So for the past week or so I’ve been playing Airheart: Tales of Broken wings for PC. Airheart was released for Xbox One, PS4 and PC during the summer after a time in early access by developers Blindflug Studios. Airheart is a diselpunk inspired twin stick,top down, air plane shooter rogue like title that is set in the colourful world surrounding the floating city of Granaria. You fill the boots of a young pilot and fisher-woman wishing to reach the dizzy heights of the upper layers of the worlds sky.
The main character Amelia we learn from narrated stills comes to Granaria for a better life as the Earth’s surface is a dangerous place. She parts way with her dad as she travels up to the city in the sky and never sees him again. From her father she inherits his dream, to one day catch the biggest fish in the sky, the aptly named Skywhale who floats about in the highest layer of the sky. Catching the Skywhale would make anyone rich, so her dream and his before her really…is to get rich. So to finish his story and fulfill their dream she plans to catch the Skywhale and this is the only direction you get in the game other than a very short tutorial on how to fly, shoot and catch things with your harpoon. So I guess we better do some fishing now right?
The skies and Granaria
As you sit in the main menu you are met with three options and no other information – just a choice between the Hanger, the Workbench and the Shop. Nice and simple, no need for over egging it, the shop and workbench were self explanatory and the Hanger seemed the obvious place to go if I wanted to get in a plane and do some skyfishing… I really want to keep typing fly fishing.
In the Hanger It seems I can swap parts of my plane with upgrades once they are purchased or presumably crafted at a later time, for now I “launch” into the skies surrounding Granaria.
There is no denying that Airheart’s art style is charming, the combination of colours, the drawing style and the diselpunk designs combine really well and really capture the idea of this games world, or at least how I imagine it to be in my head at least. The idea that this floating city is the greener pasture that surface dwellers dream of going to and having a better life draws parallels to “the American dream”. When you get up there it’s not all sunshine, smiles and free meal tickets however. Just as our main character Amelia finds out, she needs to work hard just to get by…just like older retro games that give very actual story away you are left to embellish you own story in your head.
The soundtrack I feel also does a great job reflecting the pace and feel of Airheart, somewhat chilled out, not too fast paced and easy to listen to.
After a short tutorial you are set loose to discover how to play the game yourself, as I said earlier it seems like the prize I’m after is on the top sky layer, the Skywhale. It’s obvious that I can and will need to upgrade my ship to get there and it seems like fishing and pirate hunting is the way to get there. So I set off into the clouds once more and begin my journey to the top layer.
The first hour or so is fun at a relaxed pace. The first layer is a friendly zone which only contains a few AI planes competing for the best fishing in the area. Later on you access the second through stations that boost you up into the sky and things become increasingly more difficult. Pirates start appearing, the scenery is trickier to fly around, jellyfish slow your progress and fish get harder to catch. As they say without risk there is no reward, the higher and higher you go the quicker and quicker you realise you can’t drop down a later to relative safety – you can only return to base.
When you return to base you cash in the fish oil you’ve harvested from all those lovely skyfish and deposit any scrap you collected from derelict aircraft. Fish oil is the games main currency as it is turned into cash on returning to base, you need this money to buy upgrades for your plane which you can buy in the Shop section of the menu. There are loads of upgrade options, special abilities and cool weapons to buy up. The scrap you collected from shooting pirates you use to manufacture parts in the Workbench section which you can combine to create blueprints of aircraft parts, sounds great as those parts are pretty expensive in the shop.
I’d used my planes guns and collected weapons to deal with pirates, I used my harpoon to hook fish and loot and found I was getting the hang of the flying. The game is designed to be played on a pad with analog sticks but you can play on a keyboard if your are so inclined but it wont be quite as enjoyable.
Happy with my first few hauls I buy a plane upgrade or two, make some boxes and pipes in the crafting menu and set out again into the skies. This flight I went further and higher than ever before each time I go up I see the layers getting further and further away below me and this is where things got a bit crazy and some of the games drawbacks hit me. There were an absolute tonne of enemies to fight through on this layer, none of them were difficult to deal with one on one but it gets to a point where you are surrounded by more pirates than fish and them it happened, I got shot down, not for the first time. I had to crash land on the air strip on Granaria, only this time there were clouds everywhere and I hit a tonne of floating islands. I crashed into the desert then that message came up on the screen – GAME OVER.
Up until this point the game had been auto saving, so I didn’t know this was a permanent death game, one where if you die it’s the end of the save, no checkpoints. Some mistake I thought – I just personally destroyed an ecosystem through overfishing and murdered a few hundred pirates… all for nothing? I had to start the game again from scratch, from then on I looked at the game completely differently. I’ve played a number of permadeath games before and really enjoyed the added challenge that game design element brings, but here it made me just want to turn the Airheart off, I licked my teeth, grunted and loaded a new game, sat through the tutorial and started fishing again.
All in a days work
After my game over and loosing a few hours of “progress” elements of the game design started to grind on me, on the surface the charming art, music, slow relaxed play style and interesting game ideas hid an industrious grind-fest of a game that really had little going for it except a big fish. A roguelike piloting game quickly turned into a job simulator.
As you get higher and higher through the layers there are no check points, no forward bases to capture or anything like that, so when you need to cash in your fish oil you need to return back to your base at the lowest level and get some coins for those barrels of fish oil you’ve been aerobatically lugging around the sky. As you get higher, the rewards get better from new fish species but you also need to heal more often as taking damage from pirate becomes an inevitability rather than a matter of skills. In air collisions into objects or annoying pathing “friendly AI” planes means you have to keep a cautious eye on the structural integrity of your rickety looking aircraft. If your health drops to zero you run the risk of a crash landing and missing your landing area, forcing you to start over. Just a note – when you successfully crash land you lose lots of your booty, so even if you want to throw caution to the wind it will only draw the grind out even more if you fail to return too base regularly.
Healing as a result is really important, you can find health packs from destroying pirates or sometimes hidden in tree lines, as you need to be cautious you will find yourself returning to base A LOT. When you return to base your ship returns to max health once more, but once more you start at the lowest layer and so begins the tedium of flying your way back up layer by layer to where the best fishing is to be had. Rinse and repeat.
I’m no stranger to grindy games, I’ve played RPGS, MMORPGS and online shooter titles who’s progression systems and rewards are locked behind hours of punishing snail like progress. But that’s the thing, in those games there is a carrot called “progression” on the end of that long stick called “game play design”. With Airheart the only reward is more currency. You do a days job, you get more money, you buy better stuff. The next day you go out, do a little better and basically save. This turns from a game to the daily grind of life very quickly. The game starts off by promising the American dream and quickly turns into a rat race. Progression is something that makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside, you see your hard work pay off, story progression, cool equipment and prizes. In Airheart the only progression you get in a dubbed over screen shot every not and then and a healthier bank balance to invest in parts for your shit.
The crafting system has the potential to unlock blueprints for you to buy cheaper plan components, you can only discover what scrap combines through trial and error (I thought Amelia was a mechanic by trade?), I made a metal box! I made three metal boxes and combined them into a bigger metal box. I made six more small boxes, then made two more big boxes giving me a total of three big boxes than I combined into a even bigger metal box. Are you not entertained? I think Blindflug missed a trick and adding some much needed depth to the crafting system and the game as a whole, this was the potential of boss battles.
As you fight pirates in the clouds, you sometime come across “boss ships” – big mutli-part flying behemoths that are there to vary up game play a little. Just when you think things are getting interesting and you topple one of these meaty opponents you expect some sort of reward, but instead just more crafting materials. This collection of scrap from enemy aircraft becomes a chore more than a bonus and I quickly just started ignoring enemies rather than engaging them and the “boss” aircraft were little more than bullet sponges that were easily ignored.
Here is where my suggestion would come in. Each boss aircraft could have a voiced captain, that exchanges a few words with Amelia giving you an actual reason to fight them other than “they’re pirates”, a bit of banter goes a long way and this could flesh out the story in the process. Pirates are also known to collect treasure, unlike the pirates in game who just shoot people. Blindflug could have had the boss ships drop blueprints to be used in the above mentioned dull craft system. That way you would give the player a reason to fight the pirate bosses, a reward for fighting the pirate bosses and a focal point for a progressive crafting system..there is that elusive carrot again. If you want to make it grindy, make it grindy but make sure there is a damned carrot to entice the player. If I learned I could make some sweet ass lading gear after defeating a pirate boss by collecting nuts and bolts from 60 busted pirate planes I would be out there still gunning them down.
As it stands however there is not reason to fight pirates other than for scrap which is basically just a second currency, so after a while I stopped as it was slowing down my one-woman mission to rid the sea of all fish. Biodiversity be damned!
This isn’t the end of my problems with the game design however, I quickly became annoyed – maybe unjustifiably – by the other friendly fishing planes ramming me continuously and the damned police aircraft that would turn on you if you so much as bought a pack of bacon at your nearest supermarket. I took more damage from supposed friendly ships than the damned pirates! I quickly turned to a life of piracy myself shooting down other fishing vessels and stealing their fish oil while kiting the poorly equipped police aircraft around the map until they buzzed off. My third permanent death came after having a fishing plane pin me between itself and a rock – smashing my health bar in seconds. I fell to my death cursing that fisherman and turned the game off.
By this point, the game looked and sounded great, however every game play design irritated me more than it should because I knew that after dealing with all these little annoyances all my progress would be taken away by one single crash landing. Permanent death didn’t make this game more challenging, it made it less enjoyable.
Collecting my thoughts
I’ve ranted a lot, please don’t let that take away that Airheart is genuinely fun to play at first and something I could return to at a later date.
Airheart looks and sounds great, the controls are fun once you get to grips with them and there are some nice upgrades available for you to make your aircraft more and more formidable. The setting and story had scope to be much more than it eventually turned out to be and a great idea fell flat quickly.
The upgrade system is a shop, the crafting system could have been left out all together and not impacted the game and the story is better in your head than unfolding on screen. I’m fine with a game allowing you to interpret the story yourself, I’m fine with having no training wheels, I’m even fine with permanent death if done right. But what I can’t stand is playing a game that is a grind for the sake of grinding and for all its promising features and initial impression that’s what Airheart boils down to, a grind.
Amelia in one scenes aptly and proud as punch utters the words “I can catch that skywhale no matter the cost” and yes she can, the cost will be about ten thousand barrels of fish oil and hours of your life that you wondered what you did with.
If you want a game to chill out with maybe playing every now and then just to work towards the dream of catching that big old Skywhale then pick this up when its on offer, but if your expecting something more you will be left disappointed by Airheart as there is little else going for It.