Black Skylands | PC Review
Black Skylands is an indie top-down shooter, infused with a vast crafting/construction system, RPG elements and story adventure. Developed by Hungry Couch Games and published by TinyBuild, it mixes elements from a variety of genres on most of the popular platforms, including PS4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox and PC. It was released in Early Access on July 9th 2021, and this review was made playing on the Steam version, mostly before the July 12th patch. While this review will talk about a lot of minor quality of life issues, flaws and bugs, it should be noted that the developers are actively supporting the game as it is in early access, and the July 12th patch actually already addressed some of the complaints I had outlined. I chose to keep these in the review, but also try to mark them with (FIXED). There is also another, larger patch due within a week. What this will contain is unknown to me.
In Black Skylands, you play as Eva of the Earner faction in the Aspya region. What being an Earner means, I’m not sure, except you are the good guys and Eva is a badass sailor and gunslinger of the skies. But first things first. You start the game when Eva is but a child - you get to know a few people through a control and mechanics tutorial. Then an alien (Swarm) is revealed. Someone gets accidentally shot. Then suddenly fast forward 7 years, lots of explosions and you have no idea what’s happening, who’s alive, and why you are making coffins for a living. Soon you learn that there’s been a war with someone or something (the Swarm species is a pretty good guess) during the missed time. This part ends in a quite spectacular funeral where a couple of dozen coffins get sent off into the empty airspace and blown up into smithereens. Shortly after that, it is revealed that the earlier explosions were caused by none other than Kain and his Falcons faction. He is being apologetic, but soon reveals his disdain for the Earners - Richard (Eva’s dad) especially - and it becomes apparent that the death of all those people was not an accident.
The story is interesting on the whole, and gives you ample motivation to explore and progress, but it suffers heavily from the details, with a narrative that is quite ridiculous (or maybe not just very well translated) and incoherent, which is probably my biggest complaint. For example, you are asked to learn how to farm crops from Grandpa. Grandpa tells you to learn this from a book. Then suddenly you are building gardens without anyone or anything telling you squat about farming. Just after that you get a letter from your brother asking you to come find him. You get on your ship, and then choose to kill Falcons instead, before going to find him. All the while there is no tutorial pointing to the merchant who sells seeds, or the fact that you need them to get parts needed to progress the main quest. The story just seems very oddly paced as many actions and quest parts go unexplained beforehand. Who am I killing and why? Am I killing Falcons? Oh it was bandits? OK. Oh no it was Falcons, bandits are Falcons. Or are Falcons bandits and many bandit factions exist?
I do love the concept of the game. While it is mainly a top-down shooter, so many elements of other genres are brought into this wonderful cocktail, and it actually tastes really good. The game is mostly story driven, but you are encouraged to explore, gather resources, build a base and upgrade your capabilities quite early. Also it seems the game opens up more with more freedom to the player as you get further down the main quest. The RPG mechanics consist of both ship upgrades, but also player and weapon upgrades. The player and ship’s power is gauged by a value summarised over all equipped parts and modifications. While this value does not strictly reflect the player’s ability (since some stats might suit you more) it is still important as being geared too low against enemy power will impose extra penalties. This penalty seems to be quite heavy even for a low difference in power (FIXED). Overall it’s a bit weirdly designed, as you might want to equip a piece that’s less powerful because it gives you better combat ability, but it works out, even though it might seem like a cheap way to balance the game. While on the topic of balance, I have to mention a discovery I made, namely “Reloading 10% on roll” modifications always round up. Meaning they are totally broken for the shotgun which has only a few shots in the magazine. It also does not use ammo from your pockets making it even more incredible. Weirdly, there are no stats shown for standard ship and weapon parts, while they clearly have some, as upgrades show stats compared to these. Finally, you can upgrade both ship and player by assigning population, which in turn can be obtained by liberating islands. Speaking of which, it’s really difficult to keep up with defending islands while progressing. (FIXED). Controlling the character in combat is very easy and intuitive. The ship controls are a bit difficult to get used to and might be less intuitive, but they are very logical when you think about it, and it does get better as you go.
Graphics are old-school pixel art and quite well made within the expectations of an indie title. With rich environments and smooth pixel animations the world around you comes to life beautifully. Watching the depth of the skies can be mesmerising, especially when a gargantuan appears in the distance. The one complaint is that it can be a bit difficult to see what objects are at your altitude, and thus will clip with the player and ship. But you learn from experience pretty quickly, so it’s not a huge issue. Music is weaved into environments and situations properly, and the score itself is quite nice, and reminiscent of games in similar settings in the sky.
Moving on to the quality of life and UI issues, let’s start with some of the menus. In the main menu in particular, there’s grey text in some poor places, which makes it really hard to read. Also, why is the in-game map not controllable by the mouse? It would be much easier to scroll, click and place markers with the mouse. Depending on your location when you finish defending an island, there will be construction afterwards, and you can get stuck. Seemingly with no way to become unstuck unless you have the moth, Luma, to carry you to the ship. Thankfully you will have Luma with you from quite early. The game relies solely on autosaves, which makes sense since you can only die and respawn, never “game over”. It would be nice, however, if you could trigger a manual save at least when ending your session. The autosaves are also weirdly timed. Sometimes you need to watch two cutscenes (those are unskippable by the way) in order to trigger a new boss try. Why is there only one one save slot - with the only option of deleting your save if you want to restart? That seems like something that shouldn’t exist outside of mobile games.
A lot of this review has been covering flaws. Flaws are expected from an early access title, but the game is so young and has so many, it does add up to affect the general experience. That said, it’s a very charming game and I want to emphasise that I do think it’s a very fun gameplay idea they have going, and I enjoyed the time spent. I think that Black Skylands only can go up from here and in the future, may very well be a piece that I plough hours upon hours into.
Victor’s (early access release) Rating: 3.5 moths out of 5.
Many thanks to TinyBuild for supplying the review code.