With Skybolt Zack being the first game to be published by popular online video game retailer Green Man Gaming, you could be forgiven for thinking that the e-commerce giant would play it safe and release a title with broad commercial appeal; perhaps a title that fits snugly into an obvious genre with familiar mechanics.
It’s a credit to Green Man Gaming, then, that Skybolt Zack is most certainly not a title that plays it safe. Initially developed as a graduation project by a team of students at video game and 3D animation school Isart Digital in Paris, Skybolt Zack is a title that defies easy categorisation and most certainly isn’t a game that pulls its punches from a difficulty point of view.
Skybolt Zack starts with an animated intro, presenting us with a world seemingly under the control of malevolent machines. Kidnapped and experimented on, our eponymous protagonist is discarded by his captors when they believe they’ve failed to turn him into a living weapon. Unluckily for them, Zack regains consciousness - and it turns out their experiments have been very successful indeed.
Though Skybolt Zack is a genre-defying game with some unusual mechanics, it is reasonably easy to get your head around what’s expected of you. Enemies – and many objects within stages – are colour-coded (red, green, blue or grey), and to defeat or utilise them you’ll have to press the appropriate button at the right time: A for red, Y for green and X for blue, with grey objects using the jump button (B). Chaining together combos of enemies with timed button presses will see Zack zipping around the levels, with the aim being to get to the exit as fast as you can with the highest score possible.
There are multiple paths through the game – 48 levels are available in total, though these won’t all be tackled on a single playthrough – and even multiple paths within each level. The higher you can get in a level, the more the challenge rises, along with a jump in the score on offer. It’s possible – and definitely desirable – to get through a stage without touching the ground, rhythmically chaining together combos of coloured enemies and jumps on the way to the exit.
There’s definitely a unique feel to the game and though this means that – despite the simplicity of the mechanics – the learning curve can feel somewhat steep, there’s great satisfaction to be had in the timing and execution of tapping the right button at the right time. There’s a hypnotic quality when everything is going well; the increase in combo level intensifies the cleverly reactive soundtrack, and the visual appeal of Zack pinballing between different coloured enemies – as well as the rumble giving a very physical sense of feedback – is brilliantly done. Enemies are nicely designed, but you’ll often be whizzing by them so quickly that you’ll barely notice much more than their size and colour.
However, it’s a very stiff challenge to keep up unbroken chains throughout the increasingly tough stages, which can see failure arising from just one erroneous button press. Though the game flows beautifully when everything is going Zack’s way, that breaks when the wrong colour is chosen or when the player’s timing is slightly off. At these points, it seems that the game doesn’t know what to do with the player; traversal on foot can be laborious and restarting a combo from the ground can be needlessly fiddly, given the way the game is designed for unbroken chains of airborne antics. Zack’s available health can feel frustratingly limited too, with a single error sometimes causing a mini-chain of catastrophe, necessitating a level restart. The line between success and failure is a very thin one in Skybolt Zack – and it’s a shame that, beyond the multiple routes through each stage, there’s no adjustable difficulty.
It’s unfortunate, too, that the game can sometimes feel unfair. As an example, some enemies are armoured in one colour, with a hit revealing a different colour beneath their outer shell; at the accelerated pace that you’ll be speeding through the stages, it’s very difficult to anticipate this at some points. Likewise, the placement of certain deadly environmental obstacles can feel pretty harsh – spikes in the scenery or placed on enemies, for example – and overly restrictive. Though the game’s multiple routes do give the player options about which way to progress, Zack’s practically automated aiming (helped along somewhat by the player pointing him in the desired direction) and the densely-packed level design can mean that there’s very little room for deviation or creativity.
There's a decent variety of environments on offer, but Skybolt Zack still can't help feeling somewhat repetitive, given its narrow focus on the – admittedly compelling and well-implemented – colour-switching and combo mechanic. For the ultra-competitive player, the lure of improving level scores and scaling the leaderboards is sure to be of appeal. Though there’s no official achievement system on offer for the Switch, like several other games released on the console (the most recent one that comes to mind being Xeno Crisis) – and as a further addition for those players who love to chase high scores and earn themselves bragging rights – Skybolt Zack does offer a selection of achievements to unlock in-game.
With a polished, colourful visual style and an excellent, reactive soundtrack, Skybolt Zack is a game with a unique feel and rewarding gameplay for players who are up for the challenge. It can be brutally unforgiving, however – and, given the tight level design, the cost of making just one tiny mistake can often feel overly punitive. It’s not for everyone, then, but for those players who do get their heads around Skybolt Zack’s fast pace and colour-based mechanics, there’s definitely enjoyment to be had here.