At the beginning of “Airheart,” a bare-bones setup introduces players to Amelia, a plucky young pilot who harbors an ambition to be a great sky-fisher. In Granaria, a city that lives high above the ground, people use airplanes to catch fish that zip through the sky. Fishing drives city the city’s economy. Unfortunately, the pilots have to contend with sky pirates. From her base at a workshop/hanger, Amelia can use the money she collects catching fish to buy new upgrades for her plane. In addition, she can use the parts that she has collected from downed enemy aircraft to craft items for her vessel.
The sky above Granaria is comprised of different layers. The first several areas of the game have a seasonal flavor to them. For example, Cherry-Blossom Yard, the first quartet of levels, unfolds against a light blue sky while the Autumn Forest unfolds against a more purplish backdrop. These areas are spotted with floating islands bedecked with trees and flora. Amelia’s goal is to ascend to the top of sky to capture a skywhale.
“Airheart’s” controls are easy to pick up: movement is mapped to the left while the target reticle is mapped to the right; the right trigger fires projectiles while the left shoots a harpoon that can be used to pull off enemy shields as well as hook a skyfish or a small hostile aircraft. Capturing a skyfish simply involves flying over it. One must be wary of firing willy-nilly because one can shoot fish by accident for no points. I found the best way to approach most levels is to patrol a patch of sky and wait for skyfish to swim in your direction while picking off enemies from as far away as possible. Incrementally moving across an area helped me to avoid getting swarmed by enemies while nabbing as many fish as I could.
Structurally, the game has a roguelike sensibility in that each session starts you from the beginning and it’s up to you to try to make it as far you can go on a single run. If your health falls low it’s advisable to enable your auto retreat by pressing down on the control pad. Depending on how high you’ve climbed and how low your health is when you initiate your retreat, the descent may be a little nerve-wracking as it’s sometimes necessary to dodge islands in the sky in order to hold onto your health and your cargo. If you should happen to miss your landing site and crash on the ground, it’s game over, and unless you uploaded your data to the cloud you’ll have to begin from scratch.
I enjoyed the game most when I muted the volume and listed to an audio lecture while playing it. Listening carefully to something else made it easier for me to navigate each level at a leisurely pace. I also found it useful to jot down approximately where each exit was so that I could return to the higher levels as quickly as possible. Still, while I found the methodical approach encouraged by “Airheart” interesting, I burned out on its gameplay loop. Recently, a close friend of mine helped me play through a chunk of the game. My pal, who is more of a connoisseur of shooters (and bullet hell games), said “I’ve seen better explosions in 90s games.” We agreed that while the environments where adorned with fine color schemes, the screen animations were less than enthralling.
I imagine the game’s difficulty and unique mechanics will speak to those eager to love a quirky twin-stick shooter. Alas, the gameplay didn’t entice me enough to ache to capture the great whale.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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