Black Skylands, developed by Hungry Couch games, is currently out on Steam. It’s in Early Access, and while some titles launch into Early Access with relatively few flaws, Black Skylands is very much an Early Access title. Although there is a reasonably large amount of fairly polished content here, numerous technical issues, as well as questionable design decisions, hamper the overall quality and playability.
At its core, Black Skylands is a ship-based top-down exploration game, with some light simulation elements and quite a lot of resource gathering. You pick up a skyship early on and use it to travel between a series of floating islands. Black Skylands is theoretically an open-world game, giving you the freedom to choose where you’d like to go. Ultimately, however, your choices are fairly limited, as there is a level mechanic at play here that gates many of the islands off until you reach a sufficient gear level. The basic flow of the game takes you from island to island, killing enemies in a style reminiscent of some of the tamer bullet-hells, until the island is cleared of enemy forces and the local farmers and whatnot are free to return to their homes. Along the way, you’ll gather resources like wood, copper and scrap metal, which you’ll use back at your base — the questionably named “Fathership” — to craft new weapons, ships, and upgrades.
There are some clear influences here, from light farming elements vaguely reminiscent of Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley, to a leveled gear system, reminiscent of MMOs and Diablo-esq titles. Unlike these other games, however, the systems are quite simplified in Black Skylands. Farming consists of first clearing a plot of arable land, then using your gathered resources to build a farm and plant a batch of seeds. These seeds grow in real-time, with your initial crops taking about 8-10 minutes to grow. Unlike in Stardew Valley, here your seeds are all planted at the press of a button, do not need to be watered, and at first serve no clear purpose. As a result, the process of farming doesn’t really form any sort of addictive gameplay loop.
The gear system is similarly stripped down, with the only loot drops coming in the form of predetermined mod boxes, which are placed in specific areas of the map and contain mods for your various weapons. These boxes need to be found, transported back to your ship, and then eventually transferred back to the Fathership where they can be unlocked. Each mod you attach to your weapon has a level associated with it, and this level is added between all your equipment to create your overall gear level. The mods are interestingly varied and even alter the appearance of your weapons. Some add interesting gameplay quirks, like Borderlands-inspired magazines that explode on reload, scopes that (somehow) heal you for each kill, and shotgun chambers that allow you to partially reload by rolling.
The weapons overall are one of Black Skylands’ strengths. They are satisfyingly impactful to fire, varied in their playstyle, and they just sound great. Using a shotgun from close range tends to blow weaker enemies apart, while sniper rifles require precision to aim and trade tremendous damage for reduced mobility. You have two melee attacks, a close-ranged slash and a long-ranged hookshot which pulls your opponent towards you before bashing them in the face. Both melee attacks cause enemies to drop ammo, making them handy to mix into your rotation on the regular. Given how fun combat can be at times, it’s a pity that the level-gating system renders your weapons completely useless against significantly higher-leveled enemies and makes ‘elite’ enemies a chore to take down, due to hugely inflated health bars. While you are able to dodge between shots fired during the bullet-hell shooting portions of the game, enemies which severely out-level you are all but impossible to take down, unless you’re willing to continually dodge attacks for the several minutes it will take you to kill even one over-leveled basic enemy.
The leveling system is not necessarily that big of an issue, however, because outside of the occasional chance encounter or elite enemy the game does a good job with its pacing, and the story will thread you through areas suitable for your current level. If you want to strike out on your own, you’ll find your options significantly curtailed, but rest assured that you’ll eventually make your way to nearly every island during the course of the story, and you’ll be sufficiently gear-leveled to handle the unvisited islands. The story itself is quite a bit of a mixed bag, however. The writing is inconsistent and the tone is outright bizarre. For what bills itself as a brightly colored pixel adventure, the gore effects and story focus on trauma and murder seems misplaced. There is perhaps an attempt to channel some of that striking contrast between cute aesthetics and serious subject matter that made Undertale such a singular achievement, however here the subject matter is handled in such a wildly tone-deaf way that the attempt falls flat. There is a moment early in the story where Eva, the main character, is informed that her mother Laura is having a hard time processing trauma. Laura speaks to her daughter as if she were still a child, and as if the previous seven years never happened. Eva’s father simply states that something in her mother is broken, and vaguely reassures his daughter that “it’s not forever”. The matter is left here, other than when Laura’s son arrives and remarks that something seems odd with his mother.
It’s very hard to care about characters in a world where nobody else seems to, where random terrible things happen with little explanation and character motivations shift wildly depending on the scene. There is a sense throughout that the story wants to be taken very seriously, yet it primarily serves as a way to push the player from island to island so any attempts at emotional impact feel unearned. There is very little setup, outside of a largely solid tutorial, before the game asks us to care about the lives of people we’ve never been introduced to. Taken together with the overall middling-to-poor writing, the major events that occur rapidly back-to-back take on a B-movie quality and feel more laughable than dramatic.
Further exacerbating the issue is the top-down perspective, which leads to very confusing cutscenes. Viewing a group of characters talking from above left me wondering who was talking at all times, and when the game chose to zoom in — ostensibly in an effort to highlight significant events that were occurring onscreen — the effect left me baffled; it was the visual equivalent of talking louder when speaking to someone who doesn’t understand your language.
In general, the top-down perspective feels like less of a design choice and more of a design limitation. Exploration of a vast aerial space would almost certainly have been more engaging in a 3D space, however, the 2D pixel art style makes this impossible. Navigating around the world requires constantly referencing your map, as you are only able to see in about a 30-meter radius around you. It’s not possible to plot a course to a destination without regularly checking your map to ensure you’re not about to run aground on a floating island since you are in effect always flying blind. These floating islands may as well be regular islands, due to the 2D perspective, and the skyships may as well be boats. They certainly handle like boats.
The controls overall vary from sufficient to abysmal, depending on whether or not you’re playing with a controller. Using a keyboard and mouse it is entirely impossible to make smooth turns while flying, and in general, maneuvering becomes a massive chore. When you switch to grounded combat, however, the mouse adds unparalleled precision, letting you snipe targets and make precision grapples with ease. Switching to a controller largely resolves the skyship control issues, and even makes flying somewhat entertaining despite its overall floatiness and wobbliness, but then grounded combat becomes imprecise and annoying. This is a game where you will often grapple from your moving vessel to a platform where you will engage in a few seconds of gunfighting before leaping back to your ship. The constant switches between grounded and aerial combat take some getting used to, regardless of your controller scheme, and having to choose between imprecise flight or imprecise shooting is irritating. Ultimately I chose to stick it out with a controller since it made the melee combat much more impactful and made flying less of a chore. Even with a controller, however, the throttle control of the skyships is something I never truly got the hang of, and always found obtuse. While the throttle presents itself as a dial that can be set anywhere from off to full, in actual fact every setting between off and full throttle causes the skyship to begin rapidly decelerating, meaning that your only options are to fly everywhere at full speed (often inadvisable, especially when navigating around obstacles) or massage the throttle via a rhythmic tapping technique that is somewhat reminiscent of controlling horses in Red Dead Redemption and about equally as irritating.
Finally, there are the bugs. Given that Black Skylands is in Early Access, some bugs are undeniably expected and acceptable. However, the sheer number of issues I ran into was somewhat overwhelming. Throughout much of the beginning of the game, I was dealing with a bug where Luma, my flying moth companion, was unable to carry anything. At the time I wasn’t aware this was a bug, as the game simply told me “Luma is busy”. Manually carrying back each resource made traversing the early islands incredibly tedious, since each time I came across a resource I had to make the trek back to my ship. A little later on this bug barred me from making any progress whatsoever, as the game intentionally trapped me in an area in order to teach me how to utilize Luma’s ability to fly me back to my skyship. Luckily I was able to stand in a fire to kill myself, allowing me to respawn back at the Fathership.
Another time my character became inexplicably invisible to all enemies. I was able to see my character normally, yet walking through hostile islands not a single enemy took notice. Even firing on them provoked no reaction, and I was able to kill my way through what could have been an interesting ambush just by walking up and repeatedly smacking each enemy. Luckily, a restart fixed these issues, however, they were off-putting and game-breaking enough to be worrying. Fortunately, the developers seem on top of these bugs, with an active Discord eliciting bug reports from the community, however, they have their work cut out for them. Numerous other small issues cropped up during my playthrough, including dialogue cutscenes popping up for enemies I’d already killed (a result of me coming at an island from an unexpected direction), side quests that were impossible to complete (Harold arrived at his destination in the customary shipping box, however, there was no one available to receive him), and a particularly annoying issue where I was unable to use my map and completely unable to proceed through dialogue, which resulted in the game hanging infinitely (again a restart fixed this).
Black Skylands is in Early Access, with content updates planned and many bug fixes in the works. There is no question that most if not all the issues I’ve mentioned here will be fixed in time for the full release, but what remains to be seen is whether or not another layer of polish will fix the inherent issues underlying the base formula of the game. Once you’ve settled into the game loop the gameplay gets rather reductive. The story largely exists as a way to get you to go from Place A to Place B, and as sort of a reminder of how to play the game, with the basic formula remaining fixed for much of the runtime. Fly to location. Defeat enemies and gather resources. Upgrade base. Need new resources, so upgrade gear, fly to higher-level location. Defeat higher-level enemies and gather new resources. Upgrade base. Repeat. It’s at times enjoyable, with some interesting islands with unique mechanics, however, the overall gameplay loop starts to feel more like a chore and less like fun over time. The content is there, it exists, but at times it all just feels like padding.
Black Skylands is nice to look at and at times fun to play, however, the overall repetitive nature of the core gameplay loop and the bizarrely presented story takes away from some of its charm.
- Pretty 2D artwork
- Satisfying gun effects and customization
- Grappling off your ship and laying waste with a shotgun is fun
- Quite a bit of content
- Ships are a pain to fly
- The story is all over the place
- Writing is questionable at best
- Basic gameplay loop gets repetitive
- Lots of the content is grinding