Aces of the Luftwaffe: Squadron Review
PCAlso available on Nintendo Switch, Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One
The scrolling shooter is a tough genre to refine these days. Arguably, it's heyday was decades ago when the likes of R-Type and Gradius solidified the tropes of the genre - piloting a ship armed with multiple power-ups featuring homing, rapid fire and slower but stronger weapons and screen clearing bombs. In years since, experienced shooters looking for harder and more varied challenges were met by games like Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga , each offering up fresh nuances while also helping to define and popularize the concept of the bullet hell shooter. So, in 2018, with a history of increasingly complex and challenging games in the genre to compare and contrast against, what is Aces of the Luftwaffe: Squadron bringing to the table?
Immediately upon launching one of the game's twenty five campaign missions, you'll be met by not one plane under your control, but four. Kind of. You'll still be controlling one vehicle, but the rest of your squadron and potential multiplayer partners are right there alongside you, firing and flying as you do. Each pilot has a specialization, be it mobility, healing or damage and in turn each of them handles a little differently. It's a nice way to differentiate between players a little in a genre that otherwise rarely does, but I can't help but think that few would pick the character with greater mobility over the one that kills enemies faster.
With that, we've ran out of gameplay concepts unique to Aces of the Luftwaffe: Squadron. From here out we're into standard scrolling shooter territory, so much so that I reckon those experienced with the genre could read "it's multiplayer 1942" and get everything they need from those three words, but for those less experienced or those that are curious to know more regardless, I'll go on.
Those tropes of the genre I mentioned already? They're all present and accounted for. Blowing up enemies occasionally reveals weapon power-ups that come in the flavours I mentioned before, obliterated enemies occasionally dropping score boosting collectible medals instead. In each level one enemy will also drop a skill point, used between stages to upgrade characters with a fairly standard assortment of weapon strength power ups, increased ammo capacities and new triggered abilities that can replace the ubiquitous bomb, although most of them ultimately amount to variations on the bomb, unfortunately. I'm not sure it adds to the fun, having to wait through a few levels before getting any distinct abilities for the pilots, and dividing the skill tree between four characters seems like a great incentive for players to pick a favourite and spend everything on them.
Each pilot also has a hindrance of some sort that will take them out of action or otherwise challenge you mid-mission. For example, a rowdy American stereotype incarnate, Johnny is prone to bouts of rage and will occasionally give a warning before flying off on his own and firing at anything in his path, including you. Alternatively, Melissa, the mechanic of the group, is inexplicably afraid of heights and will fly away, off screen when the squad ascends. They're scripted moments and as such wont provoke any unexpected woes at random, but they feel too much like arbitrary delays in action, with the solution to each problem being simply to wait until the pilot in question pulls themselves together rather than being able to proactively do anything about the situation.
The levels themselves feature the usual fare of descending enemies of varying sizes flying and firing at you, though in each sortie there is a side mission available and a chance to earn an extra skill point. These side missions feature tasks like dropping supplies by hovering over spots on the slowly passing map until a bar fills and you can move to the next one, saving people by similarly hovering over them or simply destroying a given target. They're not all that tough for the most part but provide some absolutely necessary variations on the theme of "shoot the enemy, avoid enemy fire".
Visually, while there's not a huge amount of variety in terrain or enemies, they are brought to life with a pleasing art style that serves the game well. The enemies themselves comprise of an assortment of generic fighter planes and bombers alongside a few more fantastical designs like zeppelins and flying saucers. It's clear that outlandish depictions of imaginary German tech from other media such as Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2 and Iron Sky have influenced these more outlandish designs and they're very welcome alongside the bland cannon fodder, it's just a shame there's nothing truly outstanding or unique on show.
A final mention has to go to the voice acting and writing Aces of the Luftwaffe: Squadron offers up. Power up descriptions and the skill tree in particular include phrasing that doesn't seem to have been proof read by a native English writer and can require a tiny amount of interpretation as a result.
The campaign mode is fully voiced and absolutely tries to bring a little more to the table than a vast majority of scrolling shooters, but that ambition is let down by the same translation issue and the choice of voice actors. At first, upon hearing the characters speak, I had to wonder, am I as a player controlling a member of the Luftwaffe? You see, the voice cast are German playing American. And boy did it confuse me for a few moments. Hearing Johnny, described and drawn to be a cowboy archetype, lamenting "the Krouts" in a German accent was so absurd it provoked a good hard laugh. The same goes for the rest of the team and their commanding officer - everything spoken comes out with slightly unnatural intonation and comes off strangely as a result. It seems to have been done earnestly though, so much so that it's hard to tell if the makers of the game might have their tongue firmly pressed against their cheeks and know that they're courting a little well meaning mockery by having American characters with German accents angrily swearing vengeance against against all Germans.