Sky Beneath – developed and published by Mindhaven Games – describes itself as a narrative-driven, puzzle-platformer. The recently released demo makes good on that claim. You take control of Cassie, who finds herself scavenging in an abandoned and overgrown research complex that belongs to a technologically advanced alien civilisation that is at odds with recent human colonists.
She’s guided to a reactor room by her companion, the tech-savvy and exceedingly talkative inventor Annie, who spouts several so-bad-it’s-(almost)-good lines. Upon arrival, Cassie activates her “gravity harness”, a device that allows her to instantly shift gravity by 90 degrees in any direction. Both of them are stranded on the planet, so their plan is to push deeper into the facility than ever before to salvage materials to repair their ship. The problem is navigating the convoluted facility designed by a race with no respect for gravity.
Sky Beneath feels a lot like a conventional third-person adventure game at the start. Cassie can run, sprint, jump, leap, ledge grab, and mantle her way through the jumbled facility in a manner we’ve seen a hundred times before. However, once she activates the aforementioned gravity harness, it completely changes how you get around.
Holding a gamepad trigger and tapping a direction immediately shifts Cassie’s relative gravity by 90 degrees, allowing her to fall in a new direction. Aside from the obvious applications, like quickly covering vast distances (there’s no fall damage) and avoiding hazards, it is essential when activating the many pressure-sensitive platforms that can be found at every orientation.
Cassie’s other ability on display in the demo is a magnetic (?) tether that allows her to lift and carry crates that can function as a climbing platform or a weight to depress platforms. You might roll your eyes at this overused mechanic, but Sky Beneath adds a multi-directional twist. Cassie’s gravity harness can only affect her, so if you need to depress a platform at another orientation, you have to make use of existing gravity lifts – with fixed orientations – to alter the relative gravity of these crates.
When you combine the multi-directional movement, multi-directional platforms, and the convoluted architecture, it allows for mind-bending (albeit contrived) puzzle configurations. The Sky Beneath demo will give you a taste of all these potential scenarios: general movement, avoiding hazards, and several puzzle-centric rooms. Of course, the game is still in development, so it is not without issues.
The first issue I had was with the fluidity of movement and character animations when shifting gravity. The trailer shows off some impressive movement combinations, but it rarely feels that way while playing. Movement is floaty and Cassie feels like she’s sliding over the environment, making it difficult to line up or time jumps. Additionally, shifting gravity while running or – more noticeably – while falling, results in jerky-looking animations as the character model reorientates itself without capturing the physics of shifting momentum. This also makes it difficult to line up your landings.
The second and more notable issue I had was with optimisation. The visuals are great for a small indie studio – the lush vegetation overtaking pristine, shiny structures being the highlight – while Cassie sports a stylised, cartoonish look. My problem is the game is a real system hog in comparison to similar-looking titles. Sky Beneath is created in Unreal Engine 4 and it feels like the developers might be throwing in every visual feature on offer without considering the returns. For a game that requires quick responses during gravity shifts, a fluctuating framerate is not ideal.
The technical faults aside, I’m looking forward to the release of Sky Beneath. Combat-free, puzzle-platformers always make for a nice break in such an action-oriented industry. The first thing that came to mind as I pushed deeper into the abandoned facility, while the music ramped up, was a sci-fi take on the classic Tomb Raider games. If Sky Beneath can capture that sense of exploration and wonder, while providing an intriguing narrative and fiendish puzzles, it could have a winning formula.