The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces
by Vanor Orion

It has taken me over a month to finish typing this review. It has taken me another month to getting around to editing and sending the review in to Polly. I could say it took so long because I've been busy hanging out with friends, having to deal with family-related stuff, looking for a job, playing other videogames (like Strange Journey and Monster Hunter Tri), and trying to finish off reading Trigun and wondering why the fuck it's taking so long for the next volume of Ghost Talker's Daydream to come out.

But the truth is that everytime I renewed working on this review, I became possessed with a deep-seated rage that would make even the most vulgar and violence-prone Norse Berserker's blood run cold. I would literally type two or three paragraphs and then stop because I was beginning to swear up a storm as I typed each sentence. It's not that Sky Crawlers is merely bad. No, it's that I wanted very badly to like this game, and just as I did, the game did everything in its power to kill its good qualities with horrible gameplay implementation. I looked for things to like about this game, but as you're about to see, not even being the recipiant of a lobotomy will castrate your reasoning ability enough to find any redeeming qualities with this title.

Just to give you some context, I love Ace Combat. As far as console flight games go, there's literally nothing that comes close. So many games in this genre miss out on the blistering simplicity of Ace Combat. The series is to airplanes what Gran Turismo is to cars. The games are beautiful, the action is fast, and the controls are silky smooth (well, save for Ace Combat X, but that's another review).

So here we have a game by the same developers, except its a tie-in game for an animated movie about an alternate timeline Earth where companies wage war with each other so that countries don't have to.

Wait, what? Well, let's allow the game's instruction manual to explain:

"After centuries of war, the world has realized absolute peace. But to truly make people feel at peace, staged wars are fought by corporations. You, as the main character, are enlisted in the Rostock Corporation, a war commissioning enterprise that has just welcomed a batch of new recruits into their ace squadron. Appearing as mere children, not even the officers at the base are able to hide their confusion at these new recruits. Just who are these mysterious youths...?

One girl stands out among the rest. Maumi Orishina. In the sky that is reflected in her eyes, the dogfight of aces begins!"

Oh man...are you fucking kidding me? This setup is already so patently [REDACTED]ed I doubt that even the writers for Sliders could have thought it up. Do I really need to go into blistering detail to explain everything that is wrong with this game's story? Ya know what, we'll just come back to the story here in a little bit, but I would like to first go over the game's good qualities before I move on to the bad...

The music in this game is very very very good. There's not a lot of it, but every damn track is excellent, and fits in well with the game's atmosphere and will really get your blood pumping during dogfights. The game also looks pretty decent. I'd say it's above-average on the visual quality of a Project Aces game. Everything looks pretty photorealistic (clouds and oceans are definintely eye candy), and there's a lot of attention to detail. Planes will start trailing black smoke when they've been shot up, for instance. You can customize your planes and it will alter its appearance. So all-in-all, not bad on the visuals.

Well, that was all this game had going for it, a good soundtrack and nice visuals. Sadly, those alone cannot prop up everything else about this game that infuriates me more than a fucking raging Rajang chugging a Mega Juice.

It's still not as pissed off as I am right now.

First, the biggest glaring issue this game has is with its controls. Oh yeah, you could argue that this tends to be a problem with a lot of games on the Wii, but with Sky Crawlers the sheer fucking scope of this issue is so pervasive and incendiary that it very rapidly goes from inciting "apathetic grunts of disdain" to "epic levels of rage conveyed in a strongly-worded letter to the developers asking them what the fuck they were smoking" with the player real damn fast.

This game has seven, count it, seven control schemes. The Wii controls alone have five schemes, whereas the Classic Controller and Gamecube controller (yes, this game uses all three) have their own static, uncustomizeable controls. And somehow, despite all these controller options, every single fucking one of them has some kind of flaw that marrs them from being even remotely user friendly in the same way that the controls on any given Ace Combat are.

Seriously, this game has seven control schemes and not one of them is worth a damn! Did I just at some point wake up in an alternate universe where video game developers do not know how to fucking program videogames?
Okay, okay, okay. Keep it together. Alright, deep breaths...deep breaths. Okay. Let's carry on.

The problems with the controls is that there isn't any one control scheme that conveniently or even remotely matches up to the control scheme of any prior Ace Combat game. Now, the thing you have to understand, is despite this game not being called "Ace Combat", and the fact that its using 1930s-40s-themed aircraft, this game pretty much controls like Ace Combat. Or it would if the controls were not so fucking irritating.

On the Wiimote side of things, we have several control schemes that use the motion controls to maneuver the aircraft, and I find this method of control very cumbersome because you have nothing to work against--like if you were trying to use a flight stick--which is what this scheme is so desperately trying to emulate.

The alternative schemes use the Nunchuck's analog stick to control the plane, and this works better, but what ultimately sinks this control scheme is that, unlike every other Wiimote control setting, this one lacks the ability to yaw. Every other control scheme allows you to yaw, except for the one that most people would probably prefer due to it being the remotely closest to the PS2 controller layout. This is the closest this game comes to having a "good" control scheme, but the lack of yaw utterly guts it.

Now for those of you out there that may be wondering just what the hell I'm talking about, well, "yawing" is when you make a gradual horizontal turn with your plane while keeping it level. Basically you are turning the plane without having to make a roll. It's very useful in Ace Combat for flying with finesse. It's especially useful for attacking ground targets where rolling to turn is too cumbersome to attack targets with any kind of precision. Yawing on the other hand allows you to fine-tune your angle of attack and drastically increase your efficiency when it comes to attacking ground targets, and when you're adjusting your aim against aircraft.

To put it succinctly, yawing is a subtle yet highly important aspect of controlling your aircraft with any kind of precision, and not having the ability to do it, or not having the ability to do it with ease, essentially cripples the player's ability to fly their aircraft to the best of their ability, especially when one considers that the game's AI pilots you have to fly against don't have that handicap to contend with.

Well, you might think that the Wii controls are too limited or awkward to replicate the PS2 control scheme, so you might say, "surely the Gamecube or Classic controls are better suited to that task." And well, in a universe where developers code their games with some degree of logic or fucking consideration for the player, that line of reasoning would be seen as logical. Unfortunately, the reason why the controls worked so well with Ace Combat on the PS2 was because of the R2 and L2 buttons. With both the Classic Controller and Gamecube controller, accellerating and braking are mapped to the L and R buttons. That leaves the yaw controls mapped to the fucking control pad. With the Gamecube controller, I can sorta understand this, but with the Classic Controller, there is no fucking excuse! What the hell are those Z-Left and Z-Right buttons for?!

Oh it gets fucking better! Instead of using those buttons to control yaw, the only way for you to manipulate the camera controls for your plane in midflight is to hold down the Z-Left button and then use the right analog stick. Jesus-fucking-shit Project Aces WHAT THE FUCK HAS HAPPENED TO YOU? Did Tom Clancy slip you roofies and steal away with your good developers to help him make HAWX?!

Now, the reason why these controls are so majorly ass-backwards is because the developers tried to implement a new gameplay mechanic that hasn't been seen in any of their other games: Manual Tactical Maneuvers. Basically, the developers of the game must have thought that the people that played their game were too stupid or didn't have the reflexes to dogfight, so they built in a system where the player can highlight a bunch of preset maneuvers and then pick one, upon which the plane automatically performs so that the player doesn't have to do anything.

Sure, this might useful for getting some enemy fighters off your back, but honestly, was this even necessary? It feels tacked on and pointless. It contributes nothing to the flying, other than to make me feel as though the developers think I'm too stupid to fly a fucking plane. But of course, you have to use the right analog sticks on the Classic and Gamecube controller to select these maneuvers, which effectively takes up buttons that could have been put to better use in a flying game that didn't have castrated flight controls and physics.

Oh, I haven't even fucking scratched the surface of this bullshit. Another thing that makes me furiously scratch the back of my head in bafflement is that's not all there is to the Tactical Maneuvers. If you keep your plane in close range of an enemy fighter for a long enough time, a gauge slowly begins to fill, and once it reaches a minimum level, you can automactially execute a Tactical Maneuver, which maneuvers the plane for you until you are lined up directly behind the bad guy, and pretty much all you have to do is pull the trigger and shoot them down.

Okay, okay. I can sorta understand why they implemented something like this. Because of the whole retro-old-school plane vibe this game has, there's no missiles or anything too high-tech, meaning that most of the flying is essentially gunplay and pure dogfighting. But surely to god the developers could have thought of a better way of flying your plane than just shoehorning in a gameplay mechanic that pretty much plays the game for you and becomes little more than a "I-win!" button for almost every engagement throughout Sky Crawlers. Almost. Like everything else in this review, I'll get back to that load of horseshit in a bit.

And this isn't one of those cases where I can even make the argument that you can choose not to use it, because Project Aces surely wants the players to fucking use it, because at the end of each mission you get graded on how much it got used, and believe it or not, if you don't use it at all, you get a poor score. I cannot believe this. Never in my life have I played a game that actually rewards you for not playing the game. The game actually penalizes you for not wanting to make the game too easy. It'd be like if you were cheating off the classroom moron during a test, and then the teacher catches you cheating, but instead of flunking you, the teacher gives you a fucking A+, even if you got all the fucking answers on the test wrong! I mean, this mechanic breaks the game right from the word go!

So basically we have two very huge extremes with this game's controls. On the one hand the controls are poorly implemented and makes flying imprecise at best, and maddeningly frustrating to wrestle with at worst during certain parts of the game. On the other hand it really doesn't matter because all you really have to do to win just about every dogfight you get into to is to stick close to the enemy long enough for the "I-Win" gauge to fill up enough and then just let the fucking computer do all the flying for you, leaving you to just pull the trigger and take the credit!

And do you wanna know the worst part about this? There are like upwards of 20 fucking planes to choose from in this game, with their own unique parameters, handling, and can even be customized with parts to improve their performance. But thanks to this automatic flying mechanic, it completely renders all of that pointless. Literally. You could throw in the fucking Y-Wing bomber from the first Rogue Squadron into this game, piloted by Mr. Chicken and pit it against Darth Vader in his Super TIE Fighter, and even if Mr. Chicken spent the whole dogfight screaming bloody murder flailing his arms about in absolute stark-raving panic, he'd still come out on top thanks to the fucking Automatic Tactical Maneuver!

Seriously, he would win!

And that's exactly what happens in this game. There's one mission where the game forces you to use the shittiest, slowest, most-difficult-to-handle plane you would otherwise never use, and then has the fucking audacity to then have a bunch of faster planes swarm you, and despite all that I still shot them down with little difficulty. This isn't fun. This isn't exciting. This sure as hell isn't challenging. Ace Combat 4 threw Yellow Squadron at you, Ace Combat 5 had the Ofnir and Grabacr and racing Captain Hamilton (OMFG SPOILERZ) down that shaft, and the entirety of Ace Combat Zero was just one huge fucking adrenaline rush of badass dogfights with ace pilots that really did give you a fucking run for your money. This game offers nothing like that. All it does is serve as a fucking tie-in for an anime I've never seen, and honestly do not want to see after playing this game.

And it's not just the fucking controls. The physics of the game feel...wrong. It's hard to describe, but maybe part of it can be ascribed to the fact that these are WWII vintage aircraft and they aren't fighter jets. Oh, but I know one thing I can bitch about that definitely makes flying and dogfighting a major pain in the ass: Wind sheers.

The wind will buffet your plane around from time to time, and you have gauges to indicate wind sheers, and you can even use it to help fly your theory. The reality is that the wind makes this game even more aggravating than it already was to begin with. Heavier planes are knocked around less, but it still interferes with your accuracy when it comes to shooting down aircraft in dogfights, as though it wasn't already a big enough issue. The worst though is that there is one particular mission where the game forces you to maintain a constant speed flying at low altitude in a canyon, and you can't throttle up or slow down too much. Normally you can kinda speed up and it kinda mitigates the wind sheers somewhat, but in this mission you can't do that, so you wind being knocked about by the wind and several times I kept getting knocked into the canyon wall, ending my mission. Oh yeah, and exploding my plane. This was actually the point where I very nearly quit the game, but god help me I'm a trooper, so I pressed on despite how playing this game was like bashing my frontal lobe in with a mallot.

I don't get it. Why, when the flying was already such a fucking issue, did they decide to just throw in some wind sheer bullshit into this game? I mean it looks pretty, but in more ways than one it just makes the game even more aggravating that it already was. I mean, I don't buy Project Aces games for realism, I buy them for the fast-paced, white-knuckle action. If I want to play a realistic flying game, I'll play Combat Flight Simulator, thank you very much. Simulation elements have no place in my action-arcade title, especially when they're horribly implemented as they are in Sky Crawlers!

So okay. I've spent over twenty paragraphs bitching about the gameplay. What more can I possibly say about Sky Crawlers? Oh, I know, how about the batshit fucking [REDACTED]ed "holy god my mind is melting" ridiculous story?! Oh god, but where do I fucking begin? You all just don't have any fuckin idea how batshit schitzoid this game's story and its characters are.

For starters, let's talk about the world of Sky Crawlers. It takes place in an alternate reality 1930s Europe, and it has to be a fucking alternate reality because apparently everyone in Europe is fucking Japanese in this game! What the fuck! It makes no sense. Did the Japanese have a mass immigration from their homeland in the 1800s to come to populate and and become the world's dominate ethnicity by this time? Or is this just the Japanese only making a movie for the Japanese and ignores other cultural perspecives? All I know is that the world of Sky Crawlers could easily be summed up by that scene in The Pest where John Leguizamo looks at the batshit neo-nazi guy's globe and it has Germany written over every country ("The United States of Germany," fucking seriously).

Oh god, my head hurts. This is why I love Shin Megami Tensei: The developers are not ignorant of cultural influences other than their own (See: Just about every game they've ever fucking made). But I digress.

Anyways, as I stated already, the game is about companies that "stage" warfare to remind people to not take peace for granted. I don't have the words for how insipid and redundant this is. But no, it gets even more stupid, as though it weren't already stupid enough. So okay, people actually volunteer to do this. They get paid, obviously, but there is like no benefit to doing this at all. Apparently they all wanna do it for the thrill of flying, but these "mock" battles are actually using live ammo, and if you get shot down, you don't have an ejection seat, and you fucking die, which makes me question what the hell motives these pilots have for flying.

And then with all this stupid being thrown at the player, the game decides to pile on the [REDACTED]ation by throwing in this angle of your squadron's latest teenage pilots being "kildren" lkajalkjda;kjadklja;jakdjklajdkl; ajkd akdj adkj adkj akdj aksdj kadj kadjfkj adsfkjads;jfa---


*deep breaths* Okay. Okay. I got it under control. So, I'm not really sure if the "kildren" are supposed to be clones, or if it's like Soldier where they're raised from childhood to be nothing but killing machines, or what. All I know is that it's fucking stupid and contributes nothing to the game's story other than to cause friction between the other non-kildren (yet-equally pointless) fighter pilots.

So you got your "salt-of-the-earth" squad leader who gets shot down early on in the game, leaving you in charge. Your requisite "salt-of-the-earth" base commander who gets replaced by the requisite "slimy-untrustworthy-caricature-of-an-obvious-villian-who-will-ultimately-betray-you," and his brown-nosing obese go-between who is a dead ringer for his modern day counterpart on Sand Island in Ace Combat 5. And among the fighter pilots, well, they don't matter because they don't get much development, and the kildren are all fucking cardboard cut-out stereotypes: You got the "innocent" female pilot who just wants to fly for the thrill and wants to square off against someone better than her. And then you got the stuck-up snobbish ubermensch fighter pilot who looks down on his own teammates, to the point that it creates friction with his non-kildren squadmates.

And the parade of illogical idoicy just gleefully marches along from there. So the game goes through the motions: You're put in charge after your squad leader gets shot down, and then your base commander is replaced by Mr. Slimy, sending you on illicit missions while showing little regard for the squad's lives. One of your teammates who I will call "Mr. Compassion" starts getting really pissed at Kildren the Snobby Ubermensch. Mr. Compassion hates that Mr. Snobby and Mr. Slimy are showing no regard or respect for the lives of their squad. In the meantime, Miss Innocent becomes your friendly rival but gets her chance to square off with you in a mock battle cut off, eventually pushing her over the edge to defect to the rival company, where she becomes their best ace figher pilot, just on the hopes of getting square off with you again! God damn I'd hate to see this young lady profess her love for somebody, cuz she'd probably challenge them to a god damn knife fight or duel in order to see if they wanted to return her love just as much!

In the meantime, Mr. Compassion finally blows a gasket with Mr. Snobby to the point that he actively tries to shoot Mr. Snobby down during a mission. And at this point the game orders me to shoot down Mr. Compassion. THE CONVERGENCE OF RADICAL STUPIDITY HERE CANNOT BE ADAQUATELY CONVEYED IN MERE MORTAL FUCKING SYNTAX!!!

So okay, who the fuck am I supposed to root for, or for that matter care for at this point of the game? Fucking nobody! That's who. Mr. Compassion doesn't have to fucking fly in this squad, or even fucking fight in these mock battles for that matter. If he doesn't like how he and his fellow pilots are being treated, just get the fuck out! And likewise, I don't care how good Mr. Snobby is, any real military unit with half a fucking brain would have fragged this snivelly little shithead once they realized his attitude wasn't going to improve. There must be cohesion in a unit. Everyone must be on the same wavelength. Okay, maybe they're trying to paint Mr. Snobby as some kind of elite pilot ala World War 1 figher aces, but even then, those guys had a sense of honor and chivalry, and for the most part were not assholes. Even their own enemies liked and respected them.

This is what really boggles my mind about this game's story. The Ace Combat games had a theme. Shattered Skies was cool because you got to see the rival figher squadron, and they weren't portrayed as Snidely McWhiplashes. They were portrayed as real human beings. Likewise, you can take potshots at The Unsung War for being preachy and overly-dramatic, but at least in that game I could understand what the story was going for, and I could respect it (even if the execution left a little bit to be desired), and at least I could get behind the fucking characters. The Belkan War on the other hand, was the total reverse of Shattered Skies. The story was a documentary about "your" exploits throughout the Belkan War told via the ace fighter pilots you shot down, which was really damn cool. And again, they weren't portrayed as two-dimensional badguys.

So what the fuck am I supposed to take away from the story in Sky Crawlers? Nobody behaves like normal people in this game, and even when they do (like Mr. Salt of the Earth Squad Leader), it just feels completely wrong due to the context of what they are doing. They're trying to act like there is some honor in what they are doing, but there is no honor, because there's no real point to their missions. They're just getting paid to fight in mock battles that serve no real purpose. If anything else, they're fucking mercenaries. In fact, now that I look at it from that viewpoint, Mr. Snobby is fucking right, you're a god damn mercenary, and it's eat or be eaten, so it's hard for me to sympathize with Mr. Compassion, which is probably why I didn't feel too bad about shooting him down.

And then not long after that, Mr. Slimey defects to the other side and tries to steel a super battle blimp you had to defend from attack a few missions before. Oh but naturally Mr. Snobby defects with him, and you have to shoot him down to reach the Battle Zepplin, which gives you just a taste of the shit sundae that the final mission has in store for the player. By this point, you have to fight Mr. Snobby, only the thing is up to this point in the game, you've been relying on your Automatic Tactical Maneuvers to shoot down fighters down, but now the game throws a curveball at you: Clouds. Mr. Snobby will fly into the clouds, and the HUD will lose track of him...meaning you can't do your ATMs to shoot him down while he does that. So now you have to actually rely on flying with skill since the "I Win" button's effectiveness has been neutered, but of course, since you can't really fly with skill because of the controls working against you, this fight becomes really irritating, rather than really exciting.

After you manage to send Mr. Snobby to Hell to give Jek Porkins flying lessons, you get to do battle with Mr. Slimey, who is flying the Battle Zepplin, which is naturally this game's "superweapon" that you tend to come across in other Project Aces games. Naturally you have to do the fight in stages, destroying its defenses, hitting its weakpoints, and naturally having to be careful to not be thrown off by the god damn wind sheers, and finally you shoot the piece of shit down, and it's over.

Well, not quite. There's one last mission: Participate in a decisive showdown with the opposing company in a purely air-to-air battle royale. For the first few minutes, this might be the most satisfying this game ever gets, because after all the stupid horseshit this game has thrown at you, you don't have any objectives, it's just go Neo on the enemy fighters.

And then Miss Innocent shows up to have a final battle with you. And naturally she wants to be fair about it, so she tells the other fighters to leave, and basically you have an old-fashioned duel with her in the skies near an isolated island castle of all things. And of course, if you thought the hide-in-the-clouds bullshit was bad enough with Mr. Snobby, Miss Innocent takes it to a whole other level of lameness. Her plane is very fast, takes a billion hits to go down, and she has a tendency to very quickly do a 180 to try and play chicken with ya, guns blazing away all the while. Naturally, with the wind and the controls working against you, scoring hits consistently on her is really fucking hard, especially since it takes so much to shoot her down. By contrast, she can perforate your fighter very quickly in just a few shots, which is really fucking lame since naturally the computer isn't going to have the same accuracy problems because it isn't having to work with shitty controls. More than ever, having easy access to yaw would have made this fight a lot more fair. And to top it off, you have very little time to shoot her down, so your ass better have the best upgrades for your plane, and be fucking relentless, or as relentless as the controls allow you to be.

It's at this point that it finally sinks in how fucking stupid the whole "tactical maneuver" idea was. It essentially promotes the player to play with training wheels on because the actual wheels on their bicycle are too warped to ride on with any sort of skill or finesse. And then at the end it's like they decided to boot the player out of their bike and onto a motorcycle with bent-dick solid rocket boosters instead of training wheels. You get the same effect, only it's much noticeably worse now.

Anyway, you finally shoot her down, and the final cinematic plays, and really, you have to ask yourself: What the fuck was the point of any of this shit? At the end of Ace Combat 4, 5, and Zero and even X, I felt a sense of accomplishment, a sort of "Fuck yeah!" followed by some thoughtfulness as the game's final cinematics made us reflect on what the game was about. But not with Sky Crawlers. There's no sense of accomplishment because you'd have to feel empowered to actually feel like you accomplished anything, and this game does everything in its power to castrate the player's empowerment. And likewise there's nothing of substance to reflect on, except to think about how much booze you're going to need to make you forget about the fucking void in your life that this game has created by playing it!

So in summary, this game looks good, has a really great soundtrack, both of which are wasted in a game with shit controls that are insulting to toddlers, and one of the most assbackwards bizarre and totally ludicrous stories I have ever seen in a videogame with its impossible-to-sympathize-with-characters. Ya know what? If you ever find yourself desperately craving an airplane fix, my advice would be to just play Top Gun for the NES, because while the game is mind-numbingly simplistic by today's standards, at least it's still less-insulting to the intelligence than Sky Crawlers is.

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