Airships are a very unique and exciting subject for video games. The world-building, gameplay, exploration, and stories that can be told around these vessels can be quite interesting, and create memorable experiences.
Black Skylands, developed by Hungry Coach Games and published by tinyBuild, is a top-down shooter set in a steampunk world, with exciting combat both on airships and on foot. The game had shown a lot of promise with its art style and gameplay in trailers, so now it’s time to see if it lives up to the expectations.
In Black Skylands, we play as Eva, a young and ambitious girl with a mysterious history. The game’s tutorial takes place in Eva’s childhood, which is a nice way to tie the tutorial to the story. We get to meet some of the important characters and try out the mechanics and gameplay in the Fathership and floating islands of Aspya. Then we skip forward in time, when Eva had become a strong and skilled airship captain, and return to Aspya to see her home, the Fathership, is under attack by pirates known as the Falcons. We defeat the pirates, but the previous marshal of Aspya is hot, and in his dying breath asks us to take up the mantle and protect the people of Aspya against the threat of the Falcons.
The setting of Black Skylands is definitely interesting. We have to protect colonies of floating islands against pirates and monsters, and this is a nice hook to get us invested in the game. But I eventually lost my interest in the details of the story. Outside of dialogues, the world’s story is told through notes that we find during our journeys. And while they offered fun tidbits of information in the beginning, I found myself skipping most of them to get back to the action faster.
The story is not bad, it just pales in comparison to the gameplay – specifically, the combat. Movement and fighting controls in Black Skylands feel amazing. Whether it is cruising on various airships and shooting at pirates, or running around occupied islands and eliminating the Falcons, the gameplay is fluid, engaging, and challenging. The combination of the endless sky in the background and drifty movement controls made navigating the airship actually feel like flying.
The progression system is also very well-designed. We don’t level up like most typical RPGs, instead, we increase our power by finding new equipment and improving them. The progression feels impactful during combat as well. We do feel more powerful with better weapons and equipment, but Black Skylands manages to offer challenging encounters when it counts and keeps the combat enjoyable. There were actually moments in the game when I felt I needed to go back, explore, and come back when I had better equipment.
There’s a lot to explore in Black Skylands. The world is large, and there are even Metroidvania elements in exploration. There are certain types of obstacles that we don’t have a way to overcome early in the game, but we find the means to do so later on and can come back if we want to. But this is where the problem lies, as it is a big “if”. I never found myself compelled to go back to places I’d been to before. There is not enough incentives to explore. The open world is really large, but I couldn’t help the feeling that I would’ve enjoyed a more linear and compact experience in Black Skylands. Just like the story, the exploration doesn’t hold up against combat. Whenever I was traveling aboard the ship, I was actively looking for pirate ships to fight, even though I could skip and fly straight to my destination. I felt frustrated whenever I lost my way and didn’t know how to progress, and I would skip most of the puzzles and optional areas if they were not part of the main quests.
There are also sandbox elements in the game, which were the least interesting aspect of gameplay for me. There were options to decorate the Fathership and the islands that we liberate, but why would I spend my time with decoration when I could blast pirate airships and shoot at monsters?
Black Skylands feels, looks, and sounds the best during its fast-paced and dynamic combat. The top-down pixel art is a perfect fit for the shoot ’em-up gameplay, and the soundtrack has nostalgic themes similar to classic action adventures. The enemy designs and boss mechanics made each combat a new challenge and a unique experience. But unfortunately, most other aspects of the game feel like they are keeping us away from the best part.
I loved Black Skylands at what it does best. The story, exploration, puzzles, and sandbox elements are not bad at all, but they are just not good enough to add to the overall experience. Black Skylands looks appealing because of its airship battles, and it delivers a really fun experience in that regard. I just wish they made up a larger portion of the gameplay time.
Nima reviewed Black Skylands on Steam with a review code provided by the publisher.