Fighter jet dogfighters honestly don’t get a lot of love. There’s an obvious king sat on the throne of arcade dogfighting games, the Ace Combat series, but the most notable flight games are usually set in WW2 or heavy duty flight simulators with a thousand buttons to bind across your keyboard. Sky Gamblers – Afterburner attempts to fill the plane-shaped hole in the hearts of Nintendo Switch owners, but with mixed results.
If you’ve or seen anything from the Ace Combat series, you’ve got a solid idea of the kind of gameplay you can expect out of Sky Gamblers – Afterburner. You dive into a variety open sky areas with one of many fighter jets, rolling, yawing and missile-locking your way to victory. Sometimes you’ll be laying machine-gun fire down on stationary targets like transport ships and relay towers. Other times, you’ll be battling drone planes or bandit pilots and twisting through the skies as you avoid their missiles.
If there’s one thing Sky Gamblers – Afterburner gets right, it’s that fast and frantic dogfighting combat. Planes control really well, and while they’re a bit more floaty or slippery than the realistic and weighty aircrafts of other games, that handling works in this game’s favour. It makes it easier to wrap your head around the concepts of things like stalling and barrel rolling, and provides a good entry into the genre for people who have never even tried playing a game like this before. Veteran pilots can bump up the difficulty to keep things interesting, though.
Unfortunately, anything outside of the main dogfighting is where Sky Gamblers – Afterburner starts to show its cracks. The game goes for a gritty and realistic look akin to the latest Ace Combat entries, but with a fraction of the budget and processing power those games were afforded. The result is a muddy, bland aesthetic that makes it feel like I was playing with all the graphics settings turned down to “low”.
Even the HUD elements, something I rarely get hung up over in games, are a bit of a mess. Health bars, enemy lock-on indicators, and directional pointers are all fuzzy and poorly designed. The bright green of your speed indicators are impossible to read whenever you move against the clouds, and the flat-yellow colors of the enemy indicators look like they’re straight out of an unfinished demo build of the game. The game could have easily gone for a more simplified and stylized aesthetic like fellow Nintendo Switch dogfighting game Sky Rogue. Instead, it shoots for the stars of a realistic art style and barely manages to leave the atmosphere.
The story also tries to do a lot with too little. The game has a brief, 15 mission campaign involving a military betrayal and rogue generals, but none of it is presented very well. Dialogue boxes are the only way the narrative is progressed and come with dry writing and groan-inducing jokes – the game loses a full point for making me read the phrase “Han YOLO” with my own eyeballs. None of the story scenes are voiced, the gameplay within missions rarely ties into advancing the plot, and there isn’t even any music playing during any of the missions to heighten the atmosphere. Everything is just dry, silent, and pretty awkward.
If you want to skip past the shoddy story, you can just hop into custom deathmatch games offline or online. It’s nice to have that option, considering pure gameplay is the strongest thing that Sky Gamblers – Afterburner has going for it. You can even customize the look of your plane with various skins and custom colors, as well as equipment upgrades and new weapons. There’s a wealth of customization here that’s really appreciated, even though your visual customization options don’t show up in campaign mode.