Fans of both the anime and flight simulators will feel right at home playing Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces. Developed by the Project Aces team, makers of the Ace Combat series, Sky Crawlers brings a mixture of unique flying controls and anime visuals to the Nintendo Wii. The game is based on the 2008 Sky Crawlers anime film in Japan, which itself is an adaption of Hiroshi Mori's book series of the same name.
Sky Crawlers takes place in an alternate history of the world, one in which war has been eliminated and a perpetual state of peace exists. However, this has not stopped large corporations from waging armed conflicts purely for sport. Endless supplies of young men and women give their lives as pilots in these 'fake wars' fought between the two featured corporations, Rostock and Lautern. Judging from the look of the propeller based planes, this world appears to be set during the Second World War era. Players take control of a rookie ace, code named Lynx and later renamed Cheetah, who is fighting for glory in the elite Cougar Squad. There appears to be a theme here.
The story is very much catered to those already familiar with the Sky Crawlers film and book series. Coming into the game with no previous knowledge leaves the player unclear as to what the character's motivations are; in fact, to the casual observer, it's not clear as to why anyone is fighting in the first place. The context is set up poorly for the vast majority of people, especially in the West, who have never heard of the series before this game. In the end, even if the player is a Sky Crawlers fan, the characters are still one dimensional and the plot never really takes off, no pun intended.
For most people interested in Sky Crawlers, the flight controls and combat, rather than the narrative, will make or break the experience. Fortunately, the team over at Project Aces have delivered a solid control system. Being a Wii title, Sky Crawlers naturally uses motion control and does so in a unique, intuitive way. Instead of using the Wii remote to steer the plane, players use the Nunchuk. The Wii Remote controls the plane's acceleration by tilting it up and down. This control scheme may sound a little strange but after a couple of missions it feels surprisingly easy and intuitive. Classic GameCube controls are also an option for those who don't enjoy the motion controls.
Along with the basic controls, players are given a number of combat options to fit their play style - the most notable being the Tactical Maneuver Commands, or TMCs. These maneuvers serve as an alternative to a lock on feature, allowing the player to chase down enemies easily but at the same time still requiring some skill. Enemy planes have a circular area around them that players must be within to initiate a TMC; once inside the circle for a few seconds the TMC meter will fill up and pressing the A button at this time causes the plane to perform some fantastic aerial acrobatics. This ends up with the player being positioned behind the enemy and ready to shoot. The TMCs, along with other evasion maneuvers at the players disposal, give the combat a frantic, action packed pace which is very satisfying. Hardcore players can choose not to perform TMCs to earn medals and other achievements, but the maneuvers become essential to success in the later stages of the game.
While the core gameplay is solid, the same cannot be said for the game's mission structure. Overall, Sky Crawlers' 18 missions tend to drag on, which makes them feel repetitive near the end. Making matters worse is the uneven check point system; some missions have them and some don't, meaning failure will result in having to attempt the entire mission again in some circumstances. A checkpoint after each cut scene would make sense but that's not the case here. The pacing also feels uneven. It's consistent throughout most of the game, but the pace is abruptly increased during the game's final few missions, and while these final missions are frantic and fun, the game lacks an overall progression.
The game's presentation is, for the most part competent, but not without its flaws. The anime cutscenes look and sound great, but unfortunately they are short and used infrequently throughout the game. The main visual drawback is the incredibly dull looking environments. Flying games naturally have expansive environments, which means the textures don't look great up close, but that's a problem present in all flying games. The real problem is the lack of variety in the environments. Almost all battles are set in a plain or mountain setting and it doesn't help that some areas are visited multiple times.
On the other hand, Sky Crawlers' sound is quite impressive. Every piece of dialogue, of which there is plenty, has a voice attached to it. The chatter between pilots during a battle does a good job of making the atmosphere feel stressful, if only artificially. The tracks that play in the background are also very effective and once a hectic battle begins expect a heavy riff to drop in and set the tone. The sound, during its best moments, really makes up for the dull mission objectives.
After completing the six to seven hour story mode there are a few incentives to keep playing, but nothing too compelling. Hardcore players will enjoy the various medals and achievements to earn, as well as the ability to play story missions on harder difficulty settings in free mode. However, these features have little replay value for the average player because they entail repeating already repetitive, easily forgettable missions. One positive feature is the comprehensive replay system. After each mission players can view the battle, in its entirety, from several perspectives and angles. Favourite replays can also be saved to show off at a later date, which is a nice touch. A versus multiplayer mode would have done wonders for Sky Crawlers' replayability.
Sky Crawlers is a game ideal for both anime and flight game fans. The narrative is tailored for those familiar with the series, so there's not much substance for everyone else. Tight, intuitive controls combined with good voice acting and a solid soundtrack make the dog fighting feel intense and enjoyable. However, lacklustre mission types, dull environments and no real replay incentive are drawbacks to the experience. Overall, Sky Crawlers is a competent arcade flight game on the Wii, just don't expect anything Earth shattering.