Those of you who’ve read my Skies of Arcadia Retro Review won’t be surprised to hear that I have a soft spot for flying ships and floating islands. So when I booted up the newly released Early Access version of Black Skylands, a steampunk RPG featuring skyship combat and floating islands to explore, I couldn’t help but be charmed by the game’s aesthetic. But superficial similarities aside, Black Skylands is a compelling title in its own right, one that I have enjoyed through my first nine hours in its fantastical world.
The game starts off on a strong narrative footing. A group of people live simple but happy lives up in the clouds, and a girl named Eva loves to prance around her home airship and pretend to be a pirate. But everyone’s lives take a tragic turn when Eva’s father brings home a mysterious and potentially dangerous creature. The community’s leaders argue over whether or not to kill it, and in the heat of the moment, a sailor named Kain is accidentally shot and his beloved pet falcon is killed.
Fast forward seven years, and the idyllic existence our characters once knew is long gone. More of those mysterious creatures, collectively referred to as the Swarm, now threaten humanity. Kain has become a ruthless tyrant, using his lackeys called the Falcons to subjugate the people in the name of protecting them from both the Swarm and a nearby rival human group. And Eva, once bright-eyed and optimistic, is now a world-weary young woman trying to keep her community safe from all these threats.
After this involved introduction, however, the story typically takes a backseat to the gameplay. This narrative is a slow burn, perhaps not surprising due to its nature as an RPG. I wish the subsequent story beats arrived more quickly than they do, but even so, the game continues to develop its characters and its world, and I’m intrigued to see how things continue to play out. At the points where the storytelling picks up, the main characters—particularly Eva, her brother Aaron, and Kain—continue to display depth and nuance.
But as I said, the action RPG gameplay comes to the fore, and it contains an interesting mix of exploration and combat. A vast array of resources await discovery in the game world, as each group of islands contains raw materials like wood and ore that can be processed and used for ship, weapon, and equipment upgrades. Enemies and drifting asteroids can also drop goodies when you destroy them. Aside from currency drops, these resources appear in the form of boxes that you must grab and place into your ship’s hold. Aside from the minor annoyance of having to step away from the ship’s controls in order to grab the material boxes that float in the sky, the game manages this system quite well, as you can transfer things from your ship to your main storage whenever you dock at a friendly port, and your entire storage can be accessed from any of these towns, not just from your home base.
Your trusty grappling hook is the most important tool at your disposal, as it allows you to hop between small islands on foot, grab resource boxes from afar, and even hit enemies at range if you should ever run out of ammo. It’s so integral to the core gameplay that it’s arguably the single most defining feature of the game itself, albeit in a relatively subtle fashion compared to the skyships and flying monsters.
Combat takes place both in the air and on the ground, as you dispatch enemy ships and flying units with your ship’s cannons, and blast away the foot soldiers inhabiting the islands with your arsenal of guns. Clearing islands and island chains of Kain’s troops will liberate said lands. This provides numerous benefits; not only will the new locals reward you with currency for you to spend on a variety of goods—most notably ammo and repair kits for your ship—but you also gain followers for your cause, a different sort of currency that allows you to enable another set of miscellaneous upgrades to your abilities. These islands occasionally come under renewed attack from the Falcons, requiring you to return within a limited time to maintain control. This is an area that has already seen an adjustment during the game’s stint in Early Access, as the developers lowered the rate at which islands are re-invaded, a welcome change and an encouraging sign in the game’s overall development.
The Swarm, meanwhile, inhabit a group of islands in the southern part of the game world. These islands don’t appear on your map, and they change every time you visit the area, thus allowing for replayable runs through dangerous territory. And it is indeed dangerous; after ten hours of playtime, I’m still not ready to face them. Considering how important they are to the story and the state of the in-game world, I wish they had a more consistent role in gameplay.
There are still some kinks to work out as this game continues to be adjusted. For example, I encountered a few instances of unkillable enemies, situations that forced me to leave the area and come back in the hope that they would lose their invincibility. I had to leave and return multiple times in order to clear out enemies from one particular spot on the map.
Apart from these minor issues, however, I’m quite pleased with my foray into this fantastical world of high-flying adventure. The gunplay is slick, and I love how both combat and exploration feed into each other through upgrades. I look forward to seeing how the developers will grow and refine Black Skylands.