Sky Island Review
Warning: This review contains detailed and unrestricted spoilers.
Sky Island is a puzzle platformer starring a vaguely humanoid star who collects stars. If your mind isn’t completely blown yet, let me add that you can collect coins for points, Goomba-stomp enemies and fall to your death via a bottomless abyss. Too pedestrian? Well, Sky Island includes the ability to horizontally rotate your two-dimensional perspective to bypass obstacles and rearrange the landscape to your advantage. Similar systems have appeared in games like Super Paper Mario and Miegakure, but the central mechanic most resembles the one in Fez, a currently unreleased puzzle platformer starring a vaguely humanoid thing who collects cubes.
Sky Island is a puzzle platformer in the same way that Braid (which stars a vaguely humanoid thing who collects stars and puzzle pieces!) is; namely that while platforming skills and killing enemies are required to complete the game, they’re mostly tangential. The focus is squarely on navigating and manipulating the environment in order to collect every star and then afterwards it shifts to reaching the checkered block that demarcates the end of each level.
To add yet another comparison to the list, Sky Island is also like Portal in the sense that it consists largely of tutorials and then ends shortly after puzzle elements are combined to the point where things start to get interesting. I don’t play puzzle-centric games all that often and I don’t think I’m some kind of supergenius, so I’ll attribute my ability to breeze through most of the game to it not being that difficult. There was only one moment in the entire game where I felt that I had to genuinely think about how to approach the problem at hand, and that was when star-carrying enemies first appeared.
After I eventually figured out what to do, I went back to (mostly) breezing through the levels as no further mechanics were added. Dishearteningly, much of the challenge in later levels devolves into finding the right sequence of pink blocks to manipulate. This makes the game become more of a memory challenge than a navigation challenge as all of the pink blocks look identical even if they transport you to completely different places. I occasionally had more trouble just getting to the exit than I did collecting the stars for this exact reason.
I was also a bit disappointed that there was an utter lack of story in the game. Puzzle games are not generally renowned for riveting tales, but you aren’t given any kind of backdrop or explanation beyond a few signs in the beginning that serve as tutorial messages for the game’s mechanics. Instead, you just continue to traverse environments comprised of floating platforms that give little sense of overall connectivity or continuity until you stumble upon a short and simple boss fight that results in a non sequitur congratulatory screen. The praise for completing the protagonist’s quest, even if it’s not a particularly deep story, might have had more impact if we knew literally anything about it beforehand. (Technically, a brief introduction does appear on some sites, though nonsensically it does not on the developer’s official site, but nothing of the story manifests itself in-game until the end.) Though a game doesn’t require a story to be good, the congratulatory screen in Sky Island implies that there was some kind of rudimentary story (when in fact there wasn’t up until just then) and also serves as an example of a lame story being worse than none at all.
The biggest thing that irks me is how it feels like some things from the platformer genre were crammed in without rhyme or reason, as if there was some kind of Decalogue for all games of this genre (First Commandment: “Thou shalt walketh to the right if thou doth wish to progress.”) and the platforming elements couldn’t just be another means to navigate the environment. For instance, why is there a final boss fight when no precedent for bosses was established? It comes off as wanting a climatic finale to the game and settling on a boss battle because of a misguided sentiment like “It worked in other games and it should work in ours!” To put it a different way, imagine if you were trying to solve a Rubik’s cube and in order to finish you had to play a game of Simon. Or if you were doing a crossword puzzle and you had to play a timed version of connect-the-dots at the end. Though the boss was an easy fight, it just didn’t mesh well with the rest of the game, and it’s made worse by involving very little puzzle-solving since there are an extremely limited number of actions you can perform in the corresponding level. Considering the rest of the game, it would have made a lot more sense to just end with a really hard and/or unique puzzle.
Though the Shyguy-esque enemies serve as perfunctory antagonists, I won’t give them a free ride for being generic. Not knowing specifically why you kill the enemies is often not a big deal since such a lack of knowledge is common in many games, but it bugs me in this game because they aren’t very antagonistic in the first place. The Shyguys move slowly, are nonaggressive and hinder you only by denying access to some stars. You lose one of three hit points for touching them, but otherwise they are harmless. It feels like I’m being told by convention that: “You kill them because they are there, because that’s what you do in a platformer. You kill little waddling enemies by stomping on their heads.” It reminds me of my experience with Cactus’ Space Fuck, where you could kill and destroy things despite the things in question not retaliating or provoking you. Sometime after playing that Cactus game, an unsettling feeling crept up on me when I realized that I only (initially) reacted to the presence of a new environment filled with structures and living things by killing and destroying because, irrespective of whether one actually needs to perform such an action, that’s what’s been programmed into us as a normal response to such things in platformer-shooter hybrids. The similar cognitive dissonance I get from playing Sky Island is probably not aided by me perceiving the Shyguy enemies as so damn cute. Definitely cuter than the protagonist anyway.
The only other threat is some kind of fire-spitting thing, and even then it’s immobile, invulnerable and more annoying than it is dangerous. The only time you are liable to be hit by its projectiles is when you accidentally rotate the world in such a way that you end up directly in its line of fire, and it feels like nothing less than the level designer being kind of a jerk. The fire-spitters could be completely replaced by obstacles in the form of two stacked blocks, and the purpose they serve would be almost identical though less deadly and annoying.
The lack of a level select function reiterates the feeling of the environments having little connectivity or continuity as a whole, but I was distressed by this moreso because I had no way to gauge my progress. Whenever I had trouble finding the exit of a level, I didn’t know whether I should carry on because I was almost done with the game or if I still had tens or even hundreds of levels left to go! I knew I made some progress because new gameplay mechanics were tossed in, but I had no idea how much progress I made, and that bothered me somewhat. Not having a level select screen also means I couldn’t go back and try levels a different way, perhaps to get more coins or try an alternative route if possible.
The ability to rotate the environment with 360° freedom is also strange as vertical rotation is of limited use. Sky Island could have just used a more straightforward approach like the environment shifting mechanics in Time Fcuk and the Shift series, but it instead allows for a greater range and fluidity of rotation by opting for the mouse instead of the keyboard. This isn’t necessarily something reprehensible, but it comes off as more of a gimmick than a necessity.
Though I have a lot of choice words and criticisms for Sky Island, it’s not all bad. Though limited in scope, its aesthetic design and music are nice and when combined with a scoring system it’s all reminiscent of the cutesy-yet-good style of Nitrome games. It’s also delivered free of charge, so at least you can’t complain about not getting your money’s worth. Ultimately though, it’s just a light snack that you quickly polish off before moving on. It’s nifty for its novelty and weirdness, but I felt that it was more like a tech demo or proof of concept than a fully fleshed-out game and that it was overall too insubstantial and unchallenging to be engaging for more than a brief moment.