It didn’t take much to get us excited for Black Skylands. A name-drop of Skies of Arcadia and Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker was all that was needed. Frankly, comparing your game to one of them is probably enough, but two? Take our money.
Let’s see if it works on you: Black Skylands takes the airships and skypunk aesthetic of Skies of Arcadia (with a chunk of its RPG sensibilities too), and then creates a fusion with the sandbox exploration of Wind Waker. What emerges is a deep, ambitious airship sim with a chunk of narrative and worldbuilding to back it up. You might be unsurprised to learn that the results are well worth playing.
Black Skylands kicks off with an ominous cutscene, as a man comes across an eldritch nest and poaches an egg. As he leaves, the remaining eggs shudder and begin to hatch, which is never a good sign. These, as we soon learn, are the Swarm, and they’re a terrifying race that will soon grow into a world-ending threat. Just not yet.
That man turns out to be the father of Eva, the main character of Black Skylands. He returns to the Fathership to meet with Eva, a precocious young girl who’s determined to have her own airship (we were screaming “don’t trust daddy!” as they chatted).
Skip forward several years and daddy is nowhere to be seen. The Fathership is on fire, boarded by the Falcons – a faction of sky pirates – and Eva is the only one to save them. As long as you’ve mastered the controls, then Eva is the new captain of the Fathership – plus her little attached skyship – and the world is your oyster. It’s time to embark on a mission to unite humanity and protect against the Swarm.
I will fully admit to bouncing off Black Skylands on the first play. Everything about its controls is abstract and takes a decent amount of determination to master. It’s not as if you’re learning just one control system either, as you are learning two. Black Skylands takes place in two entirely different perspectives.
The first and most intuitive is the twin-stick, on-foot shooting. Think of it in Star Trek terms: when you’re the away team on an island or boarding a ship, you will be playing in this perspective. With your chosen loadout, you will often hop straight into firefights, and it’s here that your twin-stick skills are truly tested. In most situations, your enemies are tiny sprites (no giant aliens here) with significant health pools, and your rate of fire is pretty slow. Accuracy over a prolonged period is the demand of the day, and that’s reasonably challenging. When you’re strafing around compact areas with obstacles that don’t always look like obstacles, it can be messy.
But get good and persist, and the on-foot stuff begins to become second nature. Soon, you will be a one-woman killing machine, leaving entire floating islands as burning wreckages. That’s when you can switch into salvage mode, hunting for resources that can be used to sell or upgrade your various ships. A moth sidekick ferries these items back and forth with your ship, which is helpful, but the game’s determination to lock chests until you get back to the Fathership felt unnecessary. It often meant that we returned with duff stuff, and would have preferred to stay out salvaging. But we can see the thinking behind it.
It’s the airship viewpoint that makes Black Skylands stand out, although it takes a fair amount of diligence before it does stand out. That’s because the airship is a huge, unwieldy thing that turns like a supertanker. Knowing how to work within those limitations is the secret, as you outfit your airship with port and starboard cannons, sending volleys of missiles into the enemy as you turn. A shield limits the amount of time you spend exposed, while front cannons make short work of any enemy – if you can get them in your sights.
While it’s not immediate, it’s supremely deep. Find and board other airships and you can claim them as your own, bringing them back to your people to supplement the cause. Your ship can be swapped out or upgraded, with better guns, a greater capacity for fuel, and more holds in the cargo. Bar-management is very much a thing, as you have to ensure that you’re not over-encumbered or low on fuel, while fuel stops on that large, sandbox map are reasonably frequent.
Black Skylands soon becomes about journey management, as you wonder whether a new push into the fog of war is worth it. Your hold is three-quarters full and you’re running on fumes. Shouldn’t you go back? But what if you uncover a fuel depot? You could just be wasting time…
This constant tug-of-war between risk and reward is what makes Black Skylands so engaging. That and the sheer authorship of the space you are exploring. Very rarely did we feel that we were exploring a procedurally generated environment; there were almost always bosses, treasures and journals waiting to be found, with the world of Aspya filling out as we went. This is very much a game where four or five hours can disappear in what feels like a heartbeat. We’d estimate that there’s twenty hours of play in the campaign, but so much more if you don’t want to leave it at that.
We should doff a cap to the art and music of Black Skylands, too. This is an exquisite little game, where the quality is in the detail. If you get the chance to stop for a moment, you can see grass flapping in the breeze on each skyland, and the tiniest of characters have still had attention lavished on them. The music, too, is wonderful, echoing some of our favourite 16-bit RPGs of the past. We swore we heard a theme from Mystic Quest in there somewhere.
An investment is needed if you’re going to enjoy Black Skylands. You will need to push past some unorthodox controls not once but twice, as both the on-foot sections and the airship piloting are knotty and need unravelling. But if you persist, and push through the many attached systems, then you will uncover a treasure trove. From the world to the upgrades and story, Black Skylands is a never-ending source of things to do, see and blow up.
If Skies of Arcadia or Wind Waker were your jam, then Black Skylands should be the next game you explore.