REVIEW: Airstrife: Assault of the Aviators

Feb
26

REVIEW: Airstrife: Assault of the Aviators

Exactly how many bullet points can you give a game?

Released: Steam
Type: Singleplayer, Multiplayer
Genre: Action, Shooter, SHMUP
Developer: Kenisoft Game Studio
Publisher: Kenisoft Game Studio
Release date: 26 Feb, 2021

SHMUPs are among the oldest of genres, arguably starting with Spacewar!, or at the very least Space Invaders and despite its age there are still people who are finding new ways to spice things up. Airstrife ditches some of the old mainstays of the genre, like score attack modes and limited lives and instead has a greater emphasis on persistent upgrades and a story campaign.

Genre veterans might need to go in with an open mind, as Airstrife really is unlike anything else on the market. Even something like Tyrian, which shares Airstrifes persistent elements, plays very differently. And even though this game ditches mainstays like lives and limited continues it’s hardly a pushover.

Probably not a coincidence that that plane looks a bit like a Japanese Zero fighter

Story & Setting

It’s 24 years in the future and the world is in ruin. What remains of humanity is barely hanging on, but even so war is as always inevitable. You’re a member of the Royal Ace Faction (RAF), a private army that specializes in aerial combat. Even though the RAF is comparatively well equipped and well trained it’s still lacking a lot of advanced equipment and technology, as well as basic resources. The RAF is lead by the three principals, who guide it in its hunt for valuable resources and lost technology, but as you’ll soon learn, things are not as straight forward as they might first seem.

Story has never been something that SHMUPs tend to put a lot of emphasis on, and while Airstrife has more story than most, it’s still mostly there to explain why you’re being sent out to fight. It’s even a bit messy in how it’s told. Before each mission there’s a paragraph of text explaining what’s going on and what your mission is, but it seems to leave out a lot of context and it’s not always as easy to follow as it probably should be.

This is the largest lore-dump in the game

Presentation

Depending on who you ask Airstrife they might either find Airstrife to be a bit sparse looking, or like a SHMUP where you can finally see what’s going on on screen. Airstrife lacks the over the top explosions and screen filling effects that you often see in these types of games, and instead goes for a slightly cleaner look akin to something like 1943 than the later Raiden games.

Airstrifes pixel art is really good looking, particularly the backgrounds. There’s a fare bit going on in these backgrounds, but not so much that it looks cluttered, and in a way the backgrounds tell more of a story than the games story itself. How post-apocalyptic they look varies a lot though, from region to region.

There are a lot of different planes, all with their own unique look

Most planes in Airstrife are realistic looking and seem to be based on real world planes. These run the gamut from pre-World War 2 designs up to modern planes, and there’s a good attention to detail with how these planes look and animate. They might not be entirely realistic in this regard, but they animate in a way that works well for the game. The planes (and their bullets) also stand out from the environment and are easy to spot. There are some bosses that don’t look like they would be able to fly though and which are clearly made up designs. That’s not a criticism of the design, even though they do stand out a bit among all the somewhat realistic-looking planes.

The game sounds pretty good as well. The pixel art is the star of the show, but both the music and the sound effects are good and fit in with the games style. The music sounds like something you could very well find in an arcade game from the early 90’s, which fits well, and the sound effects are good at giving feedback without being too overbearing. There are some voice clips that play during the game though, like when you take damage, and these are repeated a bit too often, to the point where they get annoying.

The backgrounds are quite varied and there’s usually a lot going on, and yet it never feels like it gets in the way or make things look cluttered

Gameplay

At first glance Airstrife might not look like anything special. Apart from the rather wide playfield it does look like another 1943-like game, or like a slightly less hectic Raiden Fighters-clone. But looks can be deceiving.

Unlike the genre norm you’re not just playing through a series of levels with no pause in-between, instead after you’ve completed a level you’re brought back to the hangar. Here you can chose if you want to play the next level, go back to play an older one, play one of the optional side levels and upgrade your planes. It’s also here where you can, with the blueprints that you find in the side levels, research new weapons and even new planes.

Each level is a couple of minutes long and you need to go through it with one life. If you die you need to restart the level, there’s no mid-level checkpoints. The levels themselves work like most other vertical scrolling shooters, that is you’re moving up, and enemies will be flying towards you, trying to shoot you down or crash into you, and you need to kill these enemies while dodging their bullets and them. But what makes this game a bit more strategic than many other games of its kind is that your plane has more than one hit location. If any hit location gets destroyed then you’re dead, but if say your right side is taking a lot of damage, then it might be worth trying to approach enemies in such a way that your left side is the one that gets more exposed. You do of course want to avoid taking damage altogether, but if you need to take a risk that might end up with you taking damage then it’s best to do so in such a way that a single mistake won’t kill you. Crashing into enemies is generally lethal though.

How does this thing even stay up in the air?

Killing enemies is important because not only are you removing potential threats, who can return later, but you’ll also earn money that you can later spend on upgrades. The game is not so stingy with money that you need to kill everything, but it encourages you to take some risks as flying in where you can hurt the enemies also mean that you run the risk of getting hit by their attacks.

Every new area has its own mostly unique set of enemies, and while these usually function similarly to those in previous areas, they get progressively more dangerous and also get more health. The helicopters that fly across the screen in the first area behave the same way as the ones in the 3rd area, but the difference is that the ones in the 3rd area can take more punishment. But even so there’s a good amount of enemy variety.

Enemies are not the only varied thing though, your planes can also differ a fare bit. While the trend is for each new plane to be more powerful than the last, different planes can also allow for different weapon configurations, so if you find one that you like it might not be worth upgrading just because the next one has slightly better maximum stats. Some even differ a bit more than this, helicopters, which are of course not actually planes, feel significantly different to use compared to regular planes.

The backgrounds often end up telling more of a story than the story segments

Movement feels a bit sluggish though. Horisontal movement is somewhat slow, but manageable, but vertical movement feels a bit off, which does not work too well with some of the enemy and bullet patterns. It’s hard to correct if you find yourself at the wrong part of the screen, and this also results in a bit of trial and error, as you don’t always know where you should be until you’ve attempted the level a few times.

Enemies can take a fare bit of damage in Airstrife, probably a bit too much. Even when keeping up with upgrades, always using the most powerful weapons available, and getting all the blueprints in each area, most enemies feel like they can take a few too many hits on Normal and even on Easy the bosses take a long time to beat. This is extra bad as your hitbox is slightly bigger than one would expect after having played other SHMUPs. The larger hitbox is likely a result of how your plane has different hit locations, but it makes avoiding collisions with enemies surprisingly hard. Which is made even worse by some of the movement patterns of certain enemies that swoop in from behind if you can’t destroy them fast enough when they first appear on screen, and the indicators for where these will show up seemingly indicating where they would be if they were starting 1/5 a screen a way. The player’s plane is also a bit on the slow side, which makes dodging enemies even harder.

No-one said that it was going to be easy…

Closing Thoughts

The store page for this game sure has a lot of bullet points! And they’re mostly true, although I would question their claims about this being a “souls-like”. A game would have to do more than just be challenging to be a souls-like. And the part about this being more realistic, well, that’s a very relative statement. More realistic than most SHMUPs? Probably. Realistic? Absolutely not.

Airstrife is a game with some issues. While it has great pixel art, sounds nice and has a lot more going on than the average SHMUP there are still some things that hold it back from being great. The hitboxes and the slightly too durable enemies make it a bit frustrating to play at times. Fans of the genre who are looking for an interesting twist on the formula might still want to give Airstrife a try as it is refreshingly different, while still being familiar enough to be easy to jump into. Just go in expecting a few rough edges.

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