Black Skylands – Review

Legacy of the Swarm by the Reef

Black Skylands Featured Image 01
Release Date
August 15, 2023
Hungry Couch Games
PS4, PS5,, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC
Reviewed On

After more than a year in Early Access, Black Skylands has finally seen a full release not too long ago. The game has seen a number of additions and alterations to its existing content and new content I have not seen since last I played in Early Access over a year ago. However, I am happy to report that the core pieces have remained mostly the same albeit with a twist here and there.

Black Skylands is a semi-open world top-down 2D shooter with occasional bouts of ship-to-ship aerial combat. Players take control of Eva, a young woman who is given the task of protecting the massive civilian ship, the Fathership, as its Marshall. As the protector of all free peoples of Aspya, Eva has a responsibility to take back the surrounding floating islands from the hands of sky pirates that threaten the peace. And whatever creatures that roam the open skies.

The game starts with a cutscene showing a mysterious man taking an egg of some kind before running away. This caught me completely off guard. Firstly, I had no idea when this animated cutscene was added to the game, and secondly, this suggests that the Swarm will play a larger role this time around.

The gameplay is split between two major stages: reclaiming islands and getting into fights with other airships. The element of exploration also plays a big part in the game. I’d say that around a quarter of the islands you visit are integral to the main story, while the rest are for side quests and genuine curiosity. The regions are different enough that you can consider them as unique puzzles instead of copy-paste content.

The empty space between islands takes more than just a leap of faith. You actually make frequent use of a grappling hook to clear large spaces. It also comes in handy combat if you ever feel like doing your best Scorpion impression. (Results may vary.)

The manner in which you decide to take down enemies matters little. Going in guns blazing produces the same results as slowly and methodically eliminating enemies from afar. Either way, the objective remains the same: kill all enemies guarding the area.

There are lighthouses in key locations that give you an overview of the entire area. These come in very handy against more complicated layouts where you can’t immediately tell where to go next. Eventually, you get the ability to enter previously inaccessible areas with the help of eagles when you summon them from their nests. But that happens so deep into the game that you forget where those nests are on liberated islands. And it’s not like there’s anything worth finding there save for the occasional upgrade box.

By far, the airships are the best aspect of the game that I seldom give a second thought. That’s mostly due to the controls being as good as it is. If the controls were poorly executed, I’d have more to say about them. When the game first came out, the controls were comparable to tank controls. This applied to both controller and M&K. The controls in the full release for keyboard remained the same but on controller, your ship turns in the direction of where your joystick is pointing instead of turning left or right based on where your ship is pointing.

It took me a while to appreciate the change but when I did warm up to it, I couldn’t imagine what the game was without it. Moving around with a controller just felt natural. Like I was subconsciously drifting with ease. It’s still hell trying to stay mobile and aiming at the same time but I enjoyed myself more than I did with the first iteration. Firing cannons also felt just as satisfying as ever. Maybe it’s a cannon thing, I don’t know. All I know is that AC: Black Flag and Sea of Thieves got me hooked on the idea of ship-to-ship combat.

The Fathership is our Mobile of Operations and home to many wandering souls. All resources you find in your adventures eventually go to the repair and development of the support facilities. The implementation was initially interesting. You don’t get many resources early on so you really had to choose which ones to invest in. But near the mid-point of the game, you get so many resources that they become immediately useless. I didn’t like resource gathering much after that.

The one resource that you’ll constantly run out of is weapon metal scraps. Ship metal scraps I’d say are also in the same boat but you can fully upgrade the more or less half dozen ships in your possession. All your weapons, on the other hand, require far more to fully upgrade.

When the beta first rolled out, I expected that there would be dozens of weapons to wield. Unfortunately, if you are looking for Borderlands’ number of weapons, then you are in the wrong place. Instead, the game takes a more focused approach with a handful of regular but highly customizable weapons supplemented with special weapons to spice up the combat. Think of them as exotics from Destiny 2, not good enough to take over the game but way better under certain conditions.

It would surprise you that the game comes with over 250 upgrade modules. Regular weapon mods are easy enough to come by, you only need to find mod crates and you’ll get a random one depending on the box’s rarity. Getting the upgrades for the Swarm-hunting weapons, however, is a completely different beast. You need to complete challenges while surviving a dungeon run. Now, that’s some Exotic quest-level stuff. Destiny 2 would be pleased.

Combat was always involved and often demanded you to do three different things at the same time. It was fun for the most part. But fights became even more lively the moment I discovered the Time Stopper ability. I had the most fun messing around as the Flash… without the blue lightning in the background.

I love the necklace accessories. They change up your playstyle in a myriad of ways. You can have a setup that allows you to reload instantly with a timed press when using the Magician’s Talent. Pair that with the Last Chance necklace to turn your empty magazine into a grenade. You have necklaces that allow you to reload your weapon the moment you roll. I love this one the most since it reminds me of one of the Hunter’s dodges from Destiny 2.

When it comes to things I dislike about the game, it’s probably going to be the writing. I can barely read two sentences without twitching. Eva, Marshal of Aspya, has the charisma of an overworked substitute teacher. There’s no voice acting in the game but I can hear the flatness in her delivery every time she talks to anyone. We learn the reason behind it by the end of the game, but that doesn’t excuse everyone else for being poorly written.

Other than that, the game still has bugs that need to be fixed. I’ve had more than a few instances where Eva would launch her grapple, only to start shaking violently. It got so bad one time I lost control for a good bit before everything settled down. It has gotten to the point of game-breaking yet but I don’t intend on finding out. Should have done something about that after a year in Early Access.

The island-hopping campaign is probably the best side activity this game has to offer. Practically all the combination lock puzzles made me feel clever for solving them.

One particularly memorable went something like this: “50 people to the left and 60 people to the right, combination is everyone in total. I wonder who I’m missing…” Of course, the answer was 111 and not 110 as I initially thought. Got me there.

The rest of the puzzles such as the weighting boxes and battery ones also did their part to challenge the player, even by a little bit. I liked them as much as I liked looking for buried treasure.

To put it plainly, Black Skylands is Starcraft 2 meets Destiny 2 in 2D! I didn’t get the D2 connection until I started writing this review and when it did, it hit like a ton of bricks. I sort of get why I like the gameplay so much despite my dislike for the writing. What Black Skylands lacks in polish, it makes up for it with a boatful of content. I recommend this game solely on its gameplay. And who knows, you might even like the writing.

Black Skylands Featured Image 01
Black Skylands – Review
Score Definition
We tell you, it’s a good game! It’s not average! It might have some problems here and there, but you have to admit it is a “Good” game.
Fun gunplay once you used to its quirks
Responsive airship controls
Lots of weapon customization options
A well balanced assortment of regular and special weapons
Occasional issues when it comes to picking up stuff
Ship can get stuck in some awkward spots
Potential to lose control of your character after grappling
Bland writing
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