The latest game release on Netflix manages to capture the thrill of flying – and somehow make it chill, too.
Laya’s Horizon is the latest game from Snowman, the studio best known for serene snowboarding games like Alto’s Odyssey. And in many ways it’s an experience that builds on what the team has done in the past. Instead of going through procedurally generated 2D worlds, in Laya’s Horizon, players fly through a handcrafted 3D open world island full of secrets to discover. It’s one of the best games to hit Netflix’s new gaming service to date.
In Laya’s Horizon, you don’t actually fly, but rather glide around wearing a wingsuit. You start from a perch that oversees much of the idyllic island where the game takes place, and from there you can jump off and go, well, pretty much wherever you want. Laya’s Horizon has a very open structure. There are objectives to complete and the game points you in the direction of missions where you can participate in races or meet characters. Eventually you’ll unlock new capes, each with their own characteristics that better suit your playstyle, and the ability to quickly travel around the map.
These quests are nice and short, perfect for quick play sessions on your phone. But my favorite part of the experience is ignoring them for the most part so I can explore the island. It’s a beautiful place, full of hidden villages, strange quarries and all sorts of other secrets that I won’t reveal. At the end of each flight you get a nice overview of the ground you covered and the things you found.
The most important part of Laya’s Horizon is that it feels good to fly around. So even if I didn’t find anything new or complete any goals, I still generally enjoyed my time in the air. The game uses a unique control scheme where you place both thumbs on either side of the screen. Pull them both down to get higher, push them both up to dive down, and tilt your thumbs to steer left or right. You can even pull them out to parachute and slow down. Going down a waterfall at high speed or skimming over the ground is a thrilling experience. But when you stand way above it and take in the surroundings, Laya’s Horizon is downright peaceful.
“We didn’t necessarily know how long it would take and how big it would end up being”
Mastering those controls was one of the most challenging parts of making the game. According to designer Jason Medeiros, one of the goals was to create a control scheme that naturally aligns with what your character is doing on screen. “I was interested in exploring kinesthetic controls that feel embodied,” he explains, “trickling your brain into saying ‘yes, I’m doing it’.”
Laya’s Horizon has been in the works for a while, with development starting in 2018. It was inspired in part by a fascination with extreme sports like wingsuit gliding, but also the freedom offered by games like early 3D Grand Theft Auto titles, where some of the most fun players were messing around in the helicopter flying world.
“The wingsuit idea has been around for, I would say, more than 10 years,” said Ryan Cash, co-founder of Snowman. “And in May 2018 we decided to actually get started. And like many of our titles, we didn’t necessarily know how long it was going to take and how big it was going to be in the end… and we probably wouldn’t have started the game if we knew how long it was going to take.”
Part of what took so long is the scale: this was the studio’s first attempt at this kind of big open world. “We liked the idea of creating this space where we could hide secrets and you would get to know it as you came back and visited it more and more,” explains Cash. “But [that] also created some production challenges.”
“It’s probably our biggest project”
But even though laya is very different from, and more ambitious than, the Alt series, many of the same design threads run through both. There’s more of an explicit story this time around thanks to all the characters you can chat with, but laya is also filled with less overt stories, as you learn more about the world simply by revealing more of it and looking at the details. It’s the kind of story you can really dig into if you’re interested or almost completely ignore if you want. Likewise, the game has a quest structure Alt fans will be familiar with and similar aesthetic, right down to the soothing adaptive soundtrack.
“We’re excited and frankly a little nervous,” says Cash. “It’s probably our biggest project we’ve built here in Toronto and it’s taken five years of development and started with a very small team, which grew into quite a large team..”
Laya’s Horizon is available for free to Netflix subscribers at iOS And Android on May 2.