Release Date: March 27, 2014
Hours Played: 7 hours (unfinished)
Best Part: Strong writing and interesting characters do not a good game make.
There’s a strange mixture of emotions that runs over me as I think about my time with Skylight Freerange.
On the one hand, just thinking about the game from a purely objective standpoint, it seems like the greatest thing ever: A one-man development team tackling an open-world, action RPG with graphics that look like they’ve been ripped from the Final Fantasy VII pre-beta build.
I couldn’t help but be charmed by the style. Many people bemoan the early polygonal days as some of the worst looking times in video game history, but for me it’s a nostalgia trip. Those were my formative years as far as my own interest in video games is concerned, so any game that willingly emulates that style gets some points in my book.
But all of that bittersweet remembrance gave way to disappointment once I actually started playing Skylight Freerange.
Skylight Freerange was developed by Dragoon Entertainment, a one-man studio that has a few games under its belt. Skylight Freerange is the studio’s fourth and most recent release.
The story in Skylight Freerange has to do with a great disaster in Canada called the “Northern Burning” and the aftermath of this event. Government and anti-government groups alike are opposing each other in this post-apocalyptic vision, and the citizens are caught in the middle.
If you couldn’t help but giggle at those story details, don’t worry. The developer seems to be very self-aware and infuses the story with plenty of humor. A lot of characters and events are told in a very tongue-in-cheek style, which helps to ease the transitions into more serious fodder.
Overall, the storyline was what kept me playing Skylight Freerange for as long as I did. The characters are funny and interesting in a hammy, clichéd sort of way, and the story was well-paced. This is a game, however, and eventually I had to start playing.
So I created my character – a nuclear-blond, pink-vested, hot-pants-wearing Vigilante named Johnny Bravo. There are several starting classes to choose from, including Summoner, Engineer, Specialist, and the aforementioned Vigilante, with very little explanation given as to the strengths and weaknesses of each class.
I believe the intention here was for the player to try things out and see what works for them, but a bit more explanation would have been nice.
The first thing that really sours the mood once you begin playing is the awful controls. Movement is mapped to the arrow keys, the mouse controls the camera, and a handful of hotkeys correspond to various letter keys. I have no idea why the movement wasn’t set to standard AWSD.
It’s incredibly cumbersome and uncomfortable to have to move back and forth between the letter and arrow keys, all the while tangoing with the spastic camera. The sensitivity is set to max, so the slightest caress of the mouse sends the frame spinning wildly. No customization options exist for the controls, either.
The biggest drawback in terms of controls and gameplay is the complete lack of a run button. The environments in Skylight Freerange are large, and you can do nothing but wait as your characters stomp through their awkward walk animations from point A to B. Pretty much everyone looks like they’re recovering from a stroke, or are in the process of having another one.
Right in the beginning of the game, I left the starting building. It took me a full 30 seconds to cross the street and enter a juxtaposing structure. All the while, I was stuck listening to the repetitive, looping-MIDI soundtrack.
Battles are waged in a free-roaming, active-time scheme. As you approach enemies, your time bar will pop up, and when it’s full, you can choose to attack. Being able to freely move around the environment doesn’t have much benefit for combat, however, since enemies that have targeted you will hit you no matter how much you’re moving around.
All in all, the battle system was bland, and exploration was more of a chore than anything else. This was only compounded by the corridor-to-corridor dungeon design and vacant scenery.
I’m not going to harp too much on the visuals in this game. The character models hearken back to the early nineties in terms of quality, but the backgrounds are flavorless and empty. Clearly, the ambition of the developer outweighed the technical capabilities he had on hand.
Too Rough Around the Edges to Justify – Skip it!
I really wanted to like Skylight Freerange. In all honesty, the visuals didn’t bother me, and every time I made it to a story sequence, I really enjoyed myself. I just couldn’t bring myself to play any longer due to the terrible controls, frustrating lack of a run button, and uninspired level design.
I commend the developer for trying to create such an ambitious project. But honestly, I feel that an idea like this would have been better realized in RPG Maker or some other development platform. It would have at least been more visually appealing and allowed for a more competent control scheme.
There’s a lot of potential here, with an interesting story and well-realized characters, but it’s all severely crippled by shoddy game mechanics and even shoddier controls.
Thanks to Dragoon Entertainment for letting us try this out, and best of luck with your future creations.
Note: The copy Skylight Freerange played for this review was provided by Dragoon Entertainment.