2014’s Luftrausers is correctly regarded as an indie arcade classic, with insane plane-‘em-up bullet hell action and an addictive ‘just one more go’ appeal. It’s fun, for sure, but it can be a little overwhelming and intense, and it seems with this in mind, Infinite State Games have designed Rogue Aces to be a similar, yet more measured, variation on the 2D airplane shooter. Scale back the aerial bombardment on the senses, give players more structured missions, and you get a game that allows you much more time to breathe, and yet I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing or not. Is breathing overrated?
The game is visually reminiscent of Advance Wars’ colourful and cartoony sprites, and this also lends itself to the comedic tone that’s prevalent throughout Rogue Aces. Missions are given to you by a 1940s-era British toff, and all the Red Baron-esque nemeses you’ll face are your stock ‘camp British villain’ (so I guess we Brits are at war with ourselves?). It’s all very ‘pip-pip, tally-ho, chocks away’ stuff, apart from the main protagonist you control who is, of course, played by the heroic American (God bless ‘em).
The meat of Rogue Aces sees you taking off in your plane and undertaking missions as you fly over a procedurally generated landscape, dog-fighting with enemy planes as you go. The game is billed as a ‘rogue-lite’, but each level is about as procedurally generated as a fingernail. You might get one of those weird white dots as it grows every now and then, but largely it’s the same fingernail it always was. Rogue Aces will produce the odd change in the height of the landscape, a different number of tanks or boats, and sometimes it’s dark, but there’s very little variety each time you fire up the game.
It’s a very easy game to pick up and get into, which is lucky considering that the tutorial is incredibly barebones and vague. You’re told to press B to take off, but this only ever seems to work that first time… during the tutorial. It took me a good half-hour to realise that the right analog stick is used for throttle control and is needed to take off. I also had no idea I could land on and capture bases until I did it by accident, which also unlocked the main gameplay mode: Frontline Campaign. Before this, I was just flying to and from an aircraft carrier getting one mission at a time assuming this was the entire game.
Turns out it was basically the entire game though. Frontline Campaign starts you off on a world map set up in a grid formation, with your task being to get from one corner to the opposite one, liberating islands as you go by destroying specified targets and capturing the island’s main base. So rather than having to go back to the aircraft carrier for each mission, Frontline Campaign just gives you a list of stuff to blow up and sets you on your way. Until you run out of missiles or bombs, of course, as you’ll need to return to base to stock up again once your stingy amount of firepower is depleted.
This is an okay idea in theory, and makes sense that a plane couldn’t carry unlimited ammo and fuel, but the level of strategy it actually creates devolves into little more than boost your plane from the base to your target, drop all your bombs to blow some, but not all, of it up, boost back to base to refill your ammo (and repair your plane), rinse and repeat. Shot down enemy planes will occasionally drop upgrades that last through your entire campaign, and these will allow you to carry more ammo and have better armour, acceleration and turn speed, but very seldom did I feel equipped well enough to make a decent bombing run on any of my targets.
It’s a shame that Rogue Aces seems so intent on holding you back from the fun, because it can be a very decent way to spend a few minutes. The throttle control mechanic is actually pretty sophisticated for an arcade-like game, and takes some mastery before you’re effectively out-maneuvering enemies with any grace. Sadly, this is almost a smoke and mirrors mechanic to paper over the fact that enemy plane AI is largely poor.
Rather than acting as their own entities, all the enemy planes will act very much like under-10’s in a soccer game where every kid chases after the ball at the same time. To outwit enemy planes, you simply need to fly straight for a few seconds before performing a 180, which will see you greeted by a completely straight line of enemy planes that can be taken out with one rocket. You never feel like you’re being caught in any coordinated attacks full of realistic tactics, or seeing enemy planes do anything other than blindly mirror your exact movements to a laughably predictable outcome.
Throughout the Frontline Campaign, your avatar will be chased around the map by a powerful plane piloted by one of those sneering, camp chaps I mentioned earlier. They provide the biggest challenge in a game that does get surprisingly difficult as you progress closer to the end goal. To this point, I’ve never managed to complete a frontline campaign, largely due to lapses in concentration or greed causing me to accidentally slam my plane into the ground, or not pay attention to my damage levels before getting shot down by a tank or boat. After several hours of doing nothing but the same bombing raids on the same buildings, restarting a level again felt more like a chore than anything else.
The reason I mentioned Luftrausers at the beginning of this review is because it’s a game I’d not really given much time to since I picked it up in a Steam sale a few years back. For research purposes (naturally), I fired it up to compare it to Rogue Aces, and it’s surprising how the little things that Luftrausers does in its one standard mode gives it more replayability than a game boasting a good deal more content.
Aside from the numerous permanent upgrades Luftrausers offers, it’s that game’s healing mechanic that ensures the whole thing flows seamlessly. Simply letting go of shoot to heal your plane offers a level of risk/reward to the game, and keeps the action flowing in a way that Rogue Aces sorely lacks. For once your missiles and bombs are depleted, or your health is low, you will be going back to base, which can be a good 30 seconds away at times – and that’s only half the journey before you’re back in the action again. There’s usually a base at the level’s mid-point that you can capture and subsequently depart from, but it’ll take several trips back and forward before it’s liberated. It’s this constant enforced downtime that really kills Rogue Aces’ attempt to be the sort of thrilling experience that Luftrausers effortlessly personifies.
Rogue Aces is a game with a nice sense of humour, cheerful graphics and solid flying mechanics, but it’s one that sorely lacks the type of depth or continued variation to keep you interested for longer than five minutes. Unfortunately, when the main campaign mode is designed to last about an hour, the slow pacing, predictable AI and constant backtracking really start to drag the game into monotony. The core of a fun game is there, but the fun is merely fleeting when it really should be relentless.