Black Skylands is a top-down open-world shooter developed by Hungry Couch Games and published by tinyBuild. Aboard the Fathership. Eva’s dad, Richard, has just returned from a one-year expedition with something that will change the world of Aspyra forever. But Richard’s discovery draws the attention of the Swarm, and the monstrous creatures that form it, to their corner of the sky-bound world. Now, seven years later, the world is ravaged by marauders and the relentless Swarm attacks. But hope may yet be on the horizon as Eva sets sail.
When I got to try an early demo of Black Skylands, I was impressed with its pleasant visual style, dual forms of combat, and how the player could approach customization for both their gear as well as their ship. Unfortunately, while these elements are still present, the full game fails to fully deliver the promise of the demo by burying the better elements of the game within tedious travel and resource gathering.
The world of Black Skylands is presented in a lovely pixel art style that harkens back to earlier days of gaming. The game’s bright color and simple but well-executed animations deliver a charm that those who frequent the indie game scene will be very familiar with. With dialogue moments delivered through charming character portraits and text boxes, the old-school presentation is complete.
The basic controls for the game will be instantly familiar to many gamers. With WASD keys controlling which direction the player moves in, and the mouse controlling facing, the player navigates the many floating landmasses of Aspyra on foot as they fend off numerous enemies using guns, blades, and their trusty grappling hook. The moment-to-moment action is smooth and precise, and while there is plenty of challenge in enemy encounters, the game doesn’t penalize failure. Death, in most instances, simply sends you home so you can once more embark on your journey. But the threats of Black Skylands aren’t limited to the many floating islands that dot the world map. Traveling between landmasses has perils of its own. And only skilled captains can tame these unfriendly skies.
While the basic control scheme for ship combat is similar to land navigation, there are significant differences. First, steering your ship takes a bit of getting used to as momentum can cause turns to swing past their desired direction if the player doesn’t properly compensate for them. Early game, this can result in many collisions and missed shots, but after the first few hours, I found myself swinging my ship around to navigate around hazards consistently. The other difference with ship combat in Black Skylands is the placement of guns aboard your vessel.
Rather than having chase armament in the front of the ship, the player’s vessel is equipped with one gun on either side. These broadside guns are fired with the left or right mouse buttons and can have their angle shifted to fire at different vectors. This gives the player quite a bit to keep track of, but just like piloting, it comes with a reward once they manage to master positioning and the timing of their shots.
As the player navigates the skies of Black Skylands, the threats posed by enemies become greater. To rise to the challenge, players must upgrade both their gear and their airship (or buy new airships) to keep up with the threats they face. For gear, this means finding upgrade crates scattered throughout the world, while ship upgrades must be built from resources gathered during your travels. While these upgrade systems initially excited me, they sadly wear out their welcome with the hassle of gathering resources.
Just going to and from your mission destination and home base can take a bit of time. Needing to fly to other out-of-the-way places to gather resources only bogs down the journey. Especially since coal, possibly the most used resource, isn’t even shown on the map. Rather, the player must blast open floating sky rocks till they find ones that yield the precious commodity. And unless you are incredibly skilled with the game’s mechanics, you will need to do a significant amount of upgrading.
Threat levels rise suddenly in this game, requiring the player to halt forward progress to build upgrades so they can survive enemy encounters. For me, this need to sidetrack myself for significant lengths of time killed the forward momentum the game had. And with a story that is hardly what I’d call compelling, there wasn’t much to push me through these roadblocks. But how much of a problem this is will vary from player to player.
The final form of progression that Black Skylands offers comes in the form of special abilities. To access these abilities, however, requires the player to clear islands of enemies. Once an island is clear, depending on its size, it will provide a certain population size that can be attached to abilities. The catch to this is, the enemies will periodically return to attempt to reclaim the island. If the player wishes to retain their population, they must fly back and clear the island of enemies before a timer runs out. This mechanic served to slow down my progress further until I opted just to let the islands be retaken after a few retreads of old areas. It just didn’t feel worth the hassle of fighting for them.
The other major problem for this game is that, while its core gameplay is fun, it doesn’t change enough. For example, the way you fight enemies at the beginning of the game is basically how you fight them throughout. This further compounds the game’s struggle to keep the player interested for the full playtime of the game.
So, while Black Skylands delivers an appealing aesthetic and some solid core gameplay, it quickly mires itself down in long, repetitive trips to gather resources and largely unchanging gameplay. While its slow, unchanging gameplay didn’t hold my attention very well, I can see how someone could find a relaxing challenge that they can just take their time with here.
Black Skylands is available on PC on July 9th.