Black Skylands by Hungry Couch Games
The promise: “Build your skyship and explore the open world, fight factions of pirates and monsters, claim your territory by foot or by your flying vessel. You’re the captain and the sky is the limit in this skypunk Open World action adventure!”
We tend to love games published by TinyBuild around these parts. The imprint has developed a reputation for reliably fun, slightly subversive, usually a little zany, but eminently playable titles.
Opening Black Skylands, I am looking forward to a rich open world of top-down shooting, sky pirate battalions, interesting adventures, and a fast-action world of wonder.
As we open on the world, we push through some cloud cover and sundry dragonflies to what looks like a fairgrounds crossed between Renaissance Faire and a steampunk meet-up. Dirigibles docked, party balloons strung up, and villagers milling about. Awesome.
The Old “Fetch a Sky Hook” Gag
I am now offered visual novel-style text. I click through until I get to the point: an introductory fetch quest from my father. Go grab a box from the thing. I WASD my way over, right-click to grapplehook my way across the slight gap between the docks and the dirigible and then press E to open a box and get the thing.
Except that the thing doesn’t really register as being got. I then have to figure out that I must grapple my way across the right side of the dirigible and not miss, lest I fall to my death, which has no real playability effect other than to just be annoying, break my flow, and decrease my health bar. Fine, so no falling out of the sky.
Apparently, I still don’t have the box, so I have to go back and keep moving it back and forth until at length I am holding it, not stowing it in my inventory, and – while holding this box aloft – grapple across to the docks, where the helpful sign combats Z-Order to basically tell me what to do because it isn’t self-explanatory. Hoo, boy.
I head back to my pa and now am supposed to drop the box on the floor in front of him, at which point a gun floats before me until I click through some more expository text. Now I have a gun that my dad gave me, and I can shoot it.
A Sky Full of Bugs
So I have what feels like a narrative RPG twin-stick shooter Rogue-like on my hands, and it isn’t doing any of those things very well. It is two days before the official release, and I have a “Report a Bug” link promptly displayed on the main menu that takes me to the dev’s Discord. I go there and feel like I just slipped behind the backstage curtains to a catering station that arrived late at an Italian wedding for 300, and they are hungry. I can barely look between my fingers.
Two days later, the game goes into official Early Access release – that ubiquitous model for selling unfinished games with the hope that end-users will finance the last ten miles of the dev cycle and presumably get to a complete, functional, enjoyable game. And those gamers deserve to get just that.
As I aimlessly – pun intended – wander around this opening level, following prompts to hit E to pick up objects (of which I can find none), my mind drifts back to my early days of GameMaker Studio tutorials and how I would ambitiously extend a simple top-down shooter lesson into a sprawling digression of all my hopes and desires to change the global narrative through my important and urgent message about what we are all really doing here.
Crashing into…Pretty Much Everything
Why does everything have a collision? Do hedges really need to have collisions? Is that annoyance adding to my sense of immersion? Will it factor in combat? Will I be able to take cover behind a hedge? A person? Every single thing that I am colliding with?
The collision map is so unforgiving that I can’t even squeeze between a flower bed and a bench, and I have to keep testing my path forward. I have done anything but reach a sense of engagement or flow state thus far. The only word in my mind is tedium. Onward!
Thank god there is a directional quest waypoint guide thingy to lead me toward the next point of interest.
To Be the Bad Man, to Be the Sad Man…Inside Black Skies
I have to give the dev team props on the pretty fabulous pixel art. I particularly like the design of the characters on their dialogue cards.
I’m given a real gun and told to fire it 15 times, so I click my mouse button 15 times and complete the quest. Then I am given another fetch quest. I am still waiting for the game to begin.
Finally, I get the opportunity to repair my uncle’s (?) dirigible and fly off to a fueling station. For just a few moments, I can feel the wind on my face as flocks of seagulls fly overhead and I approach and decelerate to the commercial fueling vessel. (Gasoline for wooden dirigibles in the sky? Eeek!)
I buy something by pressing and holding E. And then I am supposed to fill it? Carry it? I dunno. Something. I carry the filled (?) gas canister over to my ship by grappling my way across, whereupon I am guided to a receptacle where I am supposed to press and hold E to transfer the fuel. Except it doesn’t work. The canister is floating in the air, and then I fall off the ship to my doom.
Look, it very well may be that I am the world’s worst gamer, stupidest person, most jaded reviewer, and hater of all things. That is a distinct possibility. At least this game is making me feel like it. Or…
I expect to rez again after falling through the air, but no, I have apparently run out of Luma’s Energy, which I guess is a measure of my patience and goodwill, and I am respawned back at the docks before this quest started.
OK, I get back on the ship and am being told that I should top off the ship’s fuel, so I grab hold of the wheel and head back towards where I was before, and I find that my fuel canister is right where I left it – floating in the sky – because apparently fuel canisters can fly but I cannot. I grab it with my grappling hook and drag it toward me, whereupon I walk it over to the fuel receptacle on my ship and have to position it just right to get it to glug-glug. Then I am advised to store the canister in the ship’s hold.
And now I have to report to someone.
I have, for the record, had more fun filling out spreadsheets.
I attempt to persevere, heading off to find Frank or whomever. There is a sky island! As I approach, there is a lovely 2.5D lighthouse. I think, “Wow, this is really some Owlboy-level pixel art. Maybe I am being too rough on the game!”
As I dock and attempt to disembark, I fall to my death, am told I am out of Luma’s Energy, and am booted back to the main port, whereupon presumably, I am going to try this journey again.
I close the game.
Grappling with Repetition
I come back the next day; I have to keep pressing on and see all the wonders that these countless updates being pushed daily must offer in a land of wonder beyond my newbie mistakes. Back I go to the island to find Frank. I get to the edge of it, and now I learn I can jump-grapple with the spacebar/RMB combo. OK, so the grappling is the game’s play hook (pun intended).
After pecking my way across a few more islands (this is a top-down platformer, I’m just waiting for the wall-jumping to arrive*), I reach the island where Frank must surely be waiting for me. Eagerly, I shoot down my first rival by bearing down on the left mouse button and spinning around until the health meter above his head is empty. I don’t know why we were enemies or much else about the encounter, but anyway he is now deceased.
But wait! There are Mario-style balls of water flying at me in a pattern! Before I notice the key for rolling to dodge under them, I am dead. And not back at my ship, no. Not back at the landing point where I first disembarked to find Frank, nope. I am ALL the way back to the very opening room of the game where I started the tutorial.
OK, that’s enough then.
Trouble Getting off the Ground
So in case you aren’t getting the gist here, whatever beauty and wonders may await me in this marvelously imagined and realized world, the five-second game loop sucks and so does the five-minute one, such that I will likely not hold on for the five-hour narrative. I head back just one last time, manage to get onto the island, and notice that shiny shimmering loot crate-looking things aren’t actually interactive and that Quest NPCs are almost indistinguishable from piles of logs.
Look, the game has a lot more to it – you will face off with monsters, perform aerial combat, grow a garden and harvest stuff, face weather patterns, get a Steampunk iPad to manage your inventory, and many more wonderful shenanigans – but there are some real fundamentals that need to come together here first to make this title really sing. It could be a great game one day, but as of now, that is an ambition, not a fact.
Head in the Clouds
It reminds me of Cloudpunk – a sprawling, really cool-looking cyberpunk world that I was so eager to explore, especially after they added a first-person mode three months after launch, but I could never get around that awful Hova hovercar control. Those controls and navigation and checkpoint decisions need to be tighter than vinyl pants three years past the point where you should have donated them to a landfill, so I eventually gave up.
As it is in Early Access, I hope the developers will continue to iron out bugs but with real audacity; it will require breaking certain things down so they can mend properly. There are some fundamentally unfun design decisions to even just get rolling (pun intended) that will have to be solved before I can trust that the larger picture will be any more rewarding.
On paper, Black Skylands ticks off every box of everything I would love to have in a game. I hope it can one day become that.
Check out the Black Skylands Launch Trailer below:
* If you want to check out an actually interesting top-down/2.5 platformer mechanic, checkout Toodee and Topdee.