Review: The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces

SC_front_FINAL.jpg The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces may not take Project Aces — Namco’s internal dev team responsible for the vaunted Ace Combat series — out of its genre comfort zone, but to an extent it is a significant departure for a studio so closely tied to one of modern gaming’s most respected, longest-running franchises. For one thing, it is the studio’s first Wii title; and secondly, it breaks out a motion control scheme that I don’t believe has been tried with other flight games on the platform before.

Project Aces are masters of the flight combat genre — they’ve proven that time and time again with Ace Combat — so it should come as no startling revelation that The Sky Crawlers too is a competently designed flight combat game. But is mere competency enough to get this game flying high with the Wii’s elite? Read on!

Although the developers wisely included optional control schemes for gamers preferring to use either a Classic Controller or an old GameCube pad, the star of The Sky Crawlers is its motion control setup. By default, the game is controlled by holding the Nunchuk in your dominant hand and tilting it left, right, up and down to turn and increase / decrease altitude while holding the Wii Remote in your off hand and using it as your aircraft’s throttle by pulling it up or down to increase / decrease speed. However, for me personally, this was an awkward way to play, so I chose to control the throttle with my dominant right hand and handle steering with my left hand, and it felt much more comfortable.

Other aircraft actions are handled by regular controller buttons. For example, you can perform barrel rolls, flips and other evasive maneuvers by tilting the analog stick and pressing the A button – you get to choose which maneuvers to hotkey to each of the analog stick’s eight direction angles too, which is a nice touch.

Another neat mechanic is the Tactical Maneuver Command. When you lock on to an enemy plane a yellow circle surrounds their blip on your radar, and by maintaining close proximity within this circle a three-tiered meter begins to fill. Then, once at least one of the tiers has filled you can tap the A button to engage a tactical maneuver automatically steering your plane into perfect attack position behind your target. Of course, as you begin to face more skilled pilots, the success of these maneuvers requires filling your TMC meter to its second and third tiers before use; otherwise your attack is likely to be evaded.

Overall, the controls work wonderfully. The Sky Crawlers is the first Wii flight combat game I’ve played that comes close to replicating the precision and fluidity of an actual flight stick controller, and that’s a pretty impressive accomplishment.

Project Aces should also be commended for crafting such an adaptable control scheme. If you’re weary about hopping into the cockpit with the motion controls, there are three available control settings (along with tutorials) to ease you along. Playing with Beginner controls essentially puts you on auto-pilot, only allowing you to dive / ascend a small amount, and also providing an auto-balancing feature that helps to level out your aircraft. Jumping up to Normal deactivates the dive / ascend limitations, but still lends a hand with plane balance. And then when you are ready to take the training wheels off altogether you can switch on the Expert controls for complete freedom of maneuverability, including full left and right yaw control with the d-pad. If you follow that progression you’ll be an ace pilot in no time!

The Sky Crawlers plays great and is brimming with exhilarating aerial dogfights. However, the core content of the game is fairly shallow and uninspired. The game’s campaign spans 17 short missions – and I mean short, with only a rare few ever lasting more than 10-15 minutes – and unless you have a fondness for the novel series and anime this game is based on, the story will likely bore you with its cliché plot and dopey dialogue and characters. The in-flight team chatter is great, as is the soundtrack, but the anime cutscenes and mission briefings just aren’t that interesting.

Mission variety is pretty good – dogfights, bombing runs on ground targets, intel gathering, defense and escort missions, and so on – but it’s still all the same stuff that’s been done in flight games for years and years. I also appreciate the effort that went into stacking the game with unlockable goodies like new planes, paint jobs, parts, weapons and medals based on mission performance, but unfortunately there really isn’t much endgame payoff to replaying missions to collect all of it. There is something like 20 different planes to unlock, but really the only factor you need to consider when making your pre-mission selection is whether a plane is good at air-to-air or air-to-ground combat. You can equip new parts like propellers and engines and wings and special weapons, but the attribute gains from making such upgrades are so minor that there’s really no reason to bother.

Most disheartening of all, though, are the game’s ugly graphics. I know this is a Wii game, but that doesn’t excuse it from looking so bland. All of the planes are nicely detailed, but the game’s color palette and terrain textures are so muted and muddy, and for a game based on an anime I’m surprised by how generic the art direction is. I expect more than this from the developers behind the Ace Combat games, which always seem to be at the graphical forefront no matter the platform.

My impressions of The Sky Crawlers are split right down the middle: the controls are unique and well-implemented and the gameplay is consistently entertaining throughout, but the campaign (and the game as a whole) is pretty light on longevity and the production values leave a lot to be desired. Strictly in terms of gameplay, The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces is the ace pilot of Wii flight combat games, and the $30 budget price is attractive. But as fun as the game can be, it does run out of steam fairly quickly, so I think you’re going to want to rent this one first.

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Pros:
+ Excellent controls
+ Lots of control options
+ Thrilling dogfights
+ Nice soundtrack
+ Only $30

Cons:
– Short campaign
– Shallow plane customization
– Flimsy storyline
– Bland, generic graphics

Game Info:
Platform: Wii
Publisher: XSEED Games
Developer: Project ACES
Release Date: 1/12/09
Genre: Flight Combat
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-2
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!