Booting up Aces Of The Luftwaffe: Squadron for the first time it will inform you that “The following persons and events are fictitious. Any resemblances to actual events or actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” When these events consist of Nazi German forces – spearheaded by giant UFOs and flying steam trains – invading New York, the chances of them having any resemblance to actual events is incredibly unlikely. This top down vertical shoot ’em up is a few sandwiches short of a picnic, is missing some bricks to make a load, and definitely doesn’t have enough cats for a clowder. In short, Aces Of The Luftwaffe is off the chain bonkers.
Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to make your way from the bottom of the screen to the top, blasting away hordes of Nazi flying machines in the process. The gameplay that Aces offers is standard fare, the type you’ve seen in a hundred shooters or more, with just a few small differences to freshen things up a bit.
First off, you actually control four planes that fly in a diamond formation. The lead vehicle is the player’s and if it bites the dust, thanks to the many, many bullets shot every second at it, then a life will be lost. The other wingmen will only be punished by being unavailable for a short period of time before returning to the fray. It’s an effective mechanic, providing some seriously intense screen fireworks as the quartet of fighters acquire dropped power-ups to launch a plethora of missiles, flames, laser beams and electro blasts at their foes.
Then there’s the pilots themselves, who are all hindered by an individual weakness which makes them amongst the most unsuitable candidates for aerial combat the world has even seen. There’s Mark Taylor, who suffers from random bouts of sickness caused by poison, forcing the player to have to move slowly so that Mark can regain control of his stomach, while Steve Davies has a severe case of narcolepsy, resulting in him falling asleep at the flight stick. The player must then protect Steve until he wakes up. Veteran fighter John King is afflicted by psychotic episodes in which he breaks off from the squadron to fly around the screen in a rage-filled haze, exploding friend or foe upon contact. Finally Mellissa suffers from the most ridiculous ailment of all: acrophobia. That’s right, if people whose job it is to fly planes do too much flying planes at height, then she’ll leave combat for a period of time.
The pilots are also all hampered by some of the worst voiceover acting my ears have ever had the misfortune to experience. They’ll all witter away to one another during missions. but fortunately these segments can mostly be skipped.
Their ailments – the ones that have an impact on the gameplay that is, not the screeching dialogue – initially serve to break up the combat and change the style in which the player approaches it, forcing you to switch from offense to defence. Initially this works well, but it’s a device that’s overused by the developer and soon become repetitive over the six chapters that make up the game’s playtime. Issues of repetitiveness aren’t helped any by certain bosses that soak up so much damage that it is necessary to play through earlier missions again and again to collect medals and level up your crew.
Whilst the abilities the pilot’s gain are fun, granting healing properties or smart bomb attacks amongst others, the grinding required to gain them is not. The individual missions that make up each chapter are far too short and limited to sustain recurring play and soon become monotonous. Even the option of playing the missions on harder difficulty does little to alleviate the tedium. Perhaps those with a higher skill level than myself might be able to defeat the bosses without having to replay the same handful of missions ad infinitum, but for the rest of us? We can only prepare ourselves for the grind.
The actual gameplay itself is smooth and responsive. Aside from an inconsistent issue with flame attacks, hit boxes are well defined and you’ll find yourself being able to dodge through bullets with confidence. The aforementioned flame attacks launched from certain enemies are woolly however, and can soon cause your fighter to explode despite not making contact. There’s a terrific co-op mode in which up to four players can each take control of a plane and it livens up the problems with repeated play immeasurably. The only issue comes from the scripted moments of character ailments, forcing the player to sit out for the majority of a mission whilst their pilot drifts off to sleep or flees because they’ve done too much flying.
Aces has a wonderfully charming and chunky Advance Wars aesthetic to its graphics. It’s odd to find Nazi jets cute but that’s how this game makes me feel. Animation is also to a high standard throughout, planes barrel roll to avoid bullets, humongous flying metal eagles flap with gusto and giant zeppelins gracefully explode as they descend to the ground below. In fact, the graphics did such a good job that they keep me playing long after the frustration caused elsewhere would have seen me quit.
Aces Of the Luftwaffe: Squadron does a lot of things right over its short duration. Tight gameplay, small innovations to the shoot ’em up genre and terrific local co-op. Unfortunately, the grind to level up characters and lengthen the playtime turns what was once fun into a tedious and frustrating slog.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4
Also available on Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC