When you play enough 2D indie action platformers, you have to resist the urge to roll your eyes when you see yet another one and pro-actively make the effort to give it the benefit of the doubt. SkyKeepers undoubtedly deserves that effort.
Not because it is particularly unique, because in many ways it is certainly not. Indeed, it took me exactly 30 seconds to say to myself, “oh, this is an homage to Odin Sphere!” – because everything about the initial impression of SkyKeepers makes me think this is an updated indie take on that underappreciated PS2 classic. But SkyKeepers is deceptive; just as you think you’ve got it all figured out, the sum of its parts goes and totally surprises you.
But first, a summary. The game is set in a fantastical Austronesian-inspired environment where you predominantly play as Tangi – a tribal chieftain who fights hordes of the mysterious Wa’Kine (a collection of spirit monsters plaguing this world) to reclaim his world after tragedy besets him.
That’s the basic premise, but it would be ridiculously wrong to gloss over the narrative of this title in one short paragraph. For a small, Greenlit 2D platformer on Steam, the themes this game aims to address – that of personal loss, resultant grief, the effects on family and how to adjust – are incredible mature. This isn’t a “RAWRRR SOMEONE DIED, I NEED REEVEEEEENNGE GIMME MAH GUN!” kind of affair.
Instead, the game is surprisingly subtle and nuanced in how it delivers what it wants to portray. It doesn’t try to lecture you with a message.
I went into this game blind, and let’s just say I was incredibly surprised with how the game totally blindsided me about 30 minutes in. Not because what happened was surprising (it foreshadows it pretty hard, after setting up the world and using the narrative to frame the tutorial), but because of the finality and suddenness of the outcome. It’s a cutesy cartoon 2D game, so you expect a “save the Princess” or “go off finding treasure” kind of thing, and it simply does not give you that.
I’m trying to explain what it does without spoilers, but it is incredibly difficult to do! Suffice it to say, I was impressed.
It’s a shame, then, that I rapidly and almost totally lost interest in the narrative immediately after this point. It eventually gets decent again towards the end, but the middle is such an incredible contrast in how underwhelming it is – so much so that it took great effort not to stop reading and skipping text boxes.
The devs had a great idea for a premise but couldn’t flesh it out across the span of the game. Characters seem pushed in just to have characters there beyond the three or four who actually feel like they matter. There’s a hefty degree of dissonance too – the game swings from dark moods to ill-conceived attempts at humour at the drop of a hat. Dialogue suddenly becomes clunky and overly expositional – the early “show, don’t tell” ideals gone. This isn’t helped by the way the story is communicated – non-voiced cutscenes after most completed missions.
The narrative is notably improved when the interludes are utilised within the game engine itself – when you come across a character, you feel like you weren’t just hopping along random screens because “game design reasons”. But these are few and far between, especially during the middle section of the game where it follows a formula of “complete mission, go back to the village, listen to people say stuff, do another mission”.
But this is harsh criticism, because as previously said it has made an incredible effort to do what other games in this genre simply don’t. The reason I am being hard on the RPG elements on offer is because, when set against the actual gameplay, it doesn’t hold a candle to how absolutely fabulous SkyKeepers really is.
I’m not kidding; this is some of the finest gameplay I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing in a platformer ever. Yet it’s really hard to pin down why that is! The aforementioned Odin Sphere has more depth to the combat system, for example. But SkyKeepers just has that special ‘something’. What kept me going through the dull narrative in the midgame was just the sheer thrill of knowing I’ll be swinging Tangi’s axe in a few minutes.
You chain attacks, gaining ‘rage’ through spirit orbs for each successful ‘normal’ attack, which allows you to use various special moves to manipulate your movement, knock your enemies across the screen or land heavy damage. Enemies spawn in to the screen and you are locked in, and often more enemies spawn when their comrades are killed.
This makes movement, placement and, above all, the kill order extremely important. Charge at an enemy at the wrong time, and you could be blasted in the face by a shot, completely ruining your game plan. Attack the wrong enemy first, and you can be bombed into lava by another. Stand still too long, and you can be thumped, or inversely, teleport away at the wrong moment, and you could be cannon fodder.
This might seem to be a ridiculous comparison on paper, but in many ways SkyKeepers is Dark Souls in how it approaches combat. It is often trial and error but in a good way rather than cheesing kills through unfair mechanisms. Death in SkyKeepers is largely inconsequential, as you can infinitely start over to give it another bash. And it is definitively Dark Souls in one area – the difficulty.
I suck at SkyKeepers, let’s just establish that. It gives you an easy first 20 minutes and then takes no prisoners after that. Indeed, the difficulty spike here is outrageous, and it could easily frustrate you into quitting, but please don’t; like FromSoftware’s masterpiece, this is firm but fair with the player.
Every enemy has a pattern – some are quick moving and deadly in a group, so you need to eliminate them first. Some have slow but devastating attacks, so you need to carefully avoid and eliminate the fodder around them first. Others explode on contact and give you a slowing debuff, which in a game all about movement and timing attacks is a devastating consequence that you need to avoid at all costs.
It is all extremely tactical and majestically done. The further you go in the game, the better it gets – hours in, I still found myself astonished by new encounters and clever AI, constantly re-evaluating my tactical approach to fights. You pretty much have to master the mechanics of teleporting to a damaged enemy, knowing when to teleport out, etc., to stand a chance in the later stages.
The platforming itself is another area where the game dramatically improves the further you go. Early on, you would be forgiven for finding it fairly uninspired – a bit of wall jumping here, a few narrow ledges there.
But then it branches out – through the SkyWalking system that the game uses (it’s basically teleporting; the game itself makes fun of the term early on!), you have to traverse rapid puzzles against the clock, avoid moving obstacles and wall jump vertically as the world crashes down. Suddenly, the tight controls that felt wasted on fairly uninspired level design early on are put to their maximum use. It is exhilarating, frustrating and rewarding, all in equal measure. The pure in-game mechanics of combat and platforming are worth the price of admission in their own right.
There are other shortcomings beyond just the narrative, however. The game utilises a village hub, where it is your task to rebuild the broken village and consequentially gain new items and power-ups. The shop sells potions to heal you, knives and bombs to throw and so on. The potions are OK, but you only ever need a few each level as you have unlimited continues, so perhaps 10 or so for a difficult boss to allow for a longer fight. The bombs and knives, however, are almost totally useless. It’s not that they’re hard to use during battle – you set them on a sub menu and flick up on the D-pad to use – but more that they completely disrupt your rhythm and don’t provide much benefit.
Similarly, I found the trinket system largely pointless. They provide benefits to your special attacks and use a currency found in-game to unlock. I barely used them, because there was very rarely a need to.
There is also the ability to change your Spirit Orb abilities at the Council. Some are objectively better than others, but you can beat the game without them. Indeed, Spirit Gale – a short teleport dash that also damages enemies – is invaluable and is immediately available to you, whilst Trick the Eye – a hop back with a Dragon Ball Z-ish blast of energy – is unlockable early on.
This means that beyond the aesthetic reward of seeing the village rebuild, doing so is largely irrelevant.
Graphically, the game has a unique look to it that, whilst not at all bad in any way, is not particularly impressive either. I think the word ‘functional’ applies; everything knits together and feels like a coherent world but never really wows the viewer. Character design and animation, however, are top notch; Tangi, Bea’Trice and the like fit perfectly with the script, whilst the Wa’Kine enemy designs are just phenomenal. Each mob is defined beautifully and are distinguishable at a glance – a lot of hard work has gone into world-building here.
Last thing to note, and it’s extremely important – do not play or even think of buying this game at all if you don’t own a controller. It needs one. It is almost totally dependent on analogue control; the game itself acknowledges this right from the start.
It is depressing to think that SkyKeepers may not get the attention it deserves. It is hard to stand out as an indie title in the 2D platforming genre, and looking at the Greenlight page, I fear that it hasn’t perhaps been given great exposure prior to release. But it really should command attention.
I review a game based on what it is aiming to do and how well it executes those aims. SkyKeepers has a few hiccups, but it exudes a development which has a consistent vision that has been realised beautifully with a commendable degree of polish.
It is about 4 to 8 hours long depending on your skill, and it is a delight throughout. Give it a go and support a really well made indie gem.
Developer: Sword Twin Studios
Publisher: Sword Twin Studios
Platform: PC – Steam
Release Date: 31st March 2017