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The Sky Crawlers - Innocent Aces Review
Posted on January 18, 2010 by

The Sky Crawlers – Innocent Aces is a flight simulator/action game developed by Project Aces, Namco’s “Ace Combat” Team and was released on January 12, 2010 in the US. Based on the anime Sky Crawlers by Mamoru Oshii, the game functions more as a side story to the movie. In only touching on key plot points, it makes one want to watch the film, as I plan to.

The story goes something like this: World peace has been achieved among the many nations of the world, but universal peace is not without its drawbacks. Leaders of these nations know that the people desire conflict and will not be able to maintain peace indefinitely. Ergo, private corporations employ fighter pilots to stage aerial battles against each other for show and entertainment. These conflicts allay tension among the populace accustomed to war and aggression. What is unclear early on in this game is whether casualties are a reality. A certain plot point near the middle of the game suggests that that very bitter reality of warfare is being dealt with by a new technology known as Kildren.

The story continues in the form of cutscenes before and after battle, in which you get to know your comrades in flight. Your nameless character is known as Lynx and is the newest member of the ace squadron The Cougar Squad. He is also a silent protagonist, which is probably the best way to handle the player’s presence in the story, regardless of their ever-changing role. These characters are basically several anime archetypes (I could instantly tell how the silver-haired youth was going to act based on his appearance. I wish I had been wrong…) Even with this being the case, I still enjoy the interactions and camaraderie of these pilots; it helps to move the story along and keep the player engaged.

Every few chapters there are fully animated cutscenes, similar in style to the 2008 film of the same name. These scenes are meant to add exposition to the unfolding events and serve as a nice diversion, with great animation and vivid character design.

The in-game graphics are distinct, even if the same landscapes are repeated often. You are usually too busy engaging in aerial dogfights to notice that mountains look similar to other areas of the European continent. There are plenty of environments to see from oceans to mountains to industrial areas around vast plains. None of these areas really impact the combat, but they offer a nice view while you are seeking your next target. Of course, you should always be aware of your surroundings lest you crash into a bridge…

The graphics really shine in the look of the various planes, both of ally and enemy. Your Rostock planes consist of single and double wing fighters typical of the era, huge bombers, and other unique crafts. Some of the enemy Lautern crafts are a bit too visually similar, but that’s why they appear in RED, so you know they’re the enemy! I also like the graphical customization you can control on your planes from a simple paint job to different types of wings, engines, armor, and cockpits. There are also different weapons depending on the craft, from gravity bombs to better machine guns to explosive shells. There is much fun to be had in switching up your arsenal both for challenge’s and variety’s sake.

Lastly, the occasional anime cutscenes are a nice touch and serve to further expound on the game’s storyline. Consider them as an addendum to the in-game cutscenes and perhaps even motivation to check out the 2008 film by Mamoru Oshii. I know I plan to.

The music is better than I expected. Not having much experience with flight simulator or aerial dogfighting, I have been disappointed by the use of mostly ambient music in these games. There was little music and comparatively few sound effects to take their place. Fortunately, this is not the case with Sky Crawlers. The music is evocative, pleasant to listen to, and often feels like a vital part of the storyline and action of the mission.

My favorite tracks are the ending theme, with its powerful vocals and moving chords, reminiscent of Requiem in Akira by the Geinoh Yamashirogumi. It serves as an ideal musical denouement to the storyline of Sky Crawlers. It is also appropriately used in a key scene earlier in the game in which many of the same emotions run high. It is a deeply dramatic scene, to which this theme fits perfectly. I also like the sortie themes, some of which are more action packed than others. I only wish the music menu in extras had names for these pieces. It certainly would have helped for this part of the review.

Sound effects are what one would expect in an air combat game, with the din of weapons fire, the explosions of destroying rival planes, and the sounds of your plane as you perform complex aerial maneuvers. I especially like that part, the “whooshing” that gives the player the very real sense of being miles above engaged in aerial ballet.

The voice acting is a surprisingly large part of the story, as there is a lot of dialogue even without considering the anime cutscenes. Pre-mission briefings are all voiced to suitable effect and there is much communication between your fellow pilots during the mission. You have helpful words to completing the mission, moments of doubt from your comrades, and even some witty banter to lighten the mood. It all works remarkably well at keeping the player invested in each mission’s struggle. I just wish that some of the character’s motivations weren’t so easy to guess.

Gameplay is pretty much the same as any flight simulator video game with an emphasis on action. Your goal, regardless of whether it involves protecting a target or not, is almost always to shoot down the enemy planes. You have several different control schemes with which to control your plane, with the Wii motion controls being the most advertised. The Wiimote controls your throttle, with holding up and down affecting your speed respectively. All maneuvers (tilts, rolls, pitches, and yaws) are handled with the Nunchaku; move left to turn the plane left and so on. The C and Z button are used for combat, and the A button is for this game’s unique TMC system. The Tactical Maneuvering Command gets you into an advantageous position, allowing you to shoot down the enemy quickly. The system has 3 levels of maneuver, which each level depending on keeping the enemy in your triangular sights for a certain amount of time; the higher the level used, the more likely the enemy will be unable to escape massive damage, often outright destruction.

Besides tactical maneuvering, you can use A to activate other types of moves that you can select from the D pad, which favor defensive maneuvers. These are mostly used to shake an enemy’s tail and also for quick turns, much like Star Fox 64. Lastly, you can freely switch between enemy targets by using the B button, giving you the nearest target.

There is also the option to play with the Gamecube and Classic Controller, an option I was very glad for. As innovative and neat as the controls were, I found my hands cramping up after only a few minutes (maybe I don’t play enough motion intensive Wii games…) so I was happy to test out the alternatives. The classic controller is much easier on the hands and functions as one would expect. It is unfortunate that you can’t customize the controls however you want. The D pad is used for targets, the left analogue for moving the plane, and the trigger buttons for acceleration and the reverse. TMC has been moved to ZR, which takes some time to get used to, but I find easier to use in the long run. You’ll be flying circles around the enemies in no time!

Challenge is dependent on which control setup you use. Even without the cramps, I found maneuvering more difficult with the Wiimote and didn’t even really understand the TMC system. There are also adjustable difficulty settings from easy to hard, with some unlockable as well. Each level removes a handicap, with easy having limited ascent and diving ability to help avoid crashes, normal having auto leveling-out, preventing barrel rolls. Expert has any turn to either direction resulting in such a roll, making setting up a target a lot harder, as the plane will not stay on a dedicated path. Thusly, you have to set up each target while fighting with the controls. This was a bit too hard for me, so I was glad for the assistance in normal difficulty. Playing the game in this way is certainly something I’m interested in learning how to do in the future.

Replay value is surprisingly high, with multiple unlockables ranging from new planes, weapons, and other customizables to special versions of existing planes, like the Suiga, based on important characters’ models. This game also has a new game plus in that you can use your fully powered up plane in the early stages, making them a cakewalk. I’m glad that these equipment upgrades ended up playing a real role in replayability, as they only served as second fiddle to the TMC in helping to take down the enemies.

In summation, Sky Crawlers – Innocent Aces is the best example of the action flight simulator on the Wii. The controls are tight, the gameplay is fun, and the story is surprisingly compelling giving you many reasons to play the game. I favor the character interactions and the different kinds of missions, giving this game plenty of variety. It’s just as great for Ace Combat veterans and those new to the series.

-Ugly Bob

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