones are there, it just needs some fine-tuning and adjusting, and I think it’ll be a really stellar game.