Note: code provided by Terminals.io / tinyBuild. Also, I stopped playing the game at around 11 hours and did not complete the main campaign, so this write-up is based on the time I had with the game rather than the totality of the experience.
Black Skylands is a game I’ve been anticipating for some time. Its blend of light city-builder, combat, and exploration all while taking place in the sky sounded like a blast to me when I first heard about the game. Well, the early access version of the game is out now, and while that dream certainly came true at first, more and more issues started to pop up, deterring me more and more from the experience until I just couldn’t play anymore. I think what is there is great, but I also think this game needs more time in the oven.
Taking place in a top-down world full of airships and flying islands, you play as the daughter to the leader of a farming ship. Living in peace is a bit difficult with an alien swarm threatening human existence and a gung-ho military faction doing more harm than good trying to stop said invasion, so it’s up to you to save humanity from extinction.
Black Skylands was just about everything I wanted out of the game for its first few hours. Its got exploration, it’s got ship and on-foot combat, it’s got light-city building, and more fun and unique features started opening up as I played. My first play session was four or five hours straight because I was hooked into its addicting gameplay loop. As the game went on, however, cracks began to appear. Lots of bugs plagued my experience, the gameplay loop started to get stale, I lost control of the level scaling, and some of the gameplay I originally found fun started to turn into a chore.
The story in this game isn’t really memorable or compelling, so my investment in this game was driven by the gameplay alone. Black Skylands is a mix of genres, and the biggest slice to that pie is the exploration. Similar to sailing around and exploring islands in pirate games, Black Skylands offers a large open area to sail around in and islands to explore. The campaign and side missions take place on these islands around the map, and there are some materials to harvest on the islands for upgrades, but the main bulk of the gameplay on the islands involves liberating them. Just like an outpost in Far Cry, most of the islands are occupied by enemies, and killing all enemies on the island will take it over. What’s interesting about the islands is that each one offers a ‘rescued population’ that can be designated to upgrades and abilities, like the ability to do massive backstabbing damage for example. Population can be reduced, however, as enemies will occasionally try to take back an island. The game gives you fifteen minutes to reach the contested island and try to repel the invading force or the island and its rescued population will be lost until the island is taken back again.
As a fan of taking over Far Cry outposts and whatnot, I thought this would be a lot of fun at first, and I thought the rescued population upgrades gave a good incentive to take over islands while the island defense was a good push-and-pull to keep the gameplay in those areas engaging. But as time went on, I started getting annoyed with it. Most of the islands are broken up in a way where you are required to go back and forth between on-foot and sailing, which got annoying both because it slowed down the process of island takeover and it would get annoying trying to find the last few stragglers, especially if they were on the other side of a wall you had to sail around. This especially got annoying with island defense as I believe this also includes aerial ships, which would sometimes hover pretty far out of the island area. Normally I enjoy going out of my way to take over some islands or outposts, but in this game I only found myself liberating islands if I was already there for the main mission.
Outside of the islands, there are a few gas stations around to fill up on gas, ammo, health, and other supplies. They can also be used as fast travelling stations (for a small fee), which I think is a nice addition considering some of the exploration games I’ve played that are similar to this don't have fast travelling. Speaking of supplies, I like how this game manages supplies and whatnot. Storage can be found on hub islands, and all of them are connected to the same storage. Also, transferring to and from ship storage is (mostly) easy and buying, selling, and using materials comes and goes straight from storage. Supplies can be left anywhere, and the game won’t remove them. The map shows the location of supplies, and moving supplies will update the map to where those supplies are. Luma, a bug that follows you around, can also transfer supplies (and yourself) to your ship if you don’t want to lug each material to and from, though this ability is something that isn’t unlocked immediately even though it should’ve been. In regards to exploration (not including combat), there isn’t much to do outside of the islands, but picking up supplies is important as it leads to the next part of this game.
Alongside all of the islands is the home ship, where all of the upgrades, building, farming, and livestock happens. This giant ship includes a bunch of plots of land where various buildings can be built. Most of these buildings are either for upgrades or for harvesting materials, and most of them can be upgraded to either unlock new upgrades or harvest more efficiently. Other things that can be done at home base include buying and selling, ship part changes, and mod box openings, which offer weapon parts that increase their power and alter their stats. Normally, I like the loop of exploration with management, but what’s nice about this game is that some of the management like the farming doesn’t feel as crucial as other games like Slime Rancher, which freed me up more for exploration. The gameplay loop both for the home base and really the game as a whole is in resource grinding. In this game, you have a character and a ship power level that can be improved with new and improved gear, and making these things requires better and rarer resources. It’s a grind as old as time (not really, but it sounds catchy), and while I normally enjoy this hunt for resources, I found myself falling off of it pretty fast considering the most important resources have to be picked up from the islands, which I also fell off of. While I enjoyed the city-building aspect to this game, I found myself disinterested with it as time went on, which would especially hurt the next major aspect to this game: combat.
Combat in this game can be broken up into two parts: on-foot and aerial combat. For on-foot combat, it’s relatively basic, but there are a few neat tricks up its sleeve. The combat includes the usual aim-and-shoot, melee, rolling, and eventually grenades and some sort of combat ability (though I didn’t unlock it yet). Where things get a bit interesting is with the grappling hook. Since it’s a game about islands and whatnot, the grappling hook is primarily for getting on and around the islands, though it has other features to it too. If you fall off a ledge, you can grapple to get back on, and grappling enemies will pull them towards you then push them, which can be used to push them off ledges. Also, melee kills drop ammo which is nice, and the game includes super basic stealth in the form of backstabbing enemies if you can pull it off and if you have it unlocked. In regards to weapons and enemy types, they are also rather basic, but they get the job done.
Basic or not, as long as it feels good that’s what matter, but that is where it falters a bit. The controls are tight in this game, but the shooting feels weak and rather inaccurate. Automatic weapons can’t be fired for more than a few shots before their bullets start shooting in crazy directions, and none of the weapons I played around with felt as powerful as they should’ve been. This especially became an issue with the boss fights, as I found myself forced to cheese some of them. It also didn’t help that none of the bosses I fought had any system for ammo replenishment, and it doesn’t take much to run out of ammo in this game even with ammo capacity upgrades, so I had a few situations where I had to resort to my knife. More than anything, the issues I had with on-foot combat is a result of balancing issues, but where things really fell apart for me was with ship combat.
While the controls on-foot are pretty tight, the ship controls, well, aren’t. While it makes sense for the ship to feel floaty and slow, there are other control issues I had with the ship. In this game, instead of wasd being used to direct the ship, it’s actually w to accelerate, s to reverse, and a and d for turning. Where this becomes an issue is with flying south, as the turning and cannon controls are flipped. This especially would become an issue in combat, as trying to deal with one or multiple enemy ships as well as the reversed turning and cannon controls would often mean taking quite a bit of damage just to deal with them. Where the ship stuff really falls apart for me, however, is with its power level scaling. At first, my character and ship power level didn’t affect much of anything, but at one point I hit a wall with that stuff, and I found my ship level harder to boost than my character level. Every new ship I bought could carry less ship upgrades than the base ship, and even the base ship could only carry so much, so my power level plateaued. By the time I reached close to the end of my time with the game, my character level was high enough for some of the areas, but my ship wasn’t, so I would enter these high areas and get demolished but could fight enemies on-foot just fine.
While I had some big issues with the aerial gameplay, there are some pretty cool features with it too. Cannons on the sides of the ship can be rotated, will move your ship from the recoil, and can be manually cooled if they overheat. Going full speed will lock the speed in-place, making it less annoying to sail around. Just like the weapons, various parts of the ship can be fitted with new parts and improved. Finally, some of the ships I unlocked had some neat abilities like one where I could pop up a shield for temporary damage resistance. I think there is some solid mechanics around sailing and ship combat, but it also feels too clunky and poor in its power scaling to be effective in combat and in the later stages of the game.
Whether it be at the beginning of my time with the game or towards the end, I ran into many bugs throughout. Bugs are unfortunately expected in early access for me, and I’m usually more lenient on bugs because they are (hopefully) temporary, but the amount of bugs I ran into really started to hinder my time with the game. Island defense missions glitched out and either respawned enemies or not spawned the last one I need to complete the defense. The screen sometimes dimmed after death. Everything at one point duplicated four or five times in my inventory. Moth Nest location didn’t allow me to easily transfer items from ship to island storage. There were also a lot of smaller bugs and design issues I ran into, and a lot of it could be fixed with a game restart, but it really started to wear me down the more I played. The game did have a few updates while I played (none of them really fixed the issues I ran into though), so at least the developers seem ready to start patching away at the game, but it unfortunately didn’t stop me from running into the issues I had.
While the bugs popped up throughout the game, I was mostly fine with them at first because of how much fun I was having with the first half. As I passed the five hour mark, however, I started to really peter out. Islands weren’t fun to take over anymore because of their design, the inaccuracy and lack of punch of on-foot combat started to frustrate, the bugs started to get annoying, island defense started to get in the way of the main missions, and the resource grind started to lose its luster. The thing that really got to me was the ship power level, as it would only take a few shots before blowing up, and my frustration with this would only be worse if I was on land and enemy ships would hit my ship while trying to aim for me. The exact moment I decided to quite was when I was stuck on an island, and I had an enemy ship glitched into a corner in a way where I could knife it on the other side of a tree without getting hurt, but the enemy ship had a ton of health because of my ship power level, so I was just mashing melee on it wondering what I was doing with my time. Could I have fixed some of these issues if I invested into the grind? Maybe, but I stopped enjoying the grind a few hours back and the upgrades I needed for my ship used materials only found on the higher leveled islands. I think most of the issues I had with the game were either due to my own lack of willingness to commit to the grind or issues that can be fixed with updates, but as it stands, I stopped enjoying my time with the game, which is why I decided to stop.
Black Skylands has a lot of good going for it, but I also think it needs more time in the oven. The gameplay loop and controls are solid, but I also think there are too many bugs and balancing issues in the game right now to be worth playing until a later date. I’m willing to return to the game when it hits 1.0, but as of right now, I don’t think this game is ready quite yet.
P.S. I streamed about an hour of this game after putting this out, and I ran into some new bugs. Also, I hit an infinite loading screen whenever I boot up the game (even though I can hear myself moving around), so I am unable to play the game anymore until it is fixed or if I start a new game.