Throughout this review, I’m going to be very careful not to describe Skies as cinematic, not just because it’s a horrible writing cliché, but also because it’s not as accurate as it would initially seem. Indeed, Skies has all the surface-level hallmarks of a cinematic experience: a rousing orchestral soundtrack, an against-all-odds plot featuring a brave band of adventurers, and a much larger opposing force of warmongering evil. However, let’s face it, the plot lacks the depth of even the most boneheaded Hollywood blockbuster. This is why I think Skies has more in common with the Saturday morning cartoons we enjoyed in our youth – the storylines themselves were merely flimsy, paper-thin excuses to blow some stuff up in an action sequence, but we would happily suspend our disbelief and get whisked off on an adventure with these characters regardless. The dialogue was succinct and refreshingly to the point – little more than a brief reiteration of who were the goodies and who were the baddies – but we liked it that way. It was simple, easy-going entertainment, and Skies brings it all back in gaming form.
In Skies, the baddies are the pesky Wunonians, general oppressors of freedom who have a nasty habit of making themselves a nuisance in your vicinity. On the other end of the morality scale, in-keeping with the Saturday morning vibe, our hero is a fresh-faced boy who seems to punch way above his weight, leading a band of flying adventurers. Your team continually grows as you aid and recruit new members from localized pockets of resistance, navigating around the world through a birds-eye perspective of the map, traveling between areas by steering a tiny plane between them. Missions are marked on the map, and landing on marked areas immediately triggers a mission, preceded by some background information delivered by your squadmates.
These moments of narrative exposition are well constructed. All of the characters are nicely rendered in a charming hand-drawn style, and the writing itself, while relatively simplistic and formulaic, is serviceable enough. However, the bulk of the game essentially consists of airship gunfights, heavily inspired by the gameplay of arcade classic Asteroids. Sure, this means that missions are a familiar gaming experience for the most part, but it’s also a reliably entertaining formula. Steering the airships around feels responsive and natural, and the weapons have a genuine impact. Upgrading has a proper, punchy feedback, with ships feeling genuinely empowered and beefed-up by their improvements – when you upgrade to the Corsair ship, for example, the thunderous machine-gunfire makes the gun on the starter ship feel like a weedy pea-shooter by comparison.
However, the game isn’t completely free of annoyances. For instance, long journeys across the map are hobbled by random encounters with ambushing forces, reminiscent of old-school JRPG design. This can yield frustration, and feels like an attempt to artificially lengthen the experience. Although, on the plus side, ambushing forces tend to be easy pickings, so can come in handy if you’re grinding for money to upgrade your ship or buy stock. Also, if your ship is on the verge of collapse, trying to land for repairs while constantly at risk of attack makes things super-tense. Mostly though, Skies’ weakest moments are when Cuve have tried to mix up the mission structure which, while admirable, doesn’t always work out brilliantly. A good example of this is the inclusion of rock-dodging stages, which is perhaps intended as a nod to Asteroids or a welcome break from shooting, but is ultimately too easy and short-lived to have any real impact. The same goes for escort and protection missions, which pretty much lack any peril whatsoever. Contrastingly, after a relatively pain-free experience, the turret sections are nasty difficulty spikes. These sections expect you to anticipate and destroy off-screen enemies using the on-screen radar, but with the stationary, slow firing cannon this is very tricky to manage – and the achingly snail-paced nature of the weapon makes it all too easy to get bogged down.
Skies is far from flawless, but its problems were not enough to stop me having a great time playing through it. Whether or not it was just thanks to vivid imagery that stirred my nostalgia, the game conjured a great atmosphere that I haven’t seen a game achieve for a long time. Skies felt like a genuine adventure. When assessed in terms of cold analysis, it is very clear that each part of the game – some parts in particular – could be improved. However, a great sense of style, some genuine moments of gameplay and thematic excellence, and a cohesion of ideas make this a superb package. Especially given the low price, which must be taken into account, Skies easily makes its way into my favorite indie games of the year so far.
[review pros=’An unusual and exciting theme and atmosphere, lovely-looking, mechanically solid shooting action’ cons=’Attempts to shake up the formula perhaps ill-conceived, some dialogue feels unnatural’ score=89]