Don’t blink. That’s the best strategy to employ when playing Aces of the Luftwaffe Squadron, a stubbornly old-school plane shooter with roots in a mobile and P.C game of (almost) the same name. The action takes place via a top-down perspective while you weave and dodge waves of bullets, accompanied by three intrepid colleagues.
There is – technically – a slight story driving the game, and, for the sake of brevity, it’s sufficient to know that you and your squadron are fighting German foes who have decided to invade U.S skies. You’re not coming to this game for profound narrative, and if you are, you won’t find it. Instead, the focus is predominantly on the shooty-bang-bang action and explosions, with side-missions along the way.
The devs have elected to treat the subject matter with levity and indeed the villains are exaggerated, cartoon-like figures which are entirely in keeping with the overall look and feel of the game. The members of the squadron regularly exchange cheesy banter, popping up at the bottom of the screen as they do so – think Starfox in concept, but not in execution. The circle button becomes your best friend, allowing you to skip the painful patter that precedes each level.
Having recently played a decidedly unwieldy twin-stick shooter, it’s refreshing to discover that Aces absolutely nails the fundamentals. Control is both simple and satisfyingly fluid. Your plane’s nose is fixed to the horizon, as is the trajectory of your bullets, so the main priorities are evading enemy fire and positioning for an optimum attack. There’s no faffing with separate aiming. Movement, controlled by the left stick, is fast and friction-free, perfectly supporting the pacey dogfights which play out over the course of five chapters, each featuring five sub-levels. Local co-op play is available, too, potentially making the game easier and more enjoyable.
Your main objective each time is simply to survive to the onslaught to the end, picking up collectables from fallen foes as well as the staple power-ups. Additionally, each level features a bespoke side-mission which can be anything from protecting another plane to rescuing a set number of people. It’s possible to finish the level without this, but the completionist in you is unlikely to let it go. Successful completion of the sub-mission will maximise your rewards and fund the purchase of ability upgrades for your squadron.
The skill tree adds a slight strategic element to the game. You convert your points to new abilities between levels – upgraded armour, more powerful fire, etc – which you can assign to each team member. It’s debatable whether this makes a significant impact on the action, but it does at least provide an incentive to complete and collect as much as possible.
The levels are well judged in terms of duration, rarely outstaying their welcome and generally fairly short. That’s an eminently sensible decision given the frenetic nature of the action, as before long you’ll be reaching for the eye drops and reminding yourself to breathe as you concentrate so intensely in this bullet hell. Boss encounters fare less well; their energy takes an age to diminish and often you feel caught in a battle of Cuphead proportions, frequently dying just as their energy finally tumbles below the halfway point. Thankfully, multiple lives give you a sporting chance, and failure simply means restarting the sub-level, not the whole chapter. The game frequently throws you a curveball, for example, a squadron member suffering the effects of poisoning will be vulnerable for a time, suddenly requiring protection from enemy fire. Another is prone to bouts of narcolepsy and will, on occasion, have to be shielded from attacks until they recover. It’s a novel way of disrupting play and adding challenge.
Downsides? Well, for all the sub-missions and upgrades, the action does, inevitably, become repetitive. The visual style, initially charming, is functional at best and some levels are difficult to distinguish in terms of aesthetic. The verbal exchanges between the characters are wearisome and never raise a smile, while the action is, on occasion, a little too frantic for comfort. Generally, the game performs well, although I experienced some slowdown, usually as the larger enemies were on the brink of exploding. Whether that’s a technical flaw or a deliberate design decision, I can’t say.
Ultimately there is a lot to like about Aces of Luftwaffe. The snappy, responsive controls, allied to a wide variety of power-ups, make for an entertaining game over short windows of play. I could live without the characters’ inane babble and would argue the skill tree is largely redundant, but overall Aces hits the target more often than not. Just be prepared for the novelty to wear off pretty quickly, as shoot-em-ups of this ilk rarely escape the shadow of repetition.
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for review*