“All blood runs red.”
-Painted on the side of the plane flown by Eugene Bullard in WWI
I hope you can appreciate my surprise when I discovered that Skies of Fury DX was originally Ace Academy: Skies Of Fury, a mobile game on iOS and Android. If you can’t, don’t worry. We’re going to unpack that bit of cognitive dissonance and make it the basis for this critique.
First thing’s first: Skies of Fury DX is a World War I dogfight simulator that immerses you in the high-flying action of that era. And I mean “immerses”. My neck started aching before I caught myself craning and twisting following the flight patterns of my plane! This is a game which to me feels absolutely unplayable on a mobile phone; on the Switch, best enjoyed on a full TV screen, it feels so wide and open, adventurous and epic. More on immersion in a minute.
Taking place during 1917’s “Bloody April”, Skies of Fury DX depicts the deadly aerial combat between the British Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the German Luftstreitkräfte. Though the British suffered close to four times as many casualties as their opponents with 245 aircraft destroyed versus only 66 aircraft lost to the Germans, they eventually overcame and ushered in the success of the British Army during the Battle of Arras.
The game represents the dramatic differences technologically and in terms of training between the British and the German air forces through variations in the strengths and weaknesses of their planes. British planes in Skies of Fury DX tend toward speed and excellent turning capabilities but German planes have greater durability and killing power. Both factions have access to numerous airplane models as your pilot gains levels, the planes themselves ranging from the realistic to the downright fantastical. There’s only a casual attempt at historical accuracy here and there.
Fury DX features 100 different missions broken up into two campaigns between the British or the German air forces. Each mission falls into any of three categories: destroy all enemy forces, safely escort a team of allies, or stunt flights where you must pass through rings. What would a flight simulator be without flying through rings? These missions are played out across 5 chapters in single-player campaign mode, but this is a robust game with more to it than just that.
There are also survival and versus modes. Survival pits you and/or some local buddies against unending waves of enemies with increasing difficulty (I made it up to wave 13, lucky number). Versus takes the form of couch co-op or competitive; you and up to three other friends can get together to fly on teams. Fury DX doesn’t include an online multiplayer mode, which was actually another surprise.
When I began playing this game, I thought it would be one that would actually be really fun to play online. I don’t usually think that and sometimes online multiplayer modes seem tacked on to me, trying to capitalize on PVP that doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the game. This isn’t a make it or break it absence for me, but I thought it was worth noting how Fury DX seems to fit a good online bout yet that feature isn’t present.
I was quickly impressed with how Fury DX felt, how it handled, how the planes controlled. It was easy to slip into the action, soaring through clumps of cloud, dodging the withering hail of enemy fire, gliding past dark billows of smoke from my downed assailants. I became immersed enough in the war of the skies that I caught myself more than a few times sitting on the edge of my seat! That sounds cheesy I know. I just got into it.
Obviously, I play a lot of video games. By some definitions, I’ve been called a “casual”, but by others, I’ve been called “hardcore” or even a “nerd” (gasp!). It doesn’t really bother me either way and I don’t care, but my point is that while I play a lot of video games, I don’t always get that sense of immersion in them, where my brain is keeping up with the images on the screen and the tension, the emotion, or the action. To mesmerize is to hold the attention of someone to the exclusion of all else. Not to sound too mystical or metaphysical (it’s not that kind of experience) but this has been compared to a trance-like or hypnotic state.
You know the feeling? It’s when you’re watching a really good movie, reading a really engrossing book, or playing that great game and you feel like you’re in it, almost like you’re dreaming, and that transportive feeling causes the rest of reality to slip away beneath your awareness.
Remember in The NeverEnding Story when the bookseller asked Bastian “Have you ever been Captain Nemo, trapped inside your submarine, while the giant squid is attacking you?” “Yes,” replied the boy. “Weren’t you afraid you couldn’t escape?” “But it’s only a story.” “That’s what I’m talking about. The ones you read are safe.” “And that one isn’t?” Of course, the world of Fantasia was the ultimate immersive story for Bastian but we experience that ourselves frequently when we lose our active consciousness fixated on a movie, show, book, or game.
Now I have a bit of a theory about immersion which Skies of Fury DX regularly does so well, and that’s based on the question of whether gaminess promotes or prevents immersion. What do I mean by gaminess? That’s something TWRM has touched on before in previous articles; in a nutshell, gaminess is the structural, numerical, goal-oriented parts of the game. For some examples, an RPG’s story isn’t gaminess but the number crunching of experience points and stat gains are; in a 3D platformer, the environment full of green hills and castles aren’t gaminess but collecting those coins to purchase items or get an extra life are; in a game like Tetris there’s a high level of gaminess but in a title like The Last of Us there’s much less, at least on the surface. The Last of Us is typically lauded for its story because that’s the part which connects with people on a human level, emotionally, whereas people typically don’t remember the game primarily for the mechanics of its stealth sequences or reloading weapons.
When it comes to Skies of Fury DX, the beauty of the skies and the exhilaration of flight resonated deeply with me and I found myself wishing that some elements of gaminess weren’t there to remind me that I was playing a video game. I’m talking about things like the giant blue or red arrows that point to allied or enemy planes. These are distractions, necessary to sensibly play the game since the planes can be so small, but garish beside the otherwise gorgeous surroundings. I don’t think Fury DX was ever intended to be ultra-realistic and that’s not what I’m asking from it, but numbers and variables flashing across the screen took me out of the experience of chasing down the tail of an enemy fighter and blasting them to smithereens.
So back to my theory: I’m thinking that at some level when gaminess becomes too prevalent then the player becomes too consistently aware that they’re playing a game, decreasing the potential for immersion, whereas when gaminess decreases, if at least even superficially, there’s a greater potential for immersion. You could even think in terms of watching non-interactive cutscenes (remember FMVs?!) versus making buying items from an in-game merchant. Which of these two experiences is more immersive, or more potentially immersive, if you like? Clearly the first. It’s a cinematic, engrossing, often emotional scene versus what’s essentially completing a laundry list, which you might be focused on in order to make the best decisions in the same way you’d navigate a menu, but focus is not the same thing as immersion, being focused in Tetris is not the same thing as being immersed in The Last of Us, especially when you’re actively thinking about playing a game rather than entering that trancelike state.
This likely bridges into my distaste for quick time events, you know when a game prompts you to press a button to allow an in-game character to complete a typically predetermined action, sometimes a blatantly obvious predetermined action. While it would seem like QTEs are designed to immerse the player in the immediate action of what would otherwise be a cutscene, to me these always seem invasive. I’d sooner be immersed in passively watching Terminator 2 rather than having to tap X on a controller every time the action slows down and Schwarzenegger has to fire his shotgun.
Breaking the fourth wall is a trendy novelty but it also reminds you that you’re being entertained, not living out the experience. That might not be what a piece of entertainment wants to do, immerse its audience, but for those products which do then design choices and hiding overt gaminess are things they may consider avoiding.
Seed Interactive and Illumination Games’ Skies of Fury DX does a good job of flirting that balance between gaminess and immersion, if there is even a balance to flirt. This is probably why I found the missions where you must survive and destroy all enemies more compelling than other missions where I found myself flying through rings. Food for thought.
The 8-bit Review
When I first saw Skies of Fury DX announced, I looked at a few screenshots from the game with these beautifully (what looked like) painted skyscapes, clouds glowering against dark azure or golden sunlight streaming in rays over a countryside below at sunset. I thought aloud that this couldn’t be what the game actually looked like. I’ve encountered games that adopted this comic book, illustrated aesthetic before but this is one where the style seemed much more cohesive, not mixed too obviously with patently 3D objects. The cartoonish appearance can occasionally seem self-indulgent but here I think it’s pulled off well and consistently. I’m sure it looks even better now that it’s been ported from mobile devices.
Another thing I noticed about Fury DX is how it believably renders the movements of the aircraft. This is something I looked for specifically. Don’t ask me why. I can’t recall to mind specific examples of video game planes looking like toys wheeled through the sky by invisible hands but the falsity of those images is wedged into my brain. Planes from WWI, of course, could not stop in mid-air or peter backward (falling excluded) or make turns on a dime. These were the things I looked for and while some of the more complex maneuvers could appear hokey at times, there’s a tangible sensation of weight and the physics of flight present in a game that very easily could’ve foisted dogfights onto the player as cartoony and kiddish. This subtle but necessary flight design supports the engaging action and tension.
Skies of Fury DX has an average-sounding soundtrack, at least to my ears. It’s fast-paced and percussive flavor is the one you’d automatically association with wartime combat and dogfights. It’s not terrible in the least and it successfully bears up the elation of victory, the feeling that makes you want to cheer. Some of the battles are indeed tough enough that indeed you might want to when you finally triumph. Everything is as it should be, though the soundtrack is predictable. You can hear a bit of it in this announcement trailer.
What’s so great about Skies of Fury DX, beyond the way it handles, its simple direction and tension, is the fact that it’s been stripped of all of the negative characteristics associated with mobile games for its adaptation on the Switch. All the game’s content is self-contained and can be accessed through unlocking it by playing the game itself. At first, I bristled a little at the sight of loot boxes on the main menu but these are no longer microtransactions.
Now you’ll be rewarded loot boxes for gaining levels and playing the game. These unlock collectible skins for planes as well as crosshair styles. Some of the skins are amazing so there’s actually an incentive to keep playing even past the single-player mode’s 100 missions, well besides how fun the game is, of course.
Couch co-op has rendered some of my favorite experiences in my entire gaming career. There’s nothing quite like the natural feedback loop between two friends or family members’ building excitement. Fighting back the hordes in survival mode is adrenaline pumping but squaring off head-to-head in versus mode is even more intense. Because Fury DX is easy to get into and easy to understand, players can quickly sharpen their skills against each other.
The basics of Skies of Fury DX are easy to grasp and the game itself is basic as far as war games go. The left stick controls the throttle and the yaw while the right stick controls the pitch and the roll. This isn’t the same thing as moving a humanoid character across 3D platforms, of course, and it may take some getting used to depending on your familiarity with plane controls. It’s not difficult to ease into though and that’s good because there are still a host of other features to stack on top of that.
You’ll have to worry about reloading, waiting for your ultimate powered up state to charge, executing maneuvers and waiting for them to charge, creating attack formations with your allied wingmen, dipping into cloud cover to avoid enemy fire, and of course, shooting. There’s a camera targeting system in place but I didn’t find it reliable beyond finding the enemy; it wasn’t helpful for actually attacking them.
Beyond that, there are skill points to divvy up among upgrades in sniper, gunner, and survivor skill trees. These aren’t too complex yet I was surprised at their complexity. For an otherwise pretty accessible game, I felt that adding skill trees to affect the nuances of your plane’s performance could be a turn off for some players looking for a less complicated gaming experience. At least if you make mistakes on the skill tree you can always relocate points you’ve already spent.
And one more thing about accessibility, and this is mentioned to my embarrassment. For most of the game, I kept wondering how enemy pilots dodged and flew so quickly, making neat little maneuvers. I looked it up in the in-game tutorials but only found a short video clip that described what maneuvers are for. Dodging enemy fire, of course. I kept going back to the tutorials and eventually found where it said how to execute them. That’s my mistake and I wish I’d known about maneuvers sooner, but I could also wish the game had told me directly about them in the earliest missions.
Skies of Fury DX becomes surprisingly challenging fairly quickly, at least it seemed that way for me. Later missions place you in skirmishes where you’re greatly outnumbered, where your allies fall like flies being swatted, and where I had to start thinking about making better decisions on the skill trees. I started dying in chapter 3 and I had a hard time getting through some missions in chapter 4, even more so in chapter 5. I found myself lurking in the cover of clouds, firing blind and taking out enemy ships through the haze of nimbus. I had to think about which plane I wanted to take into a fight based on its capabilities.
Players looking for an exceptional challenge can switch on the game’s challenges such as increased enemy difficulty, reduced aim assist, increased damage taken, or a slower ultimate ability recharge rate. The cumulative challenge these can produce in tandem made a few missions impassable for me, though their experience multipliers are oh so juicy…
Because there are so many missions, with only survival and local multiplayer besides, and the missions are divided into only three categories (annihilate, escort, stunts), there’s not a whole lot of variety going on. Only the level of challenge between subsequent missions and a few other variables such as lighting and plane choice will differentiate them. On the other hand, there are lots of collectibles, the skins and crosshairs to collect, EXP to gain for more levels and skill points, even comic panels bookending each chapter to lay out the story of Bloody April. Even with playing through both the British and the German campaigns, there’s still plenty more to unlock post-game.
What does Skies of Fury DX have to offer? For me, it was the immersion, the controls, the aesthetics, and the collectibles on a console, not a mobile device. I doubt I would have played Fury DX otherwise. This is not the only game about dogfights, though, but it is one that I found compelling and not so burdened down with too many complex controls. It’s like if I wanted to fly a real plane, I wouldn’t have been born with spectacles!
My Personal Grade: 7/10
I had a blast flying the unfriendly skies! What a surprising delight this game turned out to be. It’s one that I’m happy to have on my Switch so I can whip it out at any time with anyone and have a versus match.
I’d like to thank Illumination Games for being so accommodating with their resources and allowing us a copy of their game for review. Cheers!
Aggregated Score: 7.3
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Categories: Game Review