Black Skylands: Review (PC)
Steampunk, sandbox, sky ships, shooting and more!
Captain your skyship across a sea of clouds and floating islands. Collect resources, modify gear, and upgrade your ship while fighting to reclaim your home and family from mercenaries and killer bugs.
Black Skylands is a unique blend of game genres and aesthetics. It’s a top-down, open world, sandbox, skypunk, shooter — a testament to what a small studio can create with a lot of ambition.
Skypunk is the genre this game is apparently in. It’s not really a term in common usage but as you’d guess, it’s a steampunk subgenre/parallel genre concerned especially with an airborne world. Airships, let's face it, were always the coolest part of steampunk/dieselpunk worlds in the first place, but there’s so much on display here — even at just an aesthetic level — that Black Skylands has me hoping this genre gets bigger and bigger.
The game recently came to early access on Steam. I encountered a few minor bugs and I don’t know the full extent of the story or content yet, but what Hungry Couch Games are working on is pretty exciting. There’s more than enough here to warrant jumping aboard ship early.
The art direction is wonderful and well considered. I love the pixel sprites and character portraits but what really shines are the Skylands themselves. Weather shifts seamlessly and spontaneously within a day and night cycle of gorgeous orange sunsets and blue dawns. Thunderstorms are immersive with heavy rain and flashes of lightning far below.
The shifting colour palette creates a huge variety of scenes. The look and feel of your own personal airship is a real highlight as well. The ship looks great with all the alterations and upgrades you can make. Attaching the biggest propeller possible is all I wanted to do and this game let me live that dream.
It can’t be understated just how cool the giant monolithic beasts that move far below the Skylands are; the leviathans, sky turtles, and squid-insects do a lot to build the world of Black Skylands, hinting at the state of the land below, and the place of the Swarm (the aggressive insect plague) in all of this. It’s all very Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (because of the giant insects — I’m not forgetting Castle in the Sky😉).
In its current state the story is strong enough to keep interest and pull the player along. I won’t spoil anything but I think there is room for a bit more depth and expanded character dialogue, and I hope they pursue that. Even though key story characters might only have a paragraph or two of dialogue there are some unique designs and memorable personalities.
The character you play as, Eva, has a great design, but not much personality. She is an Earner, a member of a non-violent faction of workers. It’s understandable why she goes against her tradition, fighting to save her family and way of life, but we don’t hear much from her on the matter. Small touches like having Eva occasionally talk about her hookshot, or adorable moth companion, would make a big difference here.
There are a lot of characters walking around the Fathership (your home base). They don’t say that much at the moment but at some point in my playthrough I think the game mentioned there being benefits to talking to people on the ship each day. If each new captured island added a unique npc to the ship that you could learn the personality of over time — or something along those lines — I think that would be a good addition. Who knows, it might already be in the works.
There’s lore scattered around the world in the form of notes, which hint at how the factions and the shattered floating lands came to be. Some of it’s okay — it’s all pretty vague but not in a cool enigmatic way like Dark Souls or Hollow Knight lore. I just didn’t find the notes that interesting on their own and I’m hoping the devs try and build on this history-revealing device. If each new note found was collected together in the journal to reveal a larger story I think that would be nice.
In broad strokes you captain your ship on missions across the Skylands to recapture islands from a violent faction, all the while gathering resources that can be used to build facilities on the Fathership. You can upgrade your ship, weapons, and armour, and unlock perks based on how many people you’ve saved.
For a good deal of the game your main foe is the enemy faction, but ultimately, the fate of the Skylands will depend upon finding a way to stop The Swarm. These vicious insectoids come in many shapes and sizes. They’ve done irrevocable damage to Eva’s world. For now, they’re barely being kept at bay…
It’s necessary to capture territory to grow your access to resources, and it’s really satisfying to watch your map slowly turn from red to blue as you reclaim the sky. But expansion is not always easy.
Islands that you’ve won back will come under attack every now and again. If you don’t make it a priority to get to the island in time it will be recaptured and revert back to enemy territory. I didn’t find these attacks happened often enough to become annoying, and the mechanic doubles as a good way to get resources only dropped by certain enemies.
You can explore the world and capture islands in pretty much whatever order you like and this freedom is definitely Black Skylands’ biggest drawcard in my opinion. I loved going after a higher level resource even when I was outmatched — drawing out an enemy and then swinging across to my ship to blast them with the cannons.
There is a very simple farming system. I never found myself short on money, so long as I grabbed the caches of purple oil capsules scattered throughout the sky to and from destinations, but crops like cabbage as well as fish from the minigame, can be sold for good money.
There are a bunch of impressively varied and challenging boss battles throughout the story. The mechanics are pretty simple, dodge and shoot (choosing your weapon wisely) but each requires a different approach. Outside of the boss battles some islands have unique challenges like surviving enemy waves in a cage match, or running a hookshot gauntlet while being mortar bombed.
I can’t say much for the endgame as there’s quite a lot of hours here. I’m now exploring the swarm infested territory with a trusty shotgun in hand, and I’m curious about the swarm’s role in all this. Can they be appeased? Or will they need to be wiped out? In the meantime a lot can be done to decorate the Fathership; with plants, trees, furniture and benches available from different merchants. At this stage I can’t tell if i’ll spend any time on this but it’s nice to have the option to change your base.
The many little tasks of Black Skylands, combined with nice visuals and chill music, put me in mind of the feeling I get when playing Stardew Valley. This music isn’t as memorable as Stardew’s seasonal tunes but its intention is to be more background and atmospheric anyway. I particularly enjoy one high-seas piece that sometimes plays when you’re at the helm, but all of the music is well done, shifting with the time of day and map location.
Sound effects are one of the more hidden aspects of a well made game but worth noting. Everything has been well considered here. Combat and menuing all sound really good. The in-game currency makes a very satisfying clinking sound when collected.
Tips for Getting Started
Discovering the mechanics as you go is part of the joy of any game, but here are a few minor things that took me a few hours of playtime to realise.
Your hookshot can break crates. This is much faster than using a melee attack or bullets and breaking crates as you move through an island is a good way to pick up extra ammo.
If you line things up right your hookshot can push/pull enemies into the sky to fall to their doom. This is pretty situational and won’t work with really tough guys.
When you get an armory, prioritise getting the first set of armour offered. The materials are pretty easy to get.
Buying the base versions of the other weapons on offer — the rifle, SMG, and sniper — is also a good idea since each weapon type takes different ammo, it’s just more bullets and more options you have while you’re out there.
You’ll need a ton of asteroid coal to smelt ore, but it’s one of the easier materials to find. Get into the habit of blasting asteroids when you go past them and looking for a crate of coal. You can use your hookshot to grab floating crates.
Scrap is another material you’ll need in the early game. It’s dropped by a few enemies. From what I can tell, the larger ships that fire rockets often drop gears, and the medium sized gunners sometimes drop scrap.
When you eventually get ship upgrades you can equip these upgrades while holding ‘e’ at the helm of your ship while it’s docked on the Fathership. Buying better cannons really increases your damage output. I’m a fan of the ‘solid’ cannon. And a better propeller, larger cargo hold, sails, engine, and fuel tank all really improve your rig.
You can fast travel from any fuel station, including the one on the Fathership, to any other fuel station you’ve discovered. You can also fast travel back to the Fathership from anywhere. Fast travelling costs oil capsules based on distance.
Grappling hooks, propellers, sky-rays, and floating islands — if you want to see a skypunk world then here it is. I can’t say that the story has much depth as it stands but it is pretty fun, and it ties together a world that is a lovely visual escape. When it finishes its run in early access the devs expect Black Skylands to be approximately twice its current size in terms of content — which means it will be big — leaving a lot of room for a more detailed story.
The other side of this game is the combat and the game loop. The combat is what you make of it. It’s not very deep but it doesn’t need to be and in some ways the simple point, shoot, and dodge mechanics encourage creative sandbox solutions. The boss battles require correct timing and pattern recognition and I’ve enjoyed the ones I’ve done so far.
Use of the ship is what really shines in the game. It’s just fun to pilot. Moving from ship combat to land combat is so seamless and well incorporated, you can chart whatever course you choose with ease.
So, why should you play it?
An addictive game-loop, upgradable sky-boat, hookshot, and a moth familiar.
Open world adventure where you decide your approach.
There aren’t many games that fall under the banner of ‘skypunk’ so if that’s something you’re into then keep this on your radar.
Get in early with a presumably cheaper early access price. The game is subject to improve and expand a lot — but already they have been patching out many bugs discovered by the community. There is a complete story here and you shouldn’t hit any game-breaking roadblocks.
But why shouldn't you play it?
If top-down pixel art and semi-repetitive encounters don't really do it for you immersion-wise.
If you need to fall in love with your characters and feel like a changed person when you come out of a game.
It’s early access! The final release may have twice as much content as what’s already here.
Fletcher is a writer and digital artist who sometimes lets video games rule his life. He has a soft spot for the pokemon franchise but his favourite game would have to be Hollow Knight. On weekends you’ll find him playing D&D or gazing lovingly at his well-maintained aquarium. Just joined twitter @fletchrgibson