To bop the elephant in the room squarely on its cuboid hooter, Skysaga: Infinite Isles looks an awful, awful lot like Minecraft.
Created by Radiant Worlds — a 50-head studio founded by veterans of UK-based Blitz Games Studios, which went into voluntary bankruptcy last year — it's a voxel-based first-person exploration and creation sim for PC in which players punch blocks to bits, scoop up the wreckage and form it into a huge selection of tools, weapons, gear, facilities, building materials and furnishings.
Cherry-pick from the line-up of critters and systems, and you could be forgiven for thinking them one and the same game. There are angular sheep to stab or tame and breed, fish to catch, treasure chests to loot and strongholds to plunder — perhaps in the company of a friend, who will of course arrive dressed in the very finest custom apparel they can muster. And yet, Skysaga stands apart from its most obvious inspiration in several, striking ways.
The first is that it's a free-to-play game with microtransactions — what these cover remains to be decided, but I'm told it will be a mixture of cosmetic items and progression "boosts" for those who are short on time. The second is stylistic. Ranging from lizardmen engineers through feline Arctic survivalists to my personal favourite, a snarling gladiatrix, Skysaga's characters are charmingly chunky vinyl creations that court customisation more explicitly than Steve and his chums.
They're brought to life by a proprietary engine, Meandros, that's buff enough to output real-time cloud shadows and some lustrous lighting effects. The latter are handy in caves, which are sometimes roamed by critters with gaping neon maws, allowing you to locate and fight them even if you've forgotten your torch. The dynamic music is also impressive, layering on percussion and melody to reflect things like the day-night cycle and the arrival of a hungry bear.
The greatest point of departure is structural, however. Rather than a gradually unfolding wilderness, Skysaga is a floating, shifting archipelago that's better suited to play in short bursts. Players begin on their home island, a persistent refuge that can be remodelled at whim — you can whittle it down to a handful of blocks, if you're feeling peculiar.
The rest of the archipelago consists of procedurally generated "adventure" islands that vanish after you visit, and which are unlocked by plugging craftable keystones into the portal at your home island's heart. There are also PvP islands, of which not much has been shown — these support familiar match types like Capture The Flag, and yes, you can rebuild them on the fly for a tactical advantage. Possibilities include one team hastily chopping away the bridge between bases to separate a flag carrier from her allies.
Adventure islands, meanwhile, support a range of biomes, from wintry wonderlands where your temperature drops continually unless topped up with hot food and the like, to sunny glades that put me in mind of a Zelda level. Each plays host to at least one major questline, such as a trip to a skeleton-haunted castle. Enemy difficulty builds as the day wears on, pushing you gently back towards the portal. This seemingly creates a natural, more digestible loop of exploration and retreat than in Minecraft, whose immensity can be as exhausting as it is exhilarating.
Skysaga's most intriguing feature could be how it evolves. Rather than announcing "content drops", Radiant Worlds plans to add items and features on the sly, then celebrate the players who are intrepid or inventive enough to discover them. It's an agreeably elusive addition to a sim that's much more unusual than its abundance of right angles suggests.
Technical alpha tests for Skysaga begin this month. Visit RadiantWorlds.com to sign up.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour with a U from the British isles.