Budget titles were indie games 30 years in the past. I can imagine myself picking up Airheart: Tales of Broken Wings for a couple of bucks on a cassette for my Commodore 64, as this top-down twin stick shooter would certainly fit the bill for the price range of the time. I can almost see the cassette inlay too, with a chubby airplane airbrushed among clouds, catching fish while dodging enemy bullets.
Not that Airheart is a retro game. It just has such a thick old school mentality all over it. The game isn’t presented in retro pixels either, as it boasts colorful cel-shaded graphics. As for the unique premise, you could ask did I really mention airplanes, fishing and bullets in the same sentence? Yes, I did. Airheart’s protagonist, Amelia (a cartoony Maisie Williams-type when we see her at her desk), is a pilot and an air mechanic by day and a fisherwoman in her spare time, a handy mix of trades as the fish in the game’s world fly up in the air, over several sky layers. In practice, you’ll be doing lots more sorties for skyfishing rather than fixing up things.
Beyond brief tutorial, Airheart doesn’t nudge its players into any direction. You are given a hazy main objective (Amelia dreams of catching a mythical sky whale up in the highest sky layer) and off you go. That’s very old school. Back in the day, all you had was a brief overview in a game manual and the rest was up to you, pretty much like in Airheart. It turns out the game is heavy on grinding. You catch fish to earn oil to buy better parts for your plane to brave the upper stratospheres with busier air pirate activity. Of course, the fish is also more valuable the higher you go, so the vicious circle is made complete.
The overall feel is quite laid-back but the higher you go the pirate activity becomes more aggressive. No one’s after especially after Amelia’s blood as the sky is crowded with other pilots too, equally harassed by sky pirates. Amelia’s plane is equipped with a weapon of choice (or two if you allow wings with an additional weapon slot) and a harpoon which can be used to catch enemy planes and smash them against small floating rocky islands, and to rip parts off enemy structures or steal equipment from enemy crafts. The police airplane keeps some sort of order but if you accidentally scratch it while fending off baddies, it will return fire with no questions asked. Crash landing is something you really want to avoid. If you can’t hit the home base with your plummeting plane but instead smash headlong into the desert, it’s a blunt game over. No recovery to a previous auto save or anything, you just have to start from the scratch as all progress is lost. Again, just like in the old days. If anything, the perma-death teaches you to be cautious. If your plane gets damaged, it’s better to initiate the landing before it’s punctured full of holes.
Downed pirates leave all sorts of scrap behind, used to craft things in Amelia’s workshop. The crafting isn’t tutored at all so it’s all down to experimenting with different parts to come up with something useful (my first successful invention was… a metal box, to be used in a more advanced crafting). Amelia has schematics also for those plane parts she has bought, and given that all the materials are available, she can craft and sell them. It’s nice that you can have an air plane bolted together from parts of several designs but as a result it can look anything from funny to terrible. Also, the parts you purchase (chassis, engine, wings and weapons) are not only statistic boosts but more importantly they affect the gameplay. The more pricey parts allow smoother and more refined controls, and a sturdier hardware to challenge high sky pirates.
Airheart is a small-scale, likable and charming game, but there’s not much going for it. It doesn’t reward or motivate the player during its course with anything extra, nor is there anything to measure the progress with. It's always the same loop; you start from the first sky layer and fly higher layer after layer, and then return to the base after getting enough damage. Eventually you'll reach higher layers at each go when the plane can take more punishment but still, it's the same process over and again. There's no linear progress. Some boss fights try to spur things up but they lead to nowhere either, being almost shrugged off. The eco message of overfishing leading to gray sky layers with polluted fish feels misdirected. Really, what other options do you have than skyfishing here?
It’s completely up to the players whether they want to invest in Amelia’s daily chore or not. Maybe the game should be perceived as something of a snack, taking it for a spin once in a while. After all, each flight is as short as you want it to be. Give it enough time and maybe one day you’ll catch the mythical sky whale. In doing so, Airheart tries to teach it’s not the goal that is the most important but rather the everyday life and work you make around while going for it.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.