After spending some time up in the skies within the wonderful flying city of Granaria, I’ve come to learn a few things. First of all, I’m still not sure if I’m supposed to be fishing or living the life of an airborne pirate, but one thing is for certain, with every take-off my plane is becoming stronger thanks to an abundance of new parts, and my quest to find the legendary mechanical skyfish that hides within the sky has been one that’s provided a steep learning curve. But now I am ready to tell you all about it… all whilst my protagonist for the adventure, Amelia, has a much needed rest.
The adventure I am telling you about here is the one you can expect to find if you jump into the recently released indie adventure Airheart – Tales of broken Wings. It’s fair to say that those who decide to do so won’t be disappointed.
If you’ve yet to hear of Airheart, it’s without a doubt one of the most unique titles to arrive on Xbox One in recent times. Throughout the game you take on the role of Amelia, a young pilot and aspiring fisherwoman living in Granaria with hopes and dreams of reaching the world’s edge and finding the legendary mechanical whale. Getting there is no easy task though; in fact, it’s almost a distant dream. See, before she can hope to get to the edge of the world Amelia must first tend to her day job – sky-fishing – a job that has become terribly dangerous in recent times with pirates roaming the skies. It is however necessary with the world’s economy run by it, so you need get those engines running and get out there… your future depends on it.
Airheart is played from a top-down perspective with an aesthetically pleasing diesel-punk design making for a truly fabulous environment. The mechanics are a combination of action and rogue-like features, whilst every single level is built on-top of the one before it, all the way up to the lofty stratosphere.
Each level consists of a population of flying fish and various pirates out for the kill. Your job is to hunt the flying fish to earn precious fish oil via clever use of the provided fishing harpoon attached to your plane, whilst also destroying the many pirates in the skies in order to gain access to parts that can be attached to your ship ready for the day you head out to hunt that legendary catch.
As I mentioned before, every level in Airheart is built on-top of the previous one, with progression seeing Amelia climb higher in the sky. As this climb takes place, the difficulty becomes a lot harder as the value of the precious skyfish increases along with the pirates presence. Lower levels will certainly offer plenty of fish early on, at least until you’ve caught them all, but if you want to progress at anything other than a snail’s pace, you’ll want the elusive fish higher in the clouds – the ones that bring in the big bucks and allow you to buy the best parts for your ship.
Going to the higher levels however is where the risk versus reward system comes into play. The reason for this is that any ‘death’ in Airheart is permanent, and should you take too much damage from enemy planes, the security protection in the skies or from the environment, you’ll soon find your plane in a downward spiral heading for the ground. With clever guidance you can at least avoid death should you crash land into the floating island housing Amelia’s home and garage, which will allow you to keep any progress made, but miss it and you’ll find yourself heading towards the ground with no chance of survival for you or your progress. As you may expect, it’s not too difficult to gain a crash landing in early levels, but as you go higher, the challenge to land on that tiny pad begins to increase.
Of course, whilst the risk is high, so is the reward and latter levels come with a much higher difficulty with increased pirates. The price you’ll get on those fish is definitely worth its weight in gold if you’re not too shabby in the cockpit though.
What’s interesting with Airheart however is just how different the key gameplay mechanics are, and how well they actually work together. When fishing, players can either fly into fish or fire their harpoon into any that decide to run, allowing you to catch their helpless souls, but as soon as a pirate appears and bullets come in your direction, you can immediately be switching from some peaceful fishing to all-out war in seconds. Even after several hours with the game this has always been something that feels engaging and fresh, even if higher levels do see more time fighting than fishing.
While the core gameplay is definitely unique when compared to any other title we’ve seen, one thing that feels all too familiar is the long-winded grind that comes from saving up for better parts. It’s all well and good allowing players to jump straight through the sky gates to higher levels as soon as they are unlocked, but doing so early on can see you destroyed before you’ve even got your bearings of where anything is in the new level, especially when your plane isn’t yet ready to withstand the damage dished out by the enemie. This of course means whether you like it or not, you’ll have to spend a fair bit of time going over levels you’ve already completed, and if you end up being unexpectedly taken down in this time, you’ll need to add yet another attempt to the list in order to earn enough coins to get the parts that will allow you to go that little further each time.
What makes the grind feel a little longer is the fact that besides the early cinematics, there is very little story to be found to pass the time or recognise progression in Airheart. This means that besides finally seeing your plane equipped with the very best parts and weapons out there so you can go hunt the elusive mechanical whale, there is very little to motivate you to keep going.
That said, if you’re someone who can enjoy games without any real narrative and don’t mind a grind, then there is plenty of fun to be had with Airheart. It comes with beautiful cartoon-y visuals and a diesel-punk design that truly showcase a beautiful world, and the unique blend of strikingly different mechanics go well together to create a unique and mostly enjoyable experience. For some, the grind, lack of continued narrative and difficulty curve will be a little off-putting to say the least, but at the end of the day, this is a rogue-like experience that brings an original adventure and a decent challenge that will keep you going for some time.