For all the noise I’ve attempted to make about The Sky Crawlers’ arrival on North American shelves, the game surrenders itself to a level of obscurity not only by nature of its genre, but because it is a quiet and subtle title.
In an attempt at taking an early stance against undue hype, I’ll stress that neither my interest in the game nor my time with it has revealed a religious experience. Rather, the game leaves an impression as subtle as its arrival and presentation – something small and nagging to chew on after the flight is over.
This is an impression you simply need to feel rather than hear about, which sounds an awful lot like me telling you that you need to get the game into your hands simply because I lack the words to explain just why that need exists.
Let’s try this approach instead – The Sky Crawlers is less an instance of using words to tell you how pretty it is, which sacrifices most of the words set aside to describe games.
The problem is worsened by the fact that there have been a fair number of titles recently that also present this challenge, which potentially means games of substance are on the mend, or that I’m simply waking from a long coma – left rubbing my eyes and stumbling out of bed for ways to describe the experience of gaming as playful, tactile interaction.
Maybe I’ll dip back into enthusiastic hype expectations for just a moment.
The Sky Crawlers is a game I wanted to love long before laying my hands on a copy, because dog-fighting flight games should be a genre I enjoy far more than I do. I couldn’t tell you exactly how many hours I’ve sunk into relics like TIE Fighter and Wing Commander – enough to make me miss the highpoint of gaming’s interest in such flights of fancy and make it worth mentioning at least.
Color my disinterest in the genre with one half of my impatience with the control schemes, and another half my being tired of shooting at ze Germans, and no one was more surprised than I was at how eager I’ve been to pick up The Sky Crawlers.
(1) people who play games by Project Aces tell me that Project Aces’ games are a big deal
(2) a control scheme that promises to free my fingers from analog sticks and d-pads
(3) the tie-in to the film of the same name with animation via Production I.G.
The last point is particularly important because it’s a well established fact that if I can find a way to mention the anime OVA Area 88, and thereby Capcom’s finest 2D shooter tie-in U.N. Squadron – I will, and just did.
The worth of the mention is in the thematic evolution The Sky Crawlers offers on Area 88’s war theme.
The Sky Crawlers presents a world kept at peace by a corporate sponsored war, drawing in soldiers and herein pilots craving it – who are confronted and contrasted by Kildren, young pilots bred specifically to participate in and die for the war. If it all sounds a tad complex, well that’s anime based on books for you. The game works more as a compliment to the film, making the player part of that war and focusing on the implications of the Kildren as part of the artificially created eternal conflict at play.
It’s rare that we see an anime take on military conflict that doesn’t feature giant mechs, allowing for campaigns that slightly obscure designs and themes to create an experience I earnestly find more compelling than the straight and realistic jet set wars so common to the medium. Such detours allow gamers to know the joys of fighting a gigantic armored Zeppelin.
There’s a sense that the game yearns to be a character piece, but never finds the time to really develop that desire. The anime presentation is surprisingly minimal, portioned out like a dessert after key missions. In fact, the entire game is presented with a very minimalist style.
There is no operatic opening, and the series of menus and tutorials that follow the first press of a button are straight-forward and bland. And yet there’s a stark beauty to romance in a title screen of clear blue skies, and the map sequences and in-game dialogue add quite a bit of characterization as the game progresses. Still, the chances of remembering the bulk of the pilots you lead are slim.
And while that should crush the impact of narrative, the game had the damndest way of catching me up in a bit of melodrama toward the end, even though it remained completely predictable in its direction. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for pretty anime faces.
Anyway, after taking to the skies I’ve come back with an appreciation for the flight controls the game offers more than I’d expected to, so let’s get to it.
The Sky Crawlers proposes that we forget what we know about using the WiiMote like a pointy stick, instead using it as the throttle for our propeller planes – tilting it upward increases speed and downward decreases it, with the B-button acting as an air-brake, and the A-button reserved for executing aerial maneuvers. Controlling movement is handled entirely by the Nunchuk, raising it at an angle to tilt the plane upward and vice-versa. Unprepared as I was for this control scheme, this resulted in a lot of disorientation as I moved the Nunchuk a little too enthusiastically at first – swaying left or right only requires subtle movement in either direction.
I’ve yet to find the ideal seating arrangement for the game, working to keep my arms level and out-stretched. There was a wonderful moment where my girl asked me what the hell I was doing as I leaned far enough to the right to fall off the couch.
The thumbstick of the Nunchuk selects manual maneuvers in the chosen direction, which are executed by pressing the A-button. Keeping players focused on the Nunchuk, the Z-Button is used to fire weapons.
I’m told players can also use a Gamecube or Classic Controller, which I have not looked into because doing so would seem to entirely defeat the point of playing the game.
It doesn’t take long to see that there’s a light touch involved with the controls, and that learning to keep both hands working in co-operation is really where the game has something special to offer. I can’t remember the last Wii game that didn’t allow at least one of my hands to be lazier than the other, but here it’s necessary to focus on both to avoid cutting your speed at a crucial moment.
When I’m chasing a fighter and it begins to turn into an escape, tilting the Nunchuk slightly in the same direction while lowering the WiiMote to cut the throttle is often enough to keep the advantage on my side. And while there are times where the Nunchuk feels a little heavy at turning, the overall effect is surprisingly responsive. Turning seemed terrible at first, but the more I learned to work speed adjustments into the equation the better my performance became.
The game does allow room to simply storm in with little attention and use the auto-maneuvers to feel like a killing ace, but it also offers a learning curve toward a sense of real control that is very inviting – enough to convince me to invest the time in learning to work the controls cooperatively.
There are times the controls feel a little twitchy – lining up a shot can get downright finicky, and the threat of overheating the guns doesn’t allow one to simply fill the air with bullets while turning to hit everyone. But flying into a swarm of enemies to break the nest apart only to then circle and take out multiple targets at rapid speed offers a sense of dog-fighting made more rewarding by the feeling of self accomplishment the controls offer, rather than the traditional button-pressing that might get the job done more efficiently.
In the end, the game doesn’t feel like the cockpit simulation I imagined, but rather more like conducting an elegant piece of music at times. The controls also succeed at differentiating the feel of the planes based on speed, armor weight, and general maneuverability.
The downside is that this aerial opera is very much on the short side.
17 missions are offered, which start off with a very dogmatic approach that saves the best punches for the final few flights. And while there are multiple planes and upgrades to unlock along with varying difficulty settings, the game will definitely leave players hungry for more. The Sky Crawlers also isn’t the prettiest game on the shelves by any stretch, particularly when aiming at ground targets – though the plane designs are a bit of icing for my eyes.
These complaints don’t kill the deal depending on how you price an experience, and this time around I get to state that it hasn’t left me with any buyer’s remorse. Though the experience has left me with a renewed desire to see Nintendo get to work on a game that allows me to pilot an Arwing with a control scheme The Sky Crawlers proves to be a better way to fly.
*A copy of this title was purchased by Gamesugar for review