Old Skies preview preview
If you could travel back in time, where (or rather when) would you go? It's a question as old as sci-fi itself. Maybe you want to avert a war or have another chance at romance with the one that got away. Or maybe, as in Wadjet Eye Games' latest title Old Skies, you just want one last burger at the restaurant you remember from better times. This Steam Next Fest demo may just be our first glimpse of a larger story. Still, it's already clear that developer Dave Gilbert (best known for Unavowed and the Blackwell mystery series) is again putting his own distinctive, heartfelt, and New York-centric spin on the idea.
Agent Fia Quinn acts as a temporal tour guide, escorting the wealthy and curious back to the time and place of their choosing. Whether that's the Jazz Age, Victorian times, or (as in this case) a New York diner in 2024. A curious choice, perhaps, but for illustrious scientist Dr. Joe Anderson, the Silver Flare was a beacon in his undergraduate world, providing a warm welcome and much-needed study fuel. As his life is nearing its end, he just wants to take a moment to reminisce about happier times. Or does he? When he skips out after an epic dinner, leaving Fia with the bill, it's clear there's more going on here than just an older man's nostalgia. It's up to Fia to find him, figure out what he's up to, and put things right.
If you've ever played a Wadjet Eye game before, Old Skies feels instantly familiar yet subtly evolved. Ben Chandler's painterly backgrounds and Thomas Regin's atmospheric live score are both just as lovely as ever, and the voice acting is (as always) top-notch. That artwork is quite a bit sharper this time, though, bumped up from the chunky pixels of old to something closer to HD. The characters feel more comic book-like, with simple outlines and flat colours, and they even lip-sync. The result has one foot in both the retro and modern camps: still definitely pixel art, but updated and sharper, nicely contrasting softly shaded backgrounds with crisp characters.
The interface will likewise be familiar to point-and-click fans, with an auto-hiding inventory at the top of the screen and buttons to call Fia's partner Nozzo (who pops up as a floating hologram from the future) or look up clues in the agency database. In a nod to console and gamepad compatibility (ahead of the game's release on Nintendo Switch), this asks players to combine clickable terms rather than type them in directly, and Nozzo helpfully enters any passcodes you find when needed. Oddly, one puzzle near the end asks you to type a password you've figured out from environmental clues, but the game isn't quite finished yet (as the opening splash screen warns us).
The world of Old Skies feels thoughtfully realised, from Fia slipping into future-slang (where people have cluster-mates, not girlfriends) to the time travel details. Even if they don't step on the wrong butterfly or accidentally kill their grandfathers, all those temporal tourists could easily mess up the timeline. To counteract that, they carry Paradox Field Excluders to keep them tied to their home reality, and Nozzo continuously monitors the timeline, checking for ripples. Fia has spent so much time bouncing around the past that she's barely fazed by discovering that her favourite restaurant now never existed. In a pragmatic but slightly chilling touch, everyone's importance to history is analysed and categorised. Significant people must be kept on track, but minor characters can be resurrected for a fee if the client desires.
The hour-long demo showcases the first of the game's seven chapters, each set in a different time period. Dave has always focused on story and characterisation over clever puzzles, and that's as true as ever here. Even in the short time we spend with him, we get to know Joe as not just a brilliant mind but also a bit of a rebel, with an equally spirited sister and a feisty girlfriend. Even the Silver Flare's waitress, Maddie, is wearily relatable. Despite some genuinely affecting beats, all the backstory and worldbuilding do leave the plot feeling like more of a snack than a full meal, but perhaps there's more to come in future chapters. The puzzles, by contrast, serve mainly to pace the story; they're fair and fit naturally into the world, but they won't stress your brain too much. At one point, there's a little pixel hunting, but otherwise, you're questioning people, digging through email, figuring out passwords, and occasionally indulging in a bit of breaking and entering.
Old Skies is shaping up to be an intriguing and polished experience, wrapping powerful storytelling and believable personalities around a solid (if puzzle-light) sci-fi backbone. After the fantastic Unavowed, this first taste has only made me more excited to see where and when Fia's travels will take her next.
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