When I was younger my grandad used to take me fishing at our local reservoir. He told me that it would be a relaxing way to spend a Sunday afternoon. I was excited to catch a fish and thrilled at the prospect of fighting with the rod before pulling a big fish in that I could then hold up in the air while my grandad snapped one of those cliché ‘big catch’ fishing photos. It turns out that we really just ended up sitting there for most of the day freezing and wet, anticipating that slight yank of the rod that would always turn out to be nothing. We came away with zero catches at the end of the day, and after a few repeat visits, I decided to call it a day.
Honestly, I’m going somewhere with this story. Just bear with me.
What would have made my fishing trips better? Maybe putting fish in the sky and giving me command of a plane to chase them down? It sounds batty and, well, it is, but we play video games because we like to do things we could never do in real life. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world where fish swim in the sky, but you’d think that an imaginative world where this is the case would be a thrilling game to play. At least I hoped it would be more thrilling than a wet and windy day at a dull reservoir.
I can’t say that Airheart: Tales of Broken Wings beats fighting with the rod when you finally do get that catch, but it helps that it throws in thousands of bullets, explosions and the fact that you can play it in your warm living room.
Combining the frantic pace of a twin-stick shooter with fishing is a combination I never thought would happen, but for protagonist Amelia, it’s just another daily grind. Journeying up from the sands to make her fortune in the skies, Amelia settled in the floating city of Granaria. Unfortunately, she’s stuck living on the underside of this marvellous floating island, where she must scratch out a living with her trusty plane and its onboard harpoon. She has dreams of catching the mythical Sky Whale that makes its home in the highest level of the sky, but first she must work her way up through layers upon layers of colourful sky fish, layers of sky that also happen to be dominated by murderous sky pirates that will do whatever it takes to send Amelia crashing back into the sands.
After a brief tutorial that teaches you the simple controls of the game, you’re launched into the first layer of the sky and left to your own devices. Pay attention here, because it’s an extremely good idea to remember what you learned in the tutorial. The game won’t remind you again and it won’t really explain any other elements that you come across during your playthrough either. But, for now, you’ll be treated to a vibrant environment dotted with lush floating islands and brightly coloured sky fish.
It’s a charming looking game, and as you journey through the layers of the sky you’ll be able to look down below and see everything you left behind to see just how far you come, and just how far away the ground is. It’s a great sight until you accidentally smash into a rock and end up plummeting down through everything you’ve worked hard to fight your way through.
The controls sound simple, but you may quickly find they can be quite frustrating. Steering the plane is done with the right stick and control of its turret is handled with the left. Hammering R2 will fire your weapon, while a hit of the L2 button will fire your harpoon to allow you to catch those pesky sky fish. It’s easy enough on paper, but the plane flies awkwardly and firing at the same time can lead you to wildly misfiring. This is especially apparent when trying to fly through tight spots or trying to catch a sky fish by hitting it with your harpoon. It’s worth noting that you can just fly into the fish to catch them, but some of them move so fast that the harpoon is often your only option.
The control of each plane becomes even more frustrating when you realise what you’re up against. The first layer of the sky passes without much incident. All you’ll have to do here is catch as many fish as you can before other sky fishers catch them. The second layer introduces sky pirates, which you can happily gun down before they do the same to you. It’s fun to blaze away at oncoming pirates, but it’s not fun when you accidentally hit one of the other sky fishers and the sky police come flying in firing a gattling gun that will quickly dispatch your wings. In these early levels, it can be easier to just fly away, as it’s highly frustrating when you take a pirate down only for a stray bullet to hit a guy who was just minding his own business, upon which all hell breaks loose. This issue is more sporadic the higher you go, but it’s just replaced by something else even more frustrating.
I forgot to mention that Airheart is a roguelike. Die in the game and it’s game over for good. Thankfully, the game does give you a few ways out before it gets to that. It starts to warn you when your health falls below 10, reminding you that you can hold down on the d-pad to fly back to base and sell the haul of sky fish you’ve painstakingly collected. Lose all your health and you’ll start to crash land, but you can save yourself by successfully manoeuvring your plane to crash land in Granaria. Unfortunately, you’ll lose some of your cargo and some of the upgrades you’ve worked hard to purchase, but at least you won’t have to start again.
Permadeath is expected in roguelikes, it’s part of their so-called ‘charm’. While death can leave you frustrated, simply returning to the base has the same effect. If you’ve made it through 10 layers and decide to return to base to sell your sky fish haul, recover your health and buy some upgrades, be prepared to do all those 10 layers again. Then again, and again, and again. This rinse and repeat formula quickly gets repetitive, and as the fish population depletes in each layer you’ll be forced to go higher each time, blocking you from easily grinding to better upgrades. I’m not saying that it should be an easy ride – roguelikes never are – but doing the exact same levels over and over again isn’t a great deal of fun. At least a lot of roguelikes mix it up by introducing randomly generated levels.
For each layer, you’ll have to remember where the portal was to get to the next layer, but if you’re like me you’ll quickly forget where each one was due to the confusing layout and waypoints that only appear when you get near to the portal. It leaves you aimlessly wandering around before stumbling into a group of pirates that promptly pepper you with bullets. The bullet hell output of a handful of pirates and the almost impossibility of being able to swiftly move to avoid bullets means you’ll often get back to where you were before through gritted teeth, a lot of repetitive shooting and, likely, not very much health. Then it’s back to your hangar to repeat it all again.
You can’t even rely on the narrative to keep you interested in this repetitive formula. The story is drip fed through single scenes every four layers, which is nothing more than a picture and short voiceover. It’s a bare-bones story that won’t have many people yearning to reach the Sky Whale to see the conclusion.
The game does try and mix it up a bit by including a crafting system. Blow up pirates and you’ll pick up loot such as scrap metal and gunpowder. You can combine these materials to create your own inventions in the workshop. For each recipe, you’ll have to figure out a small puzzle of combining the correct formula of materials to discover a new invention. It’s a neat little system that prompts a bit of head-scratching.
You can also upgrade your plane with new weapons, parts and even a new chassis, improving your plane bit by bit so you can go through the same layers you’ve just spent twenty minutes fighting your way through. The money earned by catching sky fish pays for this, although I did find that catching these fish got harder in the higher layers simply because you spend so much time trying to survive the hundreds of oncoming bullets to worry about catching a flying fish. When I did finally break free to catch some fish, I found that I’d accidentally killed half of them during my firefight with the pirates. Finally, both weapons and parts can be quite pricey, so if you do end up crashing back onto Granaria you need to be prepared to slog through lots of tedious grinding to get them back.
Overall, Airheart starts out more exciting than sitting next to a reservoir fishing for real, at least for me, but it quickly becomes about as repetitive and frustrating to the point where you feel like giving up. Plus, you don’t get the added bonus of being able to cook a juicy catch at the end of the day (although it’s not like that ever happened with real fishing for me anyway). But as I never went back to real fishing, I also doubt I’ll ever go back to fishing in the sky.
If you like a roguelike that gets more brutal the further you go in, Airheart may be for you, but I just don’t think there’s a whole lot of content worth going back for, again and again.