Black Skylands is a soon to be released top-down shooter, sky pirating RPG game set in a world suspended above the clouds. The game is currently reaching the finality of development in the hands of Hungry Couch Games, a Moscow-based studio building their first game. Black Sklylands released an early build demo, and I finally got to spend time with it. I have a lot of thoughts. I also had a blast. Before I get into the specifics of what I want to talk about, I want to clarify that this is not a review of the game but rather a glimpse at work in progress and some musings on what makes an excellent airship game.
The Premise of Black Skylands
Black Skylands puts you in the shoes of the child of a senior member of the crew that manages a giant airship and living community called the Fathership. People work farms, train with their weapons, and make their homes in the sky. This flying and living community exists in a world currently under the conquest of a militant airship society that controls an increasing amount of the world. So far, the antagonists consist of Kain and his iron fleet of airships known as the falchions though developers have teased a much wider world of threats. Your ship and family are one of the oppressed groups, and without spoiling too much of the demo, the world’s central tension comes to a boiling point pretty fast. It all seems like pretty basic stuff in the premise of the genre.
What Makes an Airship Great?
As a diehard JRPG fan whose favorite movie is Castle in the Sky, you might say I’m a pretty big fan of airships. Some might even say obsessive. A game entirely based around my favorite thing in my favorite games is something that immediately draws my hopeful interest and, to a degree, my concern. If there’s a game with an airship, chances are I’ve probably played it. More than often, though, the game isn’t exactly what I want; I don’t often get the granular control and interactivity I’m looking for, or often the game doesn’t evoke the aesthetic of airship skullduggery that I so crave. In talking about Black Skylands and what I’m eager for, I need to talk about the things a good airship game needs to be a success. Things that any enthusiast of JRPGs would almost unanimously agree are vital ingredients in making the perfect airship.
So admittedly, most people are going to care about this one more than I do. The mechanics aren’t that important to me as long as the game hits an aesthetic mark. Still, I’m no animal; I like my games to feel good. We’ve come a ways from the top-down airship scrolling world maps. There’s airship builders, first-person dogfighting, and full-on turn-based tactical combat systems to choose from now. The cinematic airship battles from Skies of Arcadia come to mind with a particular fondness.
The thing to keep in mind when judging (or dreaming) of the perfect airship game is that there is a specific gravity to the movement I expect from a machine that heavy. I don’t demand fast; I expect the power and technical thoroughness of controlling such an intricate and extensive machinery. The airship should feel more like sailing a boat than it should a sleek vehicle in a dogfight. The captain’s wheel should feel like a powerful place, and the controls and weight of the vehicle should reflect that.
The style. Ah yes, this is where things come together. The airship could be perfect. I could have all the greatness of an old school JRPG fight against an enemy onboarding my airship, but I don’t want to defend that airship unless it looks good. What makes an airship look good? Well, let’s talk about a couple of the best and see what they have in common.
The Falcon FFVI
Yes, in fact, I did find another way to talk about Final Fantasy VI, and as long as the game carries any level of significance to my conversation, you can certainly expect me to find a way to slip it in. The Falcon, though, is an airship that deserves talking about. It’s got it all, hits all the marks of everything I could praise the perfect vehicle for. Rather than take on the traditional pirate ship design, the body instead blends the body of both that and a blimp. It’s got all the components of a steam-punk monster tearing its improbably sized way through the apocalyptic clouds. It’s also got the style. It’s the Blackjack sister, it’s the last airship on earth, and it just looks damn good.
Arseille The Legend of Heroes
The Arseille is different from the typical style that draws me in. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have style. I would say this airship is dripping with it. I know I mentioned airships shouldn’t exactly be sleek and speedy things, but this just might be the exception. While Arseille has the strength and bulk it moves with a dangerous speed, like a powerfully designed dart in the trappings of that weird marble 2010’s JRPG style that every game seemed to be made of at the time. What was up with that? Regardless, a great airship. This is an airship I could really see myself dismantling a fascist government from with my friends.
So, no matter how good your airship is, the population matters. An airship needs a cast, a Cid Highwind of sorts. Your airship needs a daddy or, in the case of Castle in the Sky a Dola. The crew needs to be one that matches the adventurous and dangerously necessary spirit to blaze the sky. Once again, this is a matter of style-gloves, goggles, frosted spikey tips. When piloting an airship, one should always ask themselves if they look as good a captain as the ship deserves? The answer should always be yes. Bonus points if you chew a toothpick or piece of straw. Negative points if you smoke. Smoking is not cool and antithetical to being a cool airship captain.
While I could have put music under style, I think it deserves talking about all on its own. I mean, airships have their own bespoke music. And they should! For so many games, the moment of taking to the sky separates you from hours of tedious land travel—more than that, it marks your steps into freedom. Mountains and endless random forest battles are a thing of the past. Now you are unfettered by the foolish ways of ground travel; the sky is quite literally not the limit. Momentous moments call for memorable music.
How disappointing would it feel to lift off the ground only to hear the same overworld travel songs you’d previously been listening to? Absolutely not. I could spend hours typing away about the best tracks for travel, but I think we can all agree that as much as everything else makes the experience, it’s the music that guides it.
The perfect airship
Airships don’t just carry a weight of style and aesthetic but, more than that, offer a bridge between two different styles of gameplay in RPGs. They mark a point of transference between the earlier game and the later, allowing exploration and travel to not just where you can reach in travel but rather, everywhere. Airships shouldn’t exist to look good in cut scenes or provide backstory for a character and as a fully-fledged mechanic in a game. Like any other mechanic in a game, it should feel like a cohesive and natural part of the stories’ development. The connection between the gameplay and the story are as imperative as the music and design.
All in all, if you want the perfect airship game, then those are the marks you need to hit. For me, the flight, the style, the crew, and the music are the most critical ingredients to the complete sky-based adventure.
The thing is, so many games already hit these strides. I personally know my favorite, and I’m sure reading over this inquisition, you no doubt thought of your own. There’s something about a JRPG airship experience that’s quite different from other games. There’s an excitement I feel when I reach the point in the game where I can take the wheel that is particularly hard to capture in any other genre.
Black Skylands looks like it’s going to be neat, and no doubt I will enjoy a game centered around one of my favorite things in video games. The demo is out now and free on steam. I recommend giving it a try. In the meantime, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the fondest memories I’ve had with my favorite games and realized that most of them seem to center around moments aboard airships. There’s a spirit of freedom that these games and moments captured for me, and when you boil it all down, that feeling above all is what makes the perfect airship. (The Falcon is the best, though, sorry.)