As we’ve already established here on Square XO, the ‘summer drought’ in gaming is something of a misnomer. Contrary to popular belief, the games do, in fact, keep on coming; it’s simply that the spotlight naturally shifts to smaller indie titles which fill the gaps while the triple-A games are on hiatus. The latest to attract our attention is Airheart: Tales of Broken Wings, which spent time on Steam in early access guise before, er, winging its way to PS4.
Full disclosure, folks: I am categorically not a fan of twin-stick shooters. I don’t particularly relish the grind of crafting and levelling up, either, and the use of ‘permadeath’ in a game, where your mistakes return you to the very beginning, is absolute anathema to me. Airheart, incidentally, features all of these elements. So, as I downloaded the game, my DualShock was quivering in fear as it looked destined to be launched through the nearest window in the ensuing hours. Fortunately, I’m a balanced kinda guy, so I was prepared to give Airheart every opportunity to win me over.
You play as Amelia, who have recently resettled in the city in the sky, Granaria, to escape the dangers of the desert below. She ekes out a modest living by sky fishing and repairing planes in her workshop. The low pay and the constant threat of pirates see her long for something better. She is spurred on by the tale of the Sky Whale which, legend has it, can be found in the highest layer. Massive rewards await the person brave or foolhardy enough to accept the challenge.
With context and motivation established, you are led into a brief and very effective tutorial where you can practice the fundamentals of flight, fishing and shooting. The left stick controls the plane, while the right stick is used for aiming the gun and/or harpoon. L1 triggers the harpoon, R2 unleashes the gunfire. Successful completion of a few simple challenges sees you granted permission to start your quest in earnest. You can skip the tutorial, although I would recommend using that time wisely to master control of your plane, in particular, the challenge of aiming and shooting on the move.
For me, twin-stick shooters are the least intuitive activity in gaming, and so it proved here. You have the option of ‘relative’ or ‘absolute’ airplane steering, but in my experience, both options were, for a time, equally infuriating. With my fists of ham and fingers of butter, I wrestled with control of the plane for some time, finding shooting on the move as much fun as being entangled in a duvet on a hot summer night. The gun is located in the middle of the plane, so aiming must be done separately, although it becomes easier with practice and easier still with the increased range and coverage of upgraded guns.
The first ‘sky layer’ serves as a relatively gentle introduction. Enemies are sparse and you enjoy the freedom to catch fish, locate oil drums and gather as many materials as you can. Your plane is protected, to a degree, but your energy will deplete rapidly if you bump into things or absorb enemy bullets for too long. It’s a delicate balance of exploration and defence, taking evasive action where required but also making risky manoeuvres to harvest the most valuable materials. If you take damage, you can recover health by finding first-aid boxes hidden in bushes. It pays to monitor your health closely, though. Those 20 hearts can tumble in an instant and it’s imperative to return to base before the plane explodes. Otherwise, you lose all of your cargo and are straight back to square one.
Yes, it’s there: permadeath. And I wish it wasn’t. As a gameplay mechanic, I know it ramps up the tension, forcing you as a player to walk the tightest line between risk and reward, but for me, there are better approaches to this. The frustration of being several layers up – only to lose everything- seriously sapped my motivation at times. Inevitably, then, you adopt a more cautious approach, gathering what you can before pressing down on the D-pad to return to base and take stock of your spoils.
Back at base, you can convert your fish and scrap finds into money to purchase upgrades. Resources can be combined at your crafting bench too, further incentivising and rewarding your exploration. I found this part a real chore, but the grind is a necessary evil that you can’t simply bypass. Without the upgraded parts, venturing into the higher layers, where you are beset by hostile ships from all directions, is a recipe for disaster. Think of wandering into the wrong parts of Dark Souls without the requisite levelling up, and you’ll get the idea.
Once you’ve upgraded, you’re back out in the hope of surviving the rigours of the higher layers. I couldn’t see a fast path to these and instead found myself moving from launchpad to launchpad following my return to base. Perhaps I missed something and there is, in fact, a fast travel option, but this was another factor which detracted from the experience and fuelled a creeping sense of Groundhog Day repetition.
Over time I did eventually gel with the controls a little more and began to wring some enjoyment from knife-edge firefights with the hostile pirate planes which pursue you relentlessly in the higher layers. In particular, the upgraded guns felt meaty and impactful, a suitable reward for all the time invested in painstakingly collecting and crafting materials. During a battle, it is vital that you don’t ignore on-screen warnings over your plane’s energy levels. Once it catches fire, it’s best to retreat to the base rather than risk losing all progress.
Along the way, you’ll almost certainly come to appreciate the visuals, which are crisp, vibrant and varied enough to hold your attention. I would single out the soundtrack for particular praise, starting off sparse and subdued, building to urgent and pulsating as the action ramps up in the upper echelons. The game also boasts a photo mode and the option to revisit cutscenes through the ‘cinematics’ option.
I found the game was best experienced in small doses. With a prolonged play, frustration can build and you’re more inclined to take costly risks. In my assessment, I would prefer a straight-up shooter without the crafting elements. I could do without the overly punitive permadeath system, too. In the end, I’m afraid, I still remain unconvinced by the twin-stick shooting, and it speaks volumes that by the end of the game, I was happy to uninstall it with no urge to return. However, I like to take a wider view when scoring a game. Looking beyond my own preferences, this game is reasonably well executed, if a little weighed down with crafting. It could, despite the design choices, really appeal to those with a penchant for the twin-stick shooter.
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for review*