Thursday, January 31

Review: Airheart - Tales of Broken Wings [Nintendo Switch eShop]


One of the best things about covering indie games is that while many of them fall into familiar patterns or genre styles there’s also a consistent flow of titles that refuse easy categorization. Most typically these come in the form of mashups that combine elements to create new experiences. One such case is Airheart, a game that splices together twin-stick shooting, careful exploration, and crafting, but then throws in roguelike unpredictability as well. The result is unique and quite challenging, but also very smart when it comes to technique, making it a memorable journey.


You play the game as Amelia, a young woman determined to prove herself in the world, working from pretty humble beginnings to establish herself as a great pilot and hoping to eventually catch a mythical sky whale. Initially taking to the skies in your somewhat humble starter plane your goal is to try to capture fish (they fly, don’t ask) and then do battle with random pirates and stationary guns peppered everywhere. When you feel like you’re ready to step up the challenge (and potential rewards) you’ll then be able to fly to the next stage and roughly repeat things, just it will be tougher. In each seasonal zone, all comprised of multiple levels, you’ll then encounter a boss that will raise the stakes and difficulty quite a bit. Once you’re able to take them out you’ll not only get quite a reward, but you’ll also gain access to the next seasonal zone and even tougher challenges.


For me it all began to really come together once I’d done a few runs and took out the first boss. Initially I’d gone down the somewhat expensive path of buying upgraded parts and weapons for my plane, a viable choice but one that gets very costly. Since I’d gotten a sort of surplus of new parts as a reward for the first boss I decided to give the crafting system a longer look and it very much paid off. Built on experimentation the interface takes some getting used to. What at first feels a bit random begins to make more sense as you understand how you need to use abundant materials to combine to make slightly better components which you then need to combine to make even more complex ones. Part of the trick is with those mid-tier parts you construct you’ll also need to produce multiples to see new crafting opportunities. The game will only hint at what you have the parts to build, and then using the system of hints that tell you how many parts of each class you’ll need paired with cues on which parts you’re working with are correct and which aren’t you can work out the formula. After a while some elements began to make sense as being relevant to specific builds and that made things go a little quicker but, if you want top weapons and gear investing some time into crafting is vital.


Taking to the air with upgraded parts affords you many advantages. The most obvious upgrade that makes a huge difference is finding an effective weapon that suits you. I happened to settle on a plasma weapon and while I tried some others it really stuck for me. Obviously having more health is very convenient, and perks like having boost or a hull that attracts materials can be very handy. Since you can mix and match parts it really is up to you to find the mix that works best for you. As you play you’ll also hopefully begin to get very handy with your harpoon, which is great for spearing quicker fish, but is also vital for taking on tougher enemies. The ability to spear and pull off their guns or armor is helpful but it’s also fun to outright pull smaller craft around and either shoot them while they’re unable to fight back or even sling them into a wall.


Going higher can mean facing bigger enemies, but sometimes it’s the swarms of smaller ones that will do you in. Especially in the winter zone you’ll need to be wary of small and agile pirate ships that can be a real pain when there are several to deal with at once. Being methodical is really your best bet the higher you go, being careful to circle around the periphery and wearing away enemies carefully. Once you get into a crossfire it’s easy to lose a ton of health in a hurry, so luring out or even harpooning some enemies to take them to the side and dispatch them can be a helpful tactic. If you opt to play the game in roguelike mode it’s also vital to know when to call it quits. While you’re able to opt to go home at almost any time the further you’ve progressed the higher the risk as you fly down through the levels you’ve visited. If you’re just barely holding on a crash will lose you everything, something to keep in mind. In the Normal mode you’ll still take a penalty of materials and parts lost but you at least won’t have to start again from scratch.


The road (or perhaps in this case flightpath) to success will be a challenging one, especially at the beginning as you try to get your bearings. There’s no doubt that both when it comes to the flying action and crafting there’s a bit of a learning curve. While the flight controls do make sense, and once you’ve got them down you can be quite effective, early on you’re likely to be a bit clumsy and perhaps a bit overwhelmed. Similarly, once you’ve got enough material and it clicks, crafting is absolutely vital and makes sense, but at first learning how best to be successful takes a few passes. Part of this ties to the choice to use the B button to advance rather than the typical A. I backed out of crafting more times than I can count just because of this small decision that’s counter to the norm on Switch. It’s something you can get past, but sometimes it’s small details that can be the most needlessly aggravating.


Overall, Airheart is easily one of the games I’ve enjoyed the most since the beginning of the year (which, for me, is still quite a number of games). It’s gorgeous, at times serene, and then knows how to get down to business with plenty of shooting action and nuance if you’re willing to take the time to get skilled at using your harpoon. The Switch version has a value add of a 4-player mode but it’s just that, a nice-to-have for a short while if you have some friends up for trying it out. The main attraction is very much the crazy mix of exploration, “fishing”, shooting, crafting, and a number of situations that will catch you by surprise and challenge you. While perhaps a little rough around some edges, I highly recommend giving it a try.

Score: 8.5

Pros:
  • A unique combination of exploration, action, and crafting
  • The ability to customize your plane with a large variety of components and weapons
  • You have the option to go full roguelike for the toughest challenge or tone it down depending on your tastes

Cons:
  • The crafting system takes getting used to, and the use of B to confirm or advance can be maddening at first since it’s not the system standard
  • As you get further in you’ll still need to start at the lowest layer and move your way up, a system to bypass those lower layers would be nice
  • The action can get repetitive, even though the enemies and overall degree of challenge continues to change