Studio: E. McNeill
Release Date: January 11, 2017
Type: Strategy (turn-based)
Price: $4.99 (free demo, pay to unlock full game)
Game Modes: Single, Multiplayer
Control: Touchpad, gamepad supported
In the short history of the Gear VR platform, a number of games have stood out in terms of quality, innovation, and pure fun. Two of those games are strategy titles Darknet and Tactera, both from critically acclaimed solo developer E. McNeill. So when he announced the approaching release of his third Gear VR title, the mobile VR community took notice with many waiting impatiently, myself included. With both Darknet and Tactera still on the Oculus store’s best-seller’s list, E. McNeill’s latest release, Skylight, has some big shoes to fill.
Playing Skylight is like standing in a giant holographic projection of the Battle of Endor (or any large space battle, for that matter). You start each match by choosing your fleet from a set of 4 capital ships, 4 non-capital ships, and 4 fighter squadrons. After that, the holographic battle theater pops up with a bit of fanfare, and you see your fleet in blue on the left, and the opposing fleet in orange on the right. From there you simply select a ship, then select a spot for it to move or an enemy to attack, or combinations and multiples of thereof. You repeat this pattern for all the units in your fleet, and when you’re satisfied with your plan, you press the big button up top, and the 20 second timer starts counting.
You see, you issue your orders in a turn-based fashion, but the battle itself plays out in real-time right in front of you. Ships have different speeds, different rates of fire and so on, so they’ll just execute your orders to the best of their abilities over the 20 second time span. Once the 20 seconds is up, the battle freezes in place, and you’re given a chance to change plans or issue new orders to best suit your strategy, and then let the battle resume for another 20 seconds. This continues until all capital ships on either your side or your opponent’s have been destroyed.
It’s sounds simple enough, but between the number of ships and their attributes, the number of fleet combinations, and the size of the battlefield, this game requires thoughtful planning and an ability to look a few moves ahead. Given the strengths and weaknesses of each ship, choosing your fleet is just as important as making moves in the battle itself; bombers are super effective against most ships but weak against fighters, dreadhoughts pack a mean punch but little armor, and ironclads can project a shield to protect nearby ships but can’t really fight back too well. Fighter squadrons also play a unique role in that, while they can cause some damage to ships, they’re even more useful at distracting the ship so it can’t attack anything else. It’s subtleties like this that give this game a rich depth and make it really hard to put down; you always want to try just one more fleet composition, and just one more strategy.
Game modes come in 3 flavors; “Campaign” takes you through 30 missions in 3 sets of 10 (normal, hard, and expert difficulties), “Skrimish” lets you choose your fleet and the fleet of your computer controlled opponent and jump into a single battle, and “Multiplayer” pits you against another human player online. The multiplayer is particularly interesting in that you don’t necessarily have to be online at the same time as your opponent. The turn-based nature of the game allows for asynchronous multiplayer; that is, you can make a move now, while your opponent is offline, then when your opponent comes back online later, they can make their move, and this step of the battle can proceed. You both see the battle play out, and then get to make your moves in your own time. It keeps the game focused on clever strategy instead of reflexes, but it also reduces the problem that plagues all Gear VR multiplayer titles; sometimes it’s hard to find other people online at the same time you are.
I’ve been playing Skylight since launch and had time to experience the asynchronous multiplayer first hand. The ability to have multiple games running and not needing others to be online at the same time is quite freeing. But there’s a problem with this, and E. McNeill even mentioned it on the Skylight development blog: turn notifications. Specifically, there are none. You start a new game, get matched with an opponent, pick your fleet, make your first moves, and… wait. I’ve had games that go days or weeks between turns, and I myself have gone multiple days without checking if it’s my turn. Having to strap the headset on and go into Skylight just to check if it’s my turn is a major barrier to the multiplayer, and I think a lot of people will just forget. The ability to turn on turn notifications would be a welcome improvement to an otherwise very complete game.
The controls in Skylight are point-and-click, or rather look-and-tap. Both gamepad and touchpad inputs are supported, and neither offers a competitive advantage, but as always, I prefer using a controller for comfort. You simply look and tap to select or deselect ships, orders, or positions on the battlefield. In game, swiping the touchpad or moving an analog stick will slide the battlefield left/right/up or down, which is sometimes necessary when ships get bunched up.
If you played Tactera, the graphics of Skylight will look very familiar. The color scheme of whole game is the same, the menu layout is nearly identical, and the style of the space ships fits very well with that of the ground units in Tactera. And that’s not a bad thing; the glowing holograms are beautiful to look at, and watching them carry out orders in 3D right in front of you is always enjoyable.
But don’t think the graphics of Skylight are just reused from Tactera; all the assets themselves are new, only the style is the same. A particularly nice graphical touch is showing only what is needed on the battlefield, when it is needed; the 3D grid that makes up the movement points is only shown after you’ve selected a ship, so you’re free to survey the battlefield unhindered by all the little dots. And if you can tear your attention away from the action, you’ll notice that you’re standing on the bridge of a starship, and the cosmic scenery outside changes from time to time. Overall Skylight is a great game to look at; the only thing I could ask for is way to watch the battle from start to finish in an instant replay, just to bask in a hard-won victory.
The sound is similarly fitting. Beeps and whooshes accompany the menu and startup of the holographic battlefield, while subtle electronic music plays in the background. All ship and fighter actions have distinct sounds too; missiles launching, cannons and railguns firing, and Phantom fighters cloaking and de-cloaking all add a richness to the visuals, and ships explode with a satisfying boom.
Comfort & Immersion
Skylight has to be on the more comfortable end of the Gear VR library. The camera doesn’t move, with the exception of your head motion, so motion sickness should be a non-issue. I’ve spent several near-90-minute session playing Skylight and, with the exception of my eyes being a little dry after too much time in VR, I experienced no discomfort at all. If you can handle looking at a lot of small models in stereoscopic 3D, you should be fine. Plus, the free demo should give you an idea of how it feels.
When compared to Tactera (and other VR strategy games), Skylight makes better use of VR. Where most could be played with a mouse or on a touchscreen due to the combat being ground-focused, Skylight presents a true 3D battlefield. The VR presentation feels less like a novelty and more like a necessity in Skylight, and that’s something we don’t see enough of, especially on the Gear VR. Like Toy Clash in a previous review, I think Skylight would be fantastic on an AR platform, bringing your space armada right into your living room.
Skylight is a great follow-up to Tactera, and a fantastic game in it’s own right. It’s deep strategy is thoroughly engaging and addictive, and the multiplayer should keep the fun going for a long time, especially if notifications are introduced in a future update. Moreover, every aspect of the game feels tuned, balanced, and polished. The menus and commands are intuitive, making the game easy to pickup, but will take you some serious practice to become a master strategist. The battles are a joy to watch and the turn-based planning makes you feel in control. Standing on the bridge of a battleship commanding your own star fleet is exactly as cool as it sounds, and on top of that this is a great game to “wow” your friends and family that haven’t yet tried VR.
- Beautiful, polished presentation
- Well-balanced units
- Finely-tuned mechanics make you feel in control of your fleet
- No notification for your turn in asynchronous multiplayer