Black Skylands Preview – A heady mix of sky-pirating, Hotline Miami and Stardew Valley

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Throwing a bunch of stuff in a blender is always risky business, especially if it’s not been done before. That being said, that doesn’t mean the flavours can’t be refined until the perfect blend is reached. Right now, Black Skylands sits somewhere around the ‘almost there’ mark. I enjoyed what I played, there are just a couple of bits that don’t belong.

Black Skylands is described as “the first video game in the skypunk genre that combines elements of Open World, Sandbox, Top-Down Shooter and Action/Adventure.” It’s a hell of a mix. Broadly, it’s sky pirates via Hotline Miami and Stardew Valley.

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I was skeptical when I first looked at it, but my trepidations faded as I progressed through this preview. The game has a real retro charm to it that appeals to the old-school gamer in me. It felt like I was nine years old again, sat in front of my SNES, getting sucked into a grand adventure.

In Black Skylands, Earth turned into thousands of islands floating in the air and for a time, knew only peace as the human race adapted, traveling among the clouds in airships. You play as Eva, a member of the Earners, living on the gigantic Fathership: a flying ship colony. Of course, peace isn’t meant to last and Raiders soon destroy your home. It’s up to you to rebuild and save others from raiders, all while revealing a true threat that plagues humanity… The Swarm. It all sounds a bit grand, and it is. It has a decidedly JRPG feel to it and is evidently inspired by such games.

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The gameplay is deceptively deep, with combat being a major focus – it’s impressive for a game that’s viewed from a top-down perspective. Movement is fluid, bolstered by your trusty hookshot, which you use to get across to nearby islands and hit enemies, hopefully launching them off the islands. On the opposite shoulder button, you have a dodge and when you combine this with the hookshot and you have some pretty wild movement options available to you. It’s certainly handy when you are surrounded by enemies.

For attacking, you have a selection of guns available to you which realistically become more accurate while you are standing still. There are also melee attacks available as well but most of the heavy lifting is done with guns. Where the combat really shines is in the boss encounters, making you really rely on that dodge and clever timing of shots to win. I was quite impressed. The encounters never feel unfair and if you lose, it’s because you’re not using the tools available.

That’s just ground combat. You’ll also be spending a lot of time in ship combat with enemies, too. The ship handles exactly as you’d expect, accelerating forward and turning your ship to the side to get shots off with your cannons. Sometimes, you’re locked in, moving in full circles against other ships as you both fire your cannons at each other. It feels good. Out of combat, you’re expected to maintain your ship, manually repairing damage taken and fuelling your ship when you run low on gas.

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You’ll need lots of gas as there’s a ton of exploring to do. The map is large and filled with many colonies and enemy strongholds to visit. Most islands are owned by raiders and you’re encouraged to liberate them, increasing your overall island population. The larger population you have, the more bonuses you can apply to yourself and your ship. For instance, the first island I liberated granted me ten population points which let me unlock a skill called Backstabs, letting you do bonus damage when hookshotting enemies from behind. You can also just as easily lose these bonuses if the islands get taken back by raiders.

From time to time, you see a notification that one of your islands is under attack and you need to go and eliminate the raiders or lose your population level. This, in theory, is fine, but I had a real issue with the regularity that this was happening. I captured an island and five minutes later it was being attacked. I went back and liberated it only for it to happen again ten minutes later. I got so annoyed in the end that I just left it and let them get taken back by the raiders. It detracted too much from doing main quest stuff and started to grate on me.

The rest of your time is going to be spent gathering resources and rebuilding the Fathership, placing gardens, workshops, armouries, and more in order to aid your progress. The armoury enables you to make new weapons and even buy mods for them. Yes, you can mod your guns which is always a welcome feature. The sniper rifle became a particularly monstrous beast when I unlocked a scope, letting me target dangerous enemies from further away. It also proved invaluable against a certain boss.

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These buildings and their contents of course require materials that are scattered around the map, ripe for collecting. There came a point during the story, however, that made me reevaluate the system of collecting materials to build the next thing. It’s only a small gripe, but in some cases, the game doesn’t give you enough information, leading to a slight pacing issue in the early game. I was asked to collect some wood, some ore, and some flax. I had no idea what flax was or where to get it. It was an element I’d not been introduced to yet and ended up spending half an hour flying around the map looking for flax because I thought it was a resource like wood and iron. I ended up accidentally discovering flax seeds in a shop and I felt like kicking myself.

The bigger part of this annoyance came when I went to plant the flax seeds in my garden – an eight-minute timer feeling wildly unnecessary. I had nothing else to do at this point so I just put the pad down and waited. Maybe this is all user error and I should be sowing seeds before I head out on each trip, but when I discovered I needed two pieces of cotton and two pieces of flak to forge two items of clothing, I had to wait a total of twenty-four minutes before I could continue with the game and it just felt like time wasted. Otherwise, gathering materials to build new weapons and eventually new ships and ship parts feels good. It’s nice building up your overall power level to take on harder enemies. Although, I hit a bit of a wall in one area that required grinding for better parts as I was getting destroyed in one shot by enemy ships.

The overall feel of Black Skylands is a great one. It’s got an interesting story and great gameplay that warrants taking a further look. It has a few minor niggles at the moment but they really are quite minor. It’s going to be well worth checking it out.

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Consummate professional, lover of video games and all-round hero that can be found doing a podcast, writing about games and also making videos. Oh, I have saved the world 87 times and once hugged Danny Trejo. You're welcome.