Aces of the Luftwaffe – Squadron Review – PC

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I grew up in the arcades and one of my favorite vertical scrolling shooters of all time, even to this day, is Xevious, a top-down game that had you firing at alien aircraft while simultaneously bombing alien ground targets. Even 36 years later, if I see a Xevious machine tucked in the corner of a bar or bowling alley it’s definitely going to eat a few of my quarters. Aces of the Luftwaffe – Squadron tries to capture some of that 80’s arcade magic with their own approach to top-down bullet-hell action, but in their attempt to give the game more purpose much of the core essence of what makes this genre so addicting has been lost.

In 1982 we didn’t need a story to sink dozens of quarters into a machine; just challenging gameplay that would eventually kill us but still give us hope we could get just a bit farther on our next attempt. Aces of the Luftwaffe – Squadron has a competent shooting gallery at its core but wraps that core with layer after layer of story and gameplay systems we neither expect nor need in a bullet-hell game. While some of these oddities are interesting and even amusing the first few times, it all starts to get old halfway into this 3-4 hour game.

Aces of the Luftwaffe – Squadron does offer cooperative play for up to four players but is just as fun playing alone with the computer controlling the other three planes.   To that end there is a cast of pilots with histories and personalities and all sorts of radio banter during the missions, most of which is skippable with a press of the B button. You have your token black guy, token female, token big dude in a hat with a steroid addiction, and the suave blonde leader who happens to be German, ironic only because we are fighting the Germans in what turns out to be a fairly involved story fed to us in artistic story panels between missions.

In addition to the endless banter of our four heroes, each pilot also has their own “condition” you need to deal with. You have one pilot afraid of heights, or rather changing heights; another was poisoned as a child and has occasional bouts of sickness, and another goes into brief periods of rage, and another keeps falling asleep at the stick. These ailments pop up about once per mission and require you to protect the inflicted pilot while still shooting everything out of the sky.

In addition to clearing the sky of enemy aircraft there are plenty of collectibles. You have the occasional airdrop crates that power up your weapons through multiple degrees of severity, and larger enemies and bosses will leave behind medals that you can collect and use to level-up your squad and earn skill points that can be spent in the Skill Tree between missions. While I did enjoy the concept of the skill system in an arcade shooter, it was way too easy to earn enough points to purchase all the skills so no thought had to go into what to buy.

Another cool element of the game was the secondary objectives for each mission. Some of these were easy while others proved a bit more challenging. Several missions had you diving low to rescue survivors or airdrop supplies or even scan key locations for clues. This process requires you to hover over an area while a meter slowly fills, and being down low enemies can sneak up on you faster. There are even escort missions where you must protect a plane by shooting missiles out of the sky or even using your plane as a bullet shield for incoming fire.

Scrolling shooters like this always seem to work better on vertical screens so you have more awareness of what’s ahead, but Aces of the Luftwaffe – Squadron does a pretty good job of having many of the enemy waves spawn from the sides of the screen. With the exception of a few bosses that touched the top and bottom of the screen, most of the combat was pretty fair. In fact, I would say this game is perhaps too easy at times. The first time I lost all my lives was during the second-to-last boss fight, which had me fighting a pirate airship that was randomly flinging out this anchor that could one-hit kill me. But that was only a hint of the absurd difficulty spike of the final boss in the game who will remain undefeated. After 20 minutes of attempts I just uninstalled the game before I had to uninstall a controller from the screen on my TV.

Aces of the Luftwaffe – Squadron lacks the challenge and replayability of those classic arcade games where you had scores and leaderboards to chase. You’ll probably play the story once and maybe break the game out for a game night party session – the four player co-op is cool – but sadly there isn’t much replayability here.   By nature of design, the gameplay is mindless and repetitive and more about reflexes than strategy, despite the inclusion of the skill tree and even the ability to unlock and assign new planes to your squad.

The presentation is one of the game’s best features with some truly entertaining visuals that include artistic story panels and colorful game graphics that feature crisp, detailed primary objects juxtaposed against softer environmental background art, giving you a nice sense of altitude. Enemy aircraft designs were great, especially mid-sized enemies like the blimps, and the screen-filling bosses were off the charts crazy. The character art was outstanding; especially for the creative villains during boss fights. The voice work was good even if the dialogue was cringe-worthy, and the music really set the mood for both narrative and action.

Despite not being able to finish the game I did enjoy most all of my time playing it. The skills and medal collection seemed like superficial padding, trying to make this game something more than it needed to be, but even so, Aces of the Luftwaffe – Squadron is a competent shooter that should appeal to any fan of the genre.

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