Maybe it’s because I grew up playing Final Fantasy, but I’ve discovered that when developers add an airship to their video game, I immediately become more interested. Maybe it's the allure of freedom that open skies represents, or maybe it’s the weird paradox of something that feels both futuristic and antiquated at the same time. So when a game puts airship gameplay front and center? It’s something I at least have to try.
Black Skylands is a game about those open skies. About adventuring, about exploring, about nautical battles in the sky and a quest for freedom. It’s fun and exciting and has a gameplay loop that can hook you into exploring just ‘one more island’ again and again. There is some turbulence however, so it’s time to figure out if this game is worth the journey it takes you on.
A Marshal’s Life For Me
To summarize the plot quickly, this is a game about an ambitious young girl who yearns for the open sky. Eva wants to prove they can help keep the skies safe, and in the prologue/tutorial, she proves she can handle herself while still not old enough to serve in the (sky)navy. Her life is interrupted however, and the game truly starts 8 years later when you discover that bandits have overtaken your homeland. After assuming command as the local air marshal, it's up to you to save the region.
The plot feels odd because it's both incredibly basic and then occasionally really compelling. The title screen for the game hints at the inhuman threat out there, but the heroine’s personal motivations also line up with typical jrpg fantasy fare. It feels like there’s a good backstory to the whole world (the legend of the sky whale and how the world is now made of floating islands is tantalizing), but the way gameplay gives you plot can have you speeding through dialogue as it feels rote.
Then, out of nowhere, this game can hit you with scenes that have a lot of drama to them. You’ll be in the middle of your fifth “Lets go delete 50th gun toting villains from reality”, enjoying the simplicity of it all, and then there’s a death sequence with a proper musical swell and everything. At other points, secrets - legitimately interesting and good secrets - are revealed so out of nowhere without any warning that it almost detracts from the moment, feeling like a telenovela twist.
Hungry Couch Games
PC, Xbox, Playstation, Nintendo Switch
Aug. 15, 2023
A Steam review copy was provided by the publisher.
I need to reiterate that while some of this comes across as a criticism, I don’t think it’s bad exactly…just occasionally a bumpy ride as it jumps between being a solid mindless action thriller and something that’s trying to be more introspective and interesting. a theme that keeps playing out as you play through the game.
Eva, The One Woman Navy AND Army!
Black Skylands sells itself on the promise of being a sky captain, letting you get into nautical battles filled with cannon broadsides and open skies. While that is a part of it, make no mistake: this game is about evolving into becoming a one person wrecking crew in order to save your homeland. At its heart, this is a top down twin stick shooter, just one that goes about it with an admittedly tantalizing structure.
As a pixel graphics game, it really comes alive when shown in motion.
Let me describe the core gameplay loop, one that make up most of your play sessions of Black Skylands:
- Fuel up your airship and gear up at the Fathership. Take resources you found on your last run, upgrading gear, opening chests to get new upgrades for your weapons, etc.
- Chart your course and fly out with your chosen airship. Get into dogfights along the way, shooting down everything from small solo jetpack swarming bandits to large gunbarges that you can board and loot.
- Fly to an island that is under bandit control, and find a way to get onto it with your skyhook either safely away from enemies or go in guns blazing, firing missile salvos from your ship to soften them all up on approach.
- Proceed to absolutely destroy everything on the island with an array of shotguns, rocket launchers, machine guns, and more. As soon as the last enemy is defeated, Eva declares the island freed, plants a flag, and your map shows the red island now as blue.
- While on the island, perform some basic puzzles to unlock more resources and treasure and use your skyhook to flick around between rock formations, moving platforms, and more.
And… that’s it! It’s a formula that honestly works really well. Each island is its own ball of yarn you have to untangle, finding a safe way onto the island, finding a way into the heart of it by jumping, unlocking doors, and so on. You’re rewarded by finding more enemies, then more supplies for clearing every enemy off the island, then you are ready to do it all over again. The average island felt like it took fifteen or thirty minutes to sort of unravel, and is a great little gameplay experience wrapped up nicely. I definitely found myself caught up in a ‘just one more island’ loop that kept me up an hour late once or twice.
If I had to summarize the game? It feels a bit like those old top down Zelda games from the SNES area mixed onto a modern shooting game like Enter The Gungeon. It doesn’t quite do either of those things as well, but the blend is incredibly compelling.
Adventuring Both Big And Small
Outside of that core loop, there are a few more things to do which are adjacent. You can absolutely just… fly around the map and start shooting down anything that moves out of the sky. There are larger barges that can be boarded to shoot down the many bandit crewmen, letting you move your main base all around the map, which is a fun touch. Hell, I’ve run into a unique boss battle just flying around.
When you use lighthouses, you get this great pulled out shot that lets you scope out an island's surroundings. You can look for loot, where enemies are, and plan your approach.
There’s also a small treasure hunt which you can mostly do while freeing islands - finding gold coins lets you buy rare equipment, and if you want to level up absolutely every weapon and find every mod, you’ll find yourself really enjoying handling the optional puzzles, which can be everything from memory games to small logic puzzles to unlock a safe. None are hard, but they’re satisfying to complete and get new gear options like a forcefield or deployable energy weapons.
As you complete the story, there are some boss battles. I had a lot of fun with them, each different enough to need a slightly different approach. When you run into them, they often work like a gear check, making sure you really do have a good build of equipable weapons and trinkets, or that you finished upgrading your airship to take a few extra hits.
As a side note? I have no idea why, but there are a few gimmicks that I absolutely love that others might hate. When your airship is damaged or runs out of fuel, you have to leave your helm to grab your gas can or start hammering away to patch up your smoking ship. The sound effect of you fixing your ship is really satisfying, and I love/hate that you have to do this in real time. You will never, EVER forget to gas up your ship again after the first time you need to refuel in the middle of a gunfight, praying they won’t catch up with you until you have some gas again.
About Those Choppy Skies
While Black Skylands is a fun experience with a lot of ideas going for it, it’s not a perfect one. There are a few rough edges to this game that you should be aware of, one of which is sort of interesting to go into from a reviewer’s standpoint.
Combat can be a lot of fun, but just isn't quite as smooth as other dedicated twin-stick shooters.
First off, there is the main gameplay issue, which is that the twin stick shooting isn’t as smooth as other games. It’s perfectly fine most of the time, but I sometimes found that if I was both moving, directing my aim, AND hitting the fire button at the same time, I couldn’t shoot. Once it was firing, I could move and aim just fine, but I did die once early on as I found myself circle strafing a group of bandits without returning fire. You learn to change how you start combat pretty fast, but it was frustrating.
Another small hiccup comes from how Black Skies essentially has two modes, sky battles and land adventuring. This is mostly a positive, as fighting ship-to-ship feels different enough from constant bandit waves - ship broadsides have a long reload time, making you have to shift and reposition to use both sides of your ship. You have to account for moving into mines and hazards, its a lot of fun - but it's a lot of buttons, each of which changes significantly from your land-based combat. More than once I found myself accidentally dodge rolling off my ship or firing a weapon while trying to transition from one set of controls to the other.
There are a few other small rough edges, but I want to talk about perhaps the strangest one - that Black Skylands has an identity crisis. It’s a weird thing to say when in my own experience, the game starts very straight forward: explore islands for plot events or to free them, get more upgrades, advance the plot, and repeat. It’s a fun adventure game with a little bit of variety, and one that doesn’t outstay its welcome.
However, there are hints all over that at one point, Black Skylands was trying to be something much more ambitious, much stranger. Little touches such as how you can buy decorations for the Fathership, or how there are references in the story to planting seeds or rebuilding. There’s even an end game ‘raid’ with additional rewards that appears before the final sequence. Add on how the story seems to scale up dramatically at the very end seemingly out of nowhere, and you see the fingerprints of a much more ambitious project everywhere.
On a personal note, the writing of characters can jump from banal to wonderfully over the top. Some of the overheard bandit conversations are genuinely fun or interesting.
The full story comes into view when you look at steam reviews, or even some articles written back in 2021 when Black Skylands was in early access. There are references to building farms, growing resources to help yourself advance… something I did not have to do at all during my playthrough of the game. While I did have to repair and upgrade an armory and workshop to improve my combat gear, there was a whole section of the game that was ripped out of it from early access to the full release.
This is where my conundrum as a reviewer lies: I did not play Black Skylands before full release. My only reference point that I can actively use is the finished product, which is a fun and entertaining adventure game with a lot of shooting. From what I can tell, the early access product was messier and less cohesive, but also had a lot more to play with, a lot of ways that players became more invested in their Fathership, in the world itself. In the end, the developers apparently just decided to streamline the whole experience and launch the game as it stands now.
It’s odd because in game development its not uncommon to add or drop entire systems as you hone in on making the best experience you can… but in this case, a whole part of the game appears to have been dramatically shifted during a public open access instead of privately. So, how do you review such an odd situation?
A Fun Sailing Adventure That Yearns For Bigger Horizons
At the end of the day, I really enjoyed my time with Black Skylands. I played for about 20 hours on hard mode (the medium difficulty), and freed all the islands. My ships were upgraded, I hunted collectibles, and I saved the skies. I enjoyed the game enough to 100% the achievements, even as I saw the frayed edges of the game more clearly by that point.
For $20, it’s a great little package you can finish up quick. If you see it on sale and you are in the mood for a little adventure, a little exploration, or just need an excuse to feel like you got a chance to drive an airship… go ahead and grab it. Enjoy sailing in the Black Skylands, I definitely did. At the same time, I see the ambition scattered throughout this game and feel a sense of wistfulness. Maybe if this high flying story does well enough, we’ll be fortunate enough to see Hungry Couch Games’ next attempt at a grand adventure.