Core Keeper (Early Access): This Game Could be the Next Big Timesink

Playing games in Early Access is a natural risk. What’s even riskier is playing a game in Early Access as soon as it drops; in its buggiest, most unbalanced, infantile state possible. But you know what… I’m feeling risky. Besides, I was planning to do this when Forever Skies dropped on Steam, so I might as well get used to it. Let’s see if Core Keeper has any potential to be a really great game.

In Core Keeper, you end up getting teleported into a sprawling cave, with a mysterious object at its center. With nothing better to do, your goal is to power it up and see what it does. 

Like Grounded and Minecraft, that’s all there is to the story of Core Keeper; what matters is the gameplay. Right off the bat, the game is more like the latter than the former, because it’s set in a procedurally generated world. No two save files are exactly alike, allowing for a lot of replay value. However, this means you can have bad luck finding the biome that you want. 

Before we go into what biomes you want, let’s discuss the actual gameplay. If you’ve played Minecraft or Terraria, then Core Keeper will be easy to jump right into. And if you haven’t played them, then prepare to swim in the deep end with no floaties. There is next to no tutorial about how anything works, which might be a nice change of pace for “true gamers,” but a hindrance to others. 

Fortunately, the mechanics are simple and follow expectations for this kind of game. Ores can be smelted, seeds can be planted, food can be cooked, and equipment can be forged and repaired. As you unlock better workbenches, you’ll be able to make potions, railways for fast travel, and more.

The problem is getting there. Every game like this has an early-game hurdle in one way or another, either because you need to go to a place where the enemies are really strong for the point you’re at, or because an essential resource is scarce in the areas you’re realistically capable of handling. Core Keeper‘s case is the latter. Tin is one of the most important resources in the game, because it is needed to craft a Tin Workbench that unlocks most of the essential mechanics of the game… which also need tin to craft. If you can’t find the specific biome it’s common in, you’ll be hoping RNG spawned enough wooden crates containing it. If you think that’s stupid, then this type of game is not for you. The big hurdle for me personally is scarlet—which I still have yet to find. Both tin and iron were in biomes adjacent to the starting area, but I’ve done a lot of exploring and still haven’t found any scarlet ore. 

In any case, I’m not particularly fond of ore distribution. It’s nice that hidden ores have a sparkly effect to push you in a general direction, but having them tied to specific biomes feels kind of bleh to me. Technically, it’s better because that means less pockets of your inventory will be taken up by several varieties of items. I dunno… maybe I’m just being picky.

As if the game isn’t grindy enough, it has the Quest 64 skill system. In case you have never heard of that game, here’s what it boils down to: you level attributes by using those attributes… a lot. Core Keeper gets even grindier because you need to level up an attribute five times to get ONE point to invest into that attribute’s skill tree. The upgrades are worth it; however, it seems that there are finite attribute level-ups, which is also kind of crappy. Pick your upgrades wisely.

Also, the game’s Early Access-ness REALLY shows. While there’s a lot of fully-fleshed mechanics, it’s very… archaic. For example, everything you use can ONLY be used on the quick select; if you want to plant seeds, they gotta be in quick select, and so does your watering can if you want to water them. Also, crafting of any kind requires items to be on-hand; no pulling from storage. I’m going to hope that they intend to add the necessary quality-of-life features in future patches. Another thing I hope is rebalanced is durability. The armor durability seems manageable enough, but I feel like it’s not generous enough with tools. I have the third tier of pickaxe and it loses durability VERY fast for what it is; in most games like this, the third tier is the first point where you don’t have to worry about durability too much.

Difficulty-wise, Core Keeper is actually about as punishing as Terraria or Minecraft. Even with good armor, mobs can end you as quickly as they respawn. The bosses are very tough; in fact, I almost died at the first one, and I have no idea how you’re supposed to go about fighting the giant worm. There are also situations where a horde of enemies can go out of their way to hunt you down from well off-screen. As obnoxious as that sounds, the worst ones are the larva enemies simply because they destroy items such as torches; you’ll need to rely on glow buffs to explore those areas with any sense of visibility. 

Fortunately, Core Keeper is very generous compared to other games of its kind. If you die, your stuff will still remain in that location, but it’s ONLY the stuff that’s NOT on your quick-select. Because of this, you’ll still have your armor and tools, which mitigates those annoying situations where you can soft-lock yourself out of getting important equipment back because you had to go into dangerous territory naked while the mobs that killed you camp your corpse. Please don’t change this, Core Keeper people!

Sadly, the game oozes the intention to play with multiple people. While the combat seems balanced enough, there is an almost excessive amount of stuff to do. From exploring, to expanding your main base, to building tracks for fast travel… this will easily go beyond a hundred hours for a solo player, and whether or not that’s a worthy timesink will be entirely up to you. With that being said… 

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Current Verdict: 8.5/10

Core Keeper has potential to be a really great, and addicting, game. It’ll also be a lot of bang for your buck, especially if you go solo! However, it doesn’t really do anything new. I admit that, for me, it’s currently just scratching an itch while I wait on Forever Skies, and further updates for Grounded. I’ll continue to slowly work toward beating every boss to power up the core, but there’s no guarantee I’ll accomplish that. They’re going to need to roll out quality-of-life updates in order to keep my interest.

Black Skylands: My First Early Access Experience

The idea of playing games in Early Access was always interesting to me. If you don’t know what Early Access is, allow me to define it: basically, you pay to play a partially finished game, and support it as it develops over time. Of course, the biggest risk is the possibility of the game having to be abandoned for whatever reason. One such thing apparently happened last November with Among Trees. However, there are a lot of popular Early Access games, such as Raft, Death Trash, and Satisfactory. There are also some that are more off the beaten path, such as Black Skylands.

In Black Skylands, you have your usual race of humanoids who live on sky islands (or skylands, hence the title drop). This world, known as Aspya, has been plagued by the Swarm (a common noun turned into a proper noun, as is tradition). The main protagonist is a girl named Eva, and her dad is captain of the Earners. He has a crackpot plan to journey into the Eternal Storm because he thinks the solution to beat back the swarm is there. However, when scientists bring back a sample of a Swarm creature, everything falls apart. Seven years later, Eva has to fix everything herself.

It’s easy to impulsively buy Black Skylands because it is gorgeous. I’ve grown to love pixel-art, and how deceptively versatile it is for conveying different artstyles. This game is vibrant, and full of color. As you sail on your skyship, you’ll see creatures of all sizes that are just there for cosmetics; from flying manta rays above you, to massive behemoths that thankfully hang at much lower altitudes. Unfortunately, the nature of the game’s top-down perspective can make characters look the same in the overworld. That’s why they have their portraits during dialogue.

The weakest part of the game is no doubt the story. A lot is thrown at you very fast, and the worst part is the catalyst of all of it: the aforementioned incident regarding the Swarm creature. In its aftermath, this dude named Kain turns into a maniacal sociopath, whose faction, the Falconers, pillage and murder the people of Aspya in some twisted sense of justice. It’s your usual “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and the worst part is why. He gets mad because his bird died in the incident. While I can’t imagine the grief from losing a pet animal, I don’t exactly think it’s a reason to form a dystopian government.

Fortunately, Black Skylands shows fantastic potential even in Early Access. In fact, I’ve played finished games that were worse. There’s a ton of stuff to do in the overworld, most of which is on the various skylands. These are full of resources, treasures, quests, and more. By defeating all enemies on a skyland, you reclaim it from the Falconers. Doing this rescues the population, who for some reason, act as a currency to enable special passive upgrades. Islands can be retaken, but it doesn’t happen that often, and the game at least shows a time limit on the HUD (something I’m pretty sure other games with similar mechanics don’t do).

Inventory management can be an issue. Your skyship can only hold twenty items at first, and they don’t stack. Quest-relevant NPCs you need to transport are stored in crates and count toward that inventory, which is admittedly pretty funny. The rub is that essentials for your ship to not go derelict, such as fuel canisters, repair kits, and ammo boxes, take up this space as well. 

There’s a lot to do in your main base of operations, the Fathership, as well. This place has seen better days, and it’s up to you to fix all of it from the ground up. Like in many games of this kind, you consume resources to build facilities that produce more important resources.

The best part is customization. There are a ton of weapon types and playstyles to pick from. Most weapons can have mods installed, which can be crafted or found in mod crates scattered across the world. Your skyships also have a wide variety of components to equip. Unfortunately, equipment tends to become useless fast, since you can level up facilities faster than you can get all the resources necessary to craft every piece of equipment, allowing you to get the next tier of equipment.  

Yes, I said skyships just now. Once you build the ship workshop, you can buy new types of ships and new parts for them and modify literally every aspect of them. As of this review, they only have four types of ships. From what I can tell, there are no cases where you need the little lightweight ship to fit into a narrow passage (although there are some really narrow passages that I have NO IDEA how to get through). 

There are also artifacts. By solving puzzles scattered throughout the world, you obtain crystals that grant you and your ship cool abilities. These are very helpful, and naturally, they can’t be spammed. Eva’s artifacts have a cooldown period, and the ship consumes energy, the latter of which can be replenished by destroying the many asteroids scattered throughout the world, or flying enemies. It doesn’t regenerate over time or when you take it to the shipyard, which kind of sucks, because I don’t think the asteroids respawn either.

Combat is where things get interesting. Black Skylands has a fun mix of range and melee combat. You have your arsenal of guns at your disposal, but it’s encouraged to use your grappling hook for sneak attacks, or to yeet people off of cliffs. Your only source of healing is medkits, but refills tend to be common enough.

Speaking of the grappling hook, you better learn that thing fast. It’s your main source of movement over the vast skies below. Fortunately, if you fall, you don’t immediately die. For some reason, you can somehow try to grapple the nearest grabbable ledge and save yourself. It’s really nice, especially when you’re learning to use the darn thing.

Skyship flying can be difficult at times. They seem to have so much momentum that once they hit top speed, I could let go of the gas and it would move forward perpetually until I hit the brakes. Also, the cannons on them are… interesting. They point at different angles depending on the ship, which makes combat a bit weird. Also, the controls are kind of bizarre; you can only shoot just the right cannon or all cannons. The Annihilator Beam artifact helps because it is a head-on frontal attack. 

So far, Black Skylands is surprisingly difficult for a chill sandbox game. Once you’re asked to go to the ice region, the game really starts to test your grappling and fighting abilities. Fortunately, dying has virtually no penalty… not that I would know that from experience, of course *sweating emoji*.

One thing that can end up being a downer is that fast travel costs money relative to the distance from point A to point B. This sucks because you need money for a lot of things. It’s plentiful enough in the overworld, but it’s amazing how fast you can empty your pockets. One protip that you’re never taught is that cabbage, the cheapest crop to grow, sells for an obscene amount of money for such a common resource. As far as I know, cabbage isn’t used for anything else, so they probably intended for them to be your main source of income.

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Current Verdict: 8.75/10

Black Skylands could become one of this year’s most underrated games once it’s complete. Hopefully, that’ll actually happen, considering that this isn’t as popular as the aforementioned Early Access titles. As fun as it is, the lack of many facilities, among other small things, betrays its incomplete state. If the game gets cancelled, I’ll update this post with that information. Otherwise, I highly recommend you give it a try if it strikes your fancy, and support its development by doing so.