It’s in those first few hours of play that Pocket Planes peaks. The world, in its flat, pixelated goodness, lies ahead of your newly founded airline. There is only the expansion and the breadth of possibilities feels unlimited. Maybe you’ll fill out a full region with lines spanning from one ocean to the next. There is the limited territory you’re starting in but there are all those possible ways they might connect to the unclaimed ports all over the map.
And then ten, fifteen hours in, you’ve obtained a global reach. It’s easy to establish a system and follow it through without real thought. That’s where the experience of Pocket Planes sours and there’s this realization that the only necessary cities are the big ones and maybe the rest are holding you back. So the airline fills out across all the high density areas and then there’s the feeling that spontaneous expansion can only disturb your fine-tuned series of routes and connecting cities.
So, in the end, it’s unclear exactly what you’re reaching for. It’s a constant expansion and then a sort of dead end where it’s apparent which cities will be of use and which will not. There are still the global events. And if you’re joining a well-populated flight crew, there are new objectives set every couple days with nifty bonuses for the crews that perform well. And so there’s some incentive – to raise the stock of a crew and rise up the leaderboards – although after seeing out several events, I’m not sure how much longevity there is in that, either.
There is some depth to the process, as you’ll strategically sort out best routes and layover stops along the way and which planes will be able to access specific airports. And there’s a good feeling of momentum early on that makes the need for micro-transactions feel trivial in a way it rarely does with these types of ‘task’ games. There’s really no need to pay out at all but at some point it might be beneficial in order to buy out the most popular airports and continue progressing in the game. But to what end?
The saving grace of Pocket Planes is the charming retro aesthetic. Everything’s pixelated and retro and it’s a characterful style. There are also the airline patrons, the Bitizens, who post amusing status updates on the in-game social networking equivalent, Bitbook. There’s a whole lot of personality packed into minimalist concepts and the aesthetic choices largely work in the game’s favor. The only nitpick I have is that the style doesn’t follow over to the world map, which accurately represents the real world, albeit a flattened equivalent of it where there’s no way to cross the Pacific.
One problem in evaluating Pocket Planes is there’s not much in the way of active mechanics. During flights some coins and bucks float by and can be tapped on but that’s about the extent of the mechanics in-air. Everything else is in the planning. Sure, there’s always another flight path to set and you’ll be jumping right back in once the notifications come in, but there’s this sense of it being a game that just sort of runs in the background, a time sink to fill the spots between more meaningful experiences.
That’s not to say there’s not something to it. Of all the iOS developers using the free to play model, NimbleBit has come the closest to getting it right. While there’s the occasional pop-up ad for some other app and a tempting system in place for buying more in-game currency, there are plenty of hours separating the game from the point where it feels necessary. And yet there’s always the option on the backburner for players who want to expedite that process.
Pocket Planes is another quality sim that takes the respect for the consumer from Tiny Tower’s management systems and translates them into running a fully functioning airline. Unfortunately, it also shares that game’s singular big flaw, offering no tangible end in sight. After enough hours, you’ll be burning through all the hooks that initially seemed so enticing. And then the micro-transactions feel like the only way to ever make those same leaps in progress as in the early game. It’s both the game’s biggest problem and what separates it from other money grubbing games on the platform that present the issue upfront. If nothing else, it’s a step in the right direction.