Get ready to smack the oil out of some colour-coded robots in a test of reaction, memory, patience, and hand-to-eye coordination in Skybolt Zack. For this fast-paced, rhythm-action platformer will send your multitasking skills into an absolute frenzy. Think Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training fused with the Capcom classic Viewtiful Joe. That is if Joe had a Bop It! shoved up his jacksie with Sonic the Hedgehog’s homing attack as his main upgrade.
Starting out as a graduate student project for ISART Digital in Paris, Skybolt Zack controls similarly to any other basic 2D platformer in how you can run left and right across the screen with the Left Stick or d-pad accompanied with a standard jump button for those usual platforming jumpy needs.
However, things start to become more complex when you realise that the other three face buttons on the controller each represent a colour that must match an enemy to successfully perform an attack. So, if you have a lineup of enemies that’s a mixture of red and blue for example, hitting the corresponding buttons to match their colour will send angry little Zack homing in on each enemy in sequence with fists of fury at the ready.
The trick, of course, is to try and learn which button represents which colour until their identity becomes second nature on reaction, then blast through each rip-roaring stage looking like a Super Saiyan on Red Bull. This sounds much easier than it actually is, especially if you’re already familiar with Guitar Hero, dance mat peripherals, or any other form of classic rhythm-action.
With that said, unlike most rhythm-action games, I never felt for one moment like I was out of the panic zone at how Skybolt Zack always seem to do just enough to constantly pressure me to either keep me on my toes or have me trip over my shoelaces in a brain-farty mess. I always felt a sense of anxiety and dread when nearing the end of a stage that I’d been rehearsing through for the last 20 minutes.
What makes matters worse is that there are always multiple paths to branch off towards, with each leading towards their own destination of different stages. Higher exit points demand tighter execution of inputs, providing plenty of replayability for each and every one of the 48 stages that you must master.
While tapping the correct button in sequence will fill your combo meter for a better score and a more seamless flow, Zack’s ability to move in eight directions directly after nailing an attack is the ingredient that adds a deeper level of navigation and multi-tasking. Hitting the wrong direction will catapult Zack into mortal danger while throwing the stick towards an open area could just be the headspace you need to airdash towards a better combo opportunity.
Where the challenge can become even more formidable is when zipping in between enemies completely armoured with spikes. It can be so easy to choose the wrong colour on reaction and steer towards a sharp encounter for plenty of forehead-slapping moments. Despite the punishing difficulty curve, the game can be quite lenient in how long the player has to hit the next target without breaking a combo, which helps to keep things a little more balanced. Holding down an attack button slows time down for a brief moment as a coloured orb grows around Zack ready to fish out its reach a little wider. Mixing this technique with the air dash can really help Zack just about snatch even farther targets by a hair’s breadth.
What at first seems like it’s a simple Elite Beat Agents-style platformer quickly turns into a much more demanding test of finger gymnastics and timing. The rewarding sense of improvement made me feel like my reactions were becoming sharper – hence the Brain Training reference at the beginning of the review. Completing a stage can be an incredibly joyous achievement in its own right. That is, depending on how long your temper fuse can last before slinging a Joy-Con at that goldfish bowl Nintendo advised you to move.
For the more competitive minded, every stage has an online leaderboard attached that measures both your score and time separately. This in itself is an interesting addition because, as I said before, the game can be quite lenient in how long a chain lasts between hits. Competing for the fastest time surfaces the potential to really study a stage with a surgical knife. This can result in a very addictive high score challenge between friends and rivals.
The game represents itself in a bright, clean manner with plenty of vibrant colours to keep everything visually noticeable on reaction. The stages themselves can somewhat look a bit samey but to be fair, it’s very hard to pay attention to them when your eyes are constantly fixed on the prize. Performance-wise I didn’t really notice anything at fault with lightning-fast load times to keep the flow of retrying a stage highly consistent. The variety of enemies are a bit on the small side though, but again, with a game that solely relies on keeping on track at an eight-beat pace, it’s hard to care for anything more than working to reach an exit.
While I haven’t thrown many negative criticisms towards Skybolt Zack, it’s well worth noting that this certainly isn’t a game for everyone. You almost need to have a masochist tendency of taking pleasure in your own defeat with nobody else to blame but yourself. What makes failure even harder to digest is when realising that the track is clearly laid out before you with all the signposts there for you to read. Yet, the gratification of overcoming the addictive plough of constantly feeling rubbish and inadequate becomes all the more satisfying once you succeed.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by GMG Label