You may be aware of the EpiXR games that appear on the Xbox Store every month. Sometimes called Paper Flight, other times Murder Diaries or Life of Fly, and very, very often Aery, these are all variations on the same theme. You slowly – ever so slowly – fly around 3D environments hunting for feathers, lights and balloons, watching a tally tick down as you do. A soothing soundtrack plays and you are lulled into a floaty sleep.
Over years of reviewing them, we’ve given the same feedback: it would be lovely if things changed, even just a little. The games share environments and models between them, which we’re sure makes sense from an EpiXR point of view, but makes for a hugely repetitive experience every month. The gameplay doesn’t shift much, if at all. And, almost like clockwork, each game will find a new way to be broken. We’d huff and put our controller down after each review and wish they’d just slow down and fix the damn things.
Paper Flight – Beyond Time keeps many things the same. It’s the same Paper Flight gameplay as all the other Paper Flight games: nothing’s changing there. There are still game-breaking bugs – sigh! – which we’ll divulge a little later. But, you know what? Something significant has changed. And it’s for the positive, too. It’s about seven steps forward and six steps back, but you know, it’s progress.
You can likely see the difference in the screenshots. Paper Flight – Beyond Time is surprisingly, confusingly, gorgeous. An art director over at EpiXR Games has somehow convinced his execs to try something new: a 3D modelling style that looks really rather lovely. It knocks The Lord of the Rings: Gollum into a cocked hat. We even flew around levels like an ancient elven grove and wished we could spend more time there, perhaps even hopping around as a Necromancer in Diablo.
Gone are the sharp, blocky polygons that have defined the series. In their place are detailed (on occasion) levels that hold up to scrutiny. There are caveats, sure – there’s a decent amount of pop-in, and some levels are bleached out to the point of being hard to look at – but the quality bar has been shifted up more than one notch here. This is a fidelity revolution.
It comes with a bizarre ‘but’, though. While the levels are glossy and pretty, they are identical in layout to other levels in the series. A homely, Christmassy living room is ported directly from Paper Flight – Speed Rush, down to the individual placement of baubles on the Christmas tree. Clearly someone has painstakingly improved every last present and briefcase, but then replaced them where they were, like they were recreating the Ship of Theseus. It’s like EpiXR had faith in their art team to improve everything, but not to make new levels.
Which gets us into a speculative theory based on absolutely nothing. Is it possible that AI is involved? We apologise in advance to artists who likely slogged through creating these beautiful areas, but since this is a filter applied to already existing levels, you do have to wonder if a generative robot got involved. But we digress.
Paper Flight – Beyond Time, then, becomes an exercise in ‘familiar but different’. You will have played almost all of these levels before (an elven grove and medieval palace were the only ones failing to ring bells), in exactly the same layouts. But they do look dashing.
Everything else is exactly the same. Oh, actually, not everything: Paper Flight – Beyond Time comes with an attempt to shoehorn a story into the Paper Flight template. It doesn’t work in the slightest. Apparently, your paper plane is a time-traveling hero, out to stop an invasion of alien balloons before they take over our timeline. It plays out a bit like Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?, as you arrive in a time period and slap your knee because Carmen – sorry, the balloon lord – has already moved on to the next era. It’s ridiculous and awful, and desperately needed a tongue in the cheek. It’s played pretty straight and gave us a few giggles.
The gameplay is still as conceptually faulty as all the other Paper Flight games. It made us wonder why they went for a graphical overhaul on this series, of all things. It’s the worst series they have, in our humble opinion, but they keep persisting with it.
In each level are some balloons, now dazzling in their brightness so you definitely can’t miss them. You float towards these balloons and pop them so you can build up a ‘charge’ bar. Also in the level are demon-horned balloons, and you have to pop each of these to complete the level. But you can’t pop them in the same way as the generic balloons: you have to tap A and use some of your charge, ramming them into oblivion. With all of the demon balloons gone, you get another wave, then another, and the level is done.
Why is Paper Flight the worst of the EpiXR IP? Firstly it’s hellishly slow. That’s common to all their IP, but the others come with a speed-up button. In Paper Flight – Beyond Time, you only get the charge bar, and since you want to conserve that charge for the enemies, you are moving at sluggish speeds throughout. Secondly, the demon balloons are washed out and dull, making them incredibly hard to spot. The developers clearly think this is a good thing, so place them next to areas where they camouflage. So, you’re moving very slowly around rooms, halls and groves, looking for the last balloon which has been hidden from sight.
Thirdly? The wave structure means you’re searching the same areas over and over again. You might think you’ve exhausted every nook and cranny of a pirate captain’s cabin, but then Wave 3 hits, and you’re scouring it again. It’s flagrant game-lengthening for the sake of it, and it makes us sad in our faces.
You likely want to know about the bugs. This time round, we get a BOGOF deal. There’s a game-breaking one in the twelfth level. You will crash incessantly, and no amount of uninstalling and reinstalling will sort it. We’re yet to complete it, but there is word from the Trueachievements forums that some have managed it. You might be lucky. There’s also a new bug, because EpiXR like to find new ones with each game. The paper plane is positioned differently on the screen in each level. It was attached to the frame of the game screen on a couple of levels, and meant that we had to aim above balloons to pop them, not actually hitting them in the visual sense. It’s not a gamebreaker, but it is definitely something that should have been spotted on a QA pass.
So many steps forward, so many steps back. We’ve tallied them up, and we think Paper Flight – Beyond Time (just about) emerges into the black. A complete graphical overhaul works wonders and bodes well for all future EpiXR floating games. But the magic wand has been wafted over all the same levels, and then someone has tripped over and broken a level or three.
Paper Flight – Beyond Time is a good-natured attempt to reinvent the franchise, but it doesn’t half feel like someone gave up halfway through that attempt.