Black Skylands Early Access PC Preview

The vast world of Black Skylands needs custodians more than heroes.

By Fragnarok, Posted 08 Jul 2021

Black Skylands is a top-down colony simulator with shooter elements developed by Hungry Couch Games and published by tinyBuild. Taking place in a world where everyone lives among the clouds, players take control of Eva, an “Earner” whose job is to grow and gather raw materials for larger productions. However, most of the region of Aspya has been overtaken by the marauding bandit Kain’s Falcons. To help Eva survive this threat, she is armed to the teeth with guns, combat gear, and an airship capable of battling the Falcons.

Black Skylands is currently in early access and has gone through many revisions during its development. In previous builds of the game, players took control of the Earner Walter, who was very much like Eva aside from gender - he even had the same father and brother, Richard and Aaron. Though Walter is now absent, Hungry Couch Games is considering making him a side character. Even after Eva was introduced as the new protagonist, her story has changed from older playable demos. She is now the niece of a more sympathetic Kain (though family terms are used loosely in Aspya).

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Seven years ago, Eva’s father Richard had captured a member of the Swarm - an almost alien-like bug creature plaguing the skies. At a Fathership town meeting, Richard and the other leaders released the Swarm to examine it, but it soon charged at Eva’s brother Aaron. Kain stepped in the way to protect the young boy but was injured in the crossfire by another villager. Now in the present, the Falcons have decimated Eva’s home and killed most of the population. Kain claims he never gave the order and blames a rogue lieutenant who will be flogged. Richard is forced to play along, but Aaron flees believing his father may have his own nefarious schemes involving the Swarm.

Eva is left in charge of most of Fathership’s labor duties. The first order of business is jettisoning the dead, clearing out the rubble, and building new replacement structures. This includes farms for growing plants, an armory, ship-building facilities, and/or a pub to recoup. However, because resources are low, Eva will have to venture out to other islands to gather raw materials. Eva’s first personal skyship is the Behemoth, a fair-speed but fragile vessel mounted with two forward cannons. As more materials and buildings are made, players can upgrade the ship with customized engines, hulls, sails, weapons, and more.

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Once departing from Fathership, players will need to be mindful of a skyship’s fuel, ammo, storage capacity, and damage level. Players can stop at fueling stations to resupply with gas, cannon ammo, and repair kits (though Eva’s health restoration and gun ammo are complimentary). The skies are filled with hostile members of the Falcons, including lone soldiers with jetpacks, single barrel scout ships, and heavy battle cruisers. If Eva’s skyship is destroyed, it will be brought back to a fueling station with minimal health for basic repairs. But, if the destruction leads to Eva’s demise, players will be sent back to Fathership with full supplies and no other penalty.

The Behemoth can feel heavy, but not overly sluggish. During firefights, players will need to get accustomed to the classic tank controls to remain orientated. One should also be mindful of the position of both the adjustable starboard and port side guns, as it may be easy to confuse firing inputs with cardinal directions when quickly turning or evading. Cannons will also have a slight cooldown if used too quickly in succession.

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Once reaching a new island, players can search around for materials like stone, iron, animals, or wood. Each item needs to be dragged to the skyship individually, which can be somewhat of a nuisance. On friendly settlements, there will be warehouses, which share the limitless supply across the friendly territory. To help things progress a bit smoother, Eva has a grappling hook that can grab crates at the range, or propel her too far off ledges. She also has a dodge roll that will cover some extra distance. Missing a jump is not instant death, allowing time for players to grapple back to safety.

The Falcons are also patrolling islands with teams of snipers, soldiers, and spearmen. For these encounters, Eva will at first bare a basic pistol and a machine gun but can forge other weapons like shotguns and sniper rifles. Players can also use the grappling hook to drag in enemies and follow up with a melee attack that might push them off the edges. If injured, players can apply a medkit, but it is very slow and will be interrupted during combat. If Eva passes out, she can be revived by her pet moth, Luma. However, Luma can only do this a set amount of times before Eva has to be brought all the way back to Fathership to recover.

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The two combat systems are interesting and engaging when separate, but ground-vs-air fights just feel off. It is incredibly cumbersome to line up skyships for accurate shots, but once in focus soldiers will quickly die to missiles and other heavy weapons. On the flip side, it can be surprisingly easy to evade massive ships while on foot and effortlessly counterattack with a rifle. It seems as if it was intended to always jump into a ship for dog fights and disembark to fight foot soldiers, but often ports are already crawling with too many Falcons to make such a strategy safe.

Despite the continual teasing of Kain and Richard’s feud, the story is unevenly paced and often doesn’t explain enough details. This is compounded by Eva lacking the natural progression or rewards to complete story-based missions in succession. The game is highly balanced with the assumption that players have already explored, gathered, cleared out Falcon camps, and built up strong settlements that produce weapons and trade goods. This may come off as padded grinding for those who wanted to simply know more about the world.

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Due to early access status, the game is still buggy with many English typos. This mostly includes the user interface and other graphical bugs, but can also result in soft locks when menus or prompts no longer work. There can also be unusual delays when too many friendly or enemy characters are on screen. This can make some intense fights more frustrating than fun when damage is registered before attacks are animated. What can make all of these a bit unnerving is the single save slot, which may carry some of these persistent glitches upon reloading. In the worst cases, players may need to restart the entire game due to progression blockers.

Black Skylands has a lot to offer with great ideas that mesh rather well. However, players should go in with the mindset that the game is firstly a sandbox colony builder, and secondly a story-based action game. If gathering, crafting, and designing settlements are of little or no interest, it will be very difficult to reach the action sections of the game. However, things may always change and be returned during the early access period.

Kurtis Seid, NoobFeed

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General Information

Platform(s): PC
Publisher(s): tinyBuild
Developer(s): Hungry Couch Games
Genres: Simulation
Themes: Settlement Builder, Crafting, Steampunk, Flying
Release Date: 2021-07-09

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