I have been wanting to play a great flight dogfight sim game ever since I had the excellent experience of pouring many hours into XBox's Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge. That game had the story, style, simple gameplay, and multiplayer functionality to make it an exceptionally good time (and I highly recommend it if you haven't played it). However, since I only own a Nintendo Wii, I need to find some other kind of flight fix so I can get a taste of those fond days of shooting down my roommates' planes. There have been a couple flight releases for the Wii, but from what I've read they have all been sub-par. I had some high hopes when I saw some of the gameplay videos for The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces. In the end, after playing the title, those hopes were realized, but other parts of the game were quite a let down.
The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces is essentially a video game that attempts to capitalize on the popularity of an anime movie of the same name (a movie which was based on a series of books). Fair warning, I have not seen the movie nor read any of the books, and sitting down to play was just hoping for some good shoot ‘em up action. The engaging opening title screen shows a bird's eye view of flying above clouds amidst calming music and wisps of wind. Although it is a very simple introduction, its effect on the senses reminds me of the quiet yet exciting opening sequence of Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, which set the stage for an epic fifty hours of gameplay.
Imagine, then, your disappointment when you are ripped from your heavenly flight through the air and are dashed upon a concrete floor. The plain, blue menu for the game consists of eight rectangular button options and zero flair. It is almost as if the game developers couldn't be bothered with this part of the title. Pressing on, I decide to try out the tutorials to see if I have what it takes to play the game effectively.
The lessons have the same menu setup with a couple sub-choices per main topic. The lessons are as basic as one can possibly ask for – they literally show you how to interpret something onscreen or work a control before giving you the boot back to the tutorial menu. Unfortunately, there is no elaboration or mini-missions to be completed for many of the lessons. Sometimes all you do is listen to the narrator point something out and then the lesson is finished, leaving you wondering if you will remember what you just learned. What the developers should have done (if they wanted to take more time) is to incorporate many elements, or even build on previously learned elements, in a small mission setting. This allows one to not only learn something new but to also have the time to get the lesson to stick in one's head through repetition.
Such a method would have been particularly helpful in regards to the remote/nunchuk flight controls of the game. There are a few ways to fly the plane, but the one given to you by default is to use the Wii remote for acceleration and the nunchuk for direction. This combination puts the user in a kind of a "pat your head and rub stomach at the same time" situation that can be a bit trying if one is not totally comfortable with the dual control features. Unfortunately, since I am a bit of a klutz, what I end up doing most of the time is accelerating at breakneck speed towards a turning target only to completely zip on past it. It doesn't help that the controls are sensitive enough to pick up even the slightest tilt of one's hands which can be frustrating in a tight battle. If you are as coordination-inhibited as I am, my recommendation is to ignore the acceleration factor until one masters the nunchuk's direction ability.
At this point, with the tutorial finished, my expectations have lowered, and I haven't even started Story mode yet. If the menus and tutorial are garbage, is the gameplay that I saw earlier actually worth one's time?
The story itself is nicely highlighted by some anime clips that show up very clearly on one's television. In brief, the story is about companies that have private mercenary flight squadrons to carry out various missions. One day a bunch of kids join a squadron and eventually prove to be quite good at their job. The story then carries on about who these kids are as well as the corrupt corporations who run the squadrons.
The missions themselves however have very little setup as to why you are flying them, but the presentation of each mission is actually quite good. Every time you start a mission you are given a briefing about your task. The colorful, early overhead view of the mission's objectives are also very helpful in determining what you're up against. As the mission gets started, your squadron mates talk to each other and elaborate a little more on the story at hand. The missions usually then turn into a typical shoot 'em up affair, or, if there are targets on the ground, a bombing run. There are some cool moves one can perform on each mission using the plane's yaw or fancy tactical maneuvers, but I am usually too busy doing accidental kamikazes. Ahh, those controls.
At the end of each mission is a fine replay from different view points, including inside your cockpit and from an enemy's hind quarters. The overhead replay of the mission using various colored lines showing the path of each mission's participant is particularly good. However, you will tend to spend more time admiring these pre-mission and post-mission displays than fighting in the early missions. can only think that this brevity is due to the game manufacturer's desire to get back to the story that is expanded in each subsequent mission. It really does seem that the game was only made to capitalize on the fandom for the pre-existing franchise, and not because the developers had any desire to put out a fully realized game in and of itself.
Simply put, with the half-hearted menus, short missions, and awkward controls, the game just feels incomplete. If all you are looking for is a little bit of story and the opportunity to dogfight then this could be a game for you. However, if you are like me in that you want a complete package when spending full price on a new game then you will find this particular title sorely lacking. Consequently, I am still looking for my personal sequel to Crimson Skies. That game may have set the bar very high, but I still expect nothing less from future flight sim games. Unfortunately, this game is clearly less than that.