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The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces

A show. That’s all the war really is. You’d think a society that moved beyond warfare could do without meaningless violence, but it’s still entertaining. World peace is overrated; people need a reminder of just how good they’ve got it. Can you imagine it? An entire war fought just to keep people complacent. For profit, too. War is a business, so both sides have carefully designed their forces and battles to create an endless stalemate. Battles are won, but never the war. Thousands of volunteers sacrifice their lives for their corporate sponsors. They’ve even started using Kildren – manufactured clones – to replace the real soldiers. All for the sake of keeping the system of bloodshed going without actually risking anything.

The decadence is sickening.

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It‘s rarely mentioned, though. A shame, considering how the concept works as a commentary on violence in today’s media. Instead, the story focuses on the career of a young combat prodigy. You assume the role of Lynx (renamed Cheetah once you’ve gained enough of a reputation for your badass piloting skills) and his rise from a lowly rookie to the captain of an elite fighter plane squadron. Surprisingly, Lynx has no characterization whatsoever; he silently, indifferently completes his missions, earning praise from his peers and notoriety from his enemies. The secondary characters are what make things interesting. Most of the time, anyway. You’ll be able to figure out most of the plot twists (the betrayals especially) long before they happen. Other aspects, such Orishina’s obsession and Kaida’s loyalty, are built up gradually and executed well. Cheesy lines and flat voice acting aside, the story provides just enough context for your missions to make sense.

You don’t need to pay attention to it, anyway. Your missions are fairly straightforward and explained both before and during combat. The variety of objectives is surprising, considering that there are only 18 levels. You’ll have to take down fleets of enemy fighters, destroy specific targets, defend bases, take recon photos, wipe out defense lines and structures, coordinate timed attacks, escort allies, and a few other challenges. The majority of these stages are underwhelming at best; the game doesn’t really ramp up its difficulty until the last five or six missions, and only half of those are memorable. The poor AI is mostly to blame. Even on the highest difficulty setting, you shouldn’t have much trouble mowing everything down. The best moments in the game come when you’re facing other ace pilots; there’s nothing more intense than trying to take down an opponent that not only rivals you in terms of speed and firepower, but is smart and aggressive enough to kill you within seconds. It makes for some satisfying boss fights, even if they are rare.

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Instead, you’ll spend most of the game blowing up wave after wave of easy targets. All you have to do is wait until you fly within range of your victim, watch your targeting reticule grow large enough for a lock-on, and unleash a torrent of bullets until the flaming shrapnel flies. If there’s unfriendly fire, you can pull off barrel rolls, loops, and other complex moves with the push of a button and the control stick. If you get close enough to your target, you’ll automatically start charging your craft’s thrusters. Stay in range long enough to fill the onscreen meter at least a third of the way, and you can perform some physics-defying maneuvers that end with you somewhere behind the intended target. The more you charge up, the closer you’ll be to having the enemy directly in front of you. It seems like a cheap tactic (and it is, given how easy it is to annihilate the lesser foes) but you’ll be relying on it constantly in the latter half of the game. It’ll be the only thing that keeps you alive and anywhere close to scoring a hit on more skilled opponents. Consider the alternative; the game could’ve just forced you to soar aimlessly across the battlefield and waste time hunting down your targets the old fashioned way. At least the maneuvering system lets you feel like some kind of badass ace.

Assuming that you can actually get anywhere, that is. The back of the game case proclaims that you use “realistic, intuitive flight controls” with the Wiimote and Nunchuck. It sounds great on paper, but the execution is horribly, utterly awkward. As you tilt the main controller to manage the speed of the plane, you have to slightly turn the entire Nunchuck to adjust the direction. The system regularly misreads your movements, which leaves you frantically trying to get yourself realigned as you go spinning into a cloudy oblivion. It makes even the simplest battles a pain in the ass. It would have made far more sense to have just the control stick work the directions and buttons for the braking and acceleration. It’ll take you countless rage-filled retries (the barebones tutorial is useless) before you get a hang of it. But chances are, you’ll give up quickly and fall back on your Classic or Gamecube controller. Having a default control setup simulate real piloting mechanics might seem like a cool idea, but it means nothing when it turns the gameplay into a chore.

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At least it’ll go by quickly. It shouldn’t take you more than a couple of hours to beat the story. As you complete each mission, you’ll be able to replay it via a challenge mode on different difficulty settings. Doing so unlocks several extra vehicles, parts, and other ways to create your perfect fighter plane. There are a wide variety of aircraft, all with their own speed, control, maneuverability, and defensive stats. Each comes with a nice selection of weapons, ranging from machine guns, shotguns, and explosive bullets to rocket launchers, torpedoes, and napalm bombs. Since you can replay the missions using your custom designs, you’ll find a way to approach the game regardless of your playing style. Some actions, like shooting down aces quickly or destroying enough enemies, nets you medals/achievements for your efforts. The impressive array of unlockables makes for a great incentive to keep playing long after everything else goes stale.

Too bad nearly everything else is utterly bland. Sky Crawlers takes place during some alternative World War II era in which blocky, propeller-based aircraft are the peak of aviation technology. The retro style of the planes – Cheetah’s insignia especially – are a nice throwback to old school designs. The problem is that they lack detail; even the finest planes in your squadron look grainy and unpolished. The stages are even worse. Aside from a gorgeous sunset, a sprawling city, and castle overlooking the ocean, the majority of the backgrounds look like an endless sea of poorly rendered hills and valleys. They’re fighting over the skies of Europe. Would it have been so much trouble to include more urbanized areas and obstacles? The game tries to keep things interesting by providing different camera angles and dramatic dodging animations, but it’s not enough. Ironically, the dull cutscenes are the most visually compelling; everything is presented in crisp, movie-quality anime. If anything, it ought to be enough to keep you from skipping over the story.

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Or not. You can just watch all of scenes after you’ve beat the game, after all. Aside from a few key characters, there’s little reason to pay attention to the plot. Instead, you’ll probably rush through the campaign, slaughtering everything that gets in your way. Or try to, depending on how long it takes before you give up on the terrible default settings and dig out a more reliable controller. Regardless of how you play, the game’s awesome combat mechanics and special maneuvering system ensure that you’ll feel like a badass flying ace. Even if the graphics are mediocre and nearly all of your enemies are pushovers. At least the unlockables provide a good reason to keep coming back for more. It’s hardly a perfect game, but it’s still fun. The pilots of Sky Crawlers were right; the war might not be real, but it’s still entertaining.

7 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in February 2005.

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