Developer: Hungry Couch Games Publisher: tinyBuild Music: Hungry Couch Games Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Microsoft Windows, Xbox One Released: Early Access – 9 July 2021, Estimated Release July – 2022 Genre: Top Down Shooter, Sandbox, Pixel Graphics
Your name is Eva, and you have woken up with all the excitement of a child with a day full of possibilities, joy, and adventure. Appropriate adventure of course. Your father has returned from a lengthy journey, bringing back treasures and wonders from far-away floating islands. And as you run around the Fathership, you are met with this rich, bustling town in the sky, airships travelling from town to city. Above you, sky-squids dart by, and far below you, the giant shapes of flying turtles, drifting by.
You are given your first weapon, a pistol that is barely more than a toy, you ‘borrow’ your father’s airship to retrieve your brother who has managed to get stuck in a box. Along the way you encounter a variety of characters from various backgrounds, all who lend you advice and a smile.
And finally, your family is together, ready to witness whatever it is your father brought back. Something wondrous, something never-seen-before, something…
One swipe from this beast, a panicked reaction. A death.
And everything changes.
Black Skylands is a top down pixel shooter, with bullet hell elements, an absolutely gorgeous world filled with layers of details that are changing and evolving. It has been years since that fateful day, and monsters are ravaging the skylands, and land and resources were already scarce to begin with. To make things worse, Kain, your basically-your-uncle Kain, is now leading bandits and controlling whatever islands they can get their hands on. And your father is gearing up for a desperate attempt to fix his mistake.
It’s up to you, your brother, and the allies you make along the way, to save not only the Fathership, but also Aspya. Your entire world.
There is a lot of detail to this game, a lot to do, and a lot to manage. It’s a top-down shooter, and obviously you have some weapons. An array of guns of course, but also a grappling hook (which is an essential when you live on floating islands in the sky), and with a handy knife, you’ll be equipped to go toe-to-toe with the roughest of bandits. Well, kinda. You’ll need to be strategic about your approach, and not be afraid to retreat. Some of the enemies you run into are pretty tough, and if you get overwhelmed by an ambush it won’t take you long to get crushed.
Gradually, you’ll find upgrades for your weapons, and be able to construct better armour and gear, making you better equipped for the challenges ahead. You can make similar upgrades to your airship, giving you the edge you need in those dogfights. More efficient cannons, a stronger hull, a larger hold, all helpful and essential as you make your way through the skies.
But these upgrades are difficult to work for. You’ll need resources, some of which you can find out in the world, such as wood or ore. Some need a bit more work than that, such as building a farm to grow food, flax, or cotton. Eventually you’ll need a way to process ore into useful metals. It can be a struggle, and often you’ll need to slowly fight your way through an occupied island to find more resources.
It’s a bit exhausting, but when you do clear these islands of enemies, you rescue people and get rewards.
And then you have to continue to defend that island, getting alerts when the rescued people need your help.
And when you’re trying to progress through the story, find and make resources, and fight for upgrades, it’s a lot of work! I sometimes feel like I’m trying to keep a classroom clean and tidy, but my 3rd year students have got their hands on glitter glue and have formed factions.
But you get stronger, you get smarter, you get new weapons and useful abilities, and there is so much to explore and see and interact with in this game that I can take detours from the main story to help out people you find along the way. I can find my grandfather and rescue the moths. Blast asteroids for coal, carefully chip away at the more formidable islands. Discover little pockets of beauty and history and story about the world of Aspya.
Perfect your shots, time your dodges right, and you’ll be able to face down some of the nastier monsters and baddies without too much trouble.
And if you do have trouble, you have your moth friend with you to whisk you away to safety, allowing you to plan and consider a different approach.
There’s a lot of sounds to this game, with immersive music that changes as you roam around floating towns and cities, run into danger, get a little bit too close to those occupied islands. It’s whimsical, beautiful, adding to the sense of wonder and adventure. It has some kinks to work out, with some jarring transitions, but it’s easy to look over. Especially when I discovered how many things I could break. There are few things more satisfying than smashing a crate and getting the jingle of currency in return.
You get the putter putter of your ship’s engine propelling you through the sky. The clank as you repair your airship, build new farms and facilities. It’s pretty satisfying!
If it wasn’t obvious, I love Black Skylands. I have not finished the game, I know I’m a while away from finishing the game, but it has sucked me in. I log off for the night and lay in bed considering how I’m going to approach that boss fight. I weigh up my upgrade options, trying to make the best decisions for my point in the game. The dialogue options are worth considering too, and I’m curious how the outcomes could change. There is so much in this game, so much to do and see and keep on top of, and then there is the fact that at the time of this review, it’s still in early access, with nearly a year of development ahead. This is a labour of love, passion, and care and it shows. Sure there are a couple of buggy quirks here and there but it doesn’t distract from the overall experience, which is that Black Skylands is a beautiful, hectic, busy game that requires patience and a cool head. And it’s probably the first bullet hell game I actually enjoyed.