I heard the game before I saw it, and I knew then that I would like it. I saw the opening, and I knew then that I would adore it. The opening animation grabbed me by the lapels of my fancy coat and threw me headfirst into an obsession with this town of Rive, where Gunners with their big anime eyes and bushy tails make the skies safe against evil masterminds with their hordes of five year old sounding puppets. Where single person push-prop planes make impossible 180 degree turns in milliseconds while letting loose a barrage of cannon fire and avoiding enemy missiles. Where impossibly huge battleships float through the sky, throwing squadron after squadron of fighters after the hero in that hope that sheer numbers can create the win for the bad guys. Developed by PixelArts of Sony and localized by Atlus, SkyGunner is about as close to a high-flying action anime as one can get. The Japanese anime side of me loves this game, and despite a few quibbles that detract from the fun, the gamer side of me loves this game as well.
The evil criminal mastermind Ventre has his eyes on the Eternal Engine, an exquistiely designed source of perpetual energy, which will be displayed at an exposition at the town of Rive. Ciel and Copain, the town's top Gunners, are called upon by Hardi, the chief of police, to keep Ventre at bay. Another Gunner, Femme, also joins forces with Ciel and Copain and together the three take on Ventre's forces head-on, fighting everything from fighter squadrons to town-sized battleships.
Control. You'll either love it or hate it. The camera's primary view keeps both the player and the primary target onscreen while control remains relative to the aircraft. Even with the novice control scheme enabled, which keeps the player from rolling and yawing independently, the controls have proved troublesome to some people, whose attempts to move left on the screen cause the player to turn left but move right, thanks to confusion with the aircraft facing the screen, flying inverted, or both. The sensitivity of the analog stick will also throw some players off. Some, this writer included, have had little problem wtih the control and will quickly graduate to the expert control scheme, allowing the player to roll and yaw to the one's content. If you've had experience with padlock view modes in flight simulators or even the 3D Macross game play scheme, the control in SkyGunner should not be too difficult, and people experienced with PC flight simulators (notably the Falcon series) will have no trouble with the stick's sensitivity. Those without experience can make good use of the game's provided training mode.
The art of SkyGunner is superbly designed; characters and aircraft are all very distinct and memorable. From Ciel's earnest grin to the lines of cannons adorning the surface of Ventre's battleships, SkyGunner creates some of the most memorable images found in video games. The ground detail is impressive, surprising considered how rare (and difficult) it is for the player to fly so close to the ground to admire to the little details in the architecture or the hundreds of people sprites that decrate the streets of Rive. Even the "Now Loading" screens show off some very nice pieces of art. The opening animated movie (created by Gonzo, well known for their work on Vandread, GateKeepers, Nadesico, and other anime) does a beautiful job of showing off the possibilities of the game's designs. Unfortunately, the 3D engine can't quite drive the art to its full potential. The modeling is on the blocky side, looking the part of an average 1st generation PS2 game. More disappointing is the very large amount of slowdown that can be found during the larger battles; these aren't small hitches here and there but prolonged, many-second long sections of half-speed, low-resolution game play. While Atlus provides an unlockable/code-accessed "Uniform Processing" mode that keeps the action at a steady 30 FPS, I never use it thanks to its low resolution and the fact that the lower refresh somewhat hampers dogfighting missions.
The music is tolerable, the presence of recognizable character themes only slightly helping the poor, synthesized quality of the orchestral background music. Considering the high quality of the Japanese opening song, this is a huge disappointment. There are also a few bugs in the sound driver, the music sometimes dropping out completely, only to return at the beginning of the next mission segment. The sound effects, though, are very good, with explosions, guns, and engines strong in quality and mixing. The best part of the audio is, without question, the spoken dialogue. Atlus, in moving the game from to DVD format from its CD format Japanese release was able to fit both English and Japanese dialogue in the game, and the result is some of the best voice acting I've heard in a video game. Hardcore anime fans will applaud the decision to keep the Japanese voices, which are well recorded and appropriate to the characters. The English voices, however, are just as good, if not better than the original casting; they are memorable, distinct, expressive, and perfectly match their character designs, trumping most video game English dialogue on the market today. The slight pauses that occur between phrases are easily forgiven by the sheer quality of the spoken dialogue.
The game play is very strong though not revolutionary, combining many elements into its scoring system. All shots fired incur a a penalty. Simultaneous hits provide a bonus, as do creating chains of explosions. A multiplier bonus which rises with enemies shot down but falls with time encourages aggressive play. Very aggressive play. Players need to learn the special weapons and functions of their aircraft and be very precise with the analog stick in order to execute properly the aggressive play that this game demands. SkyGunner provides nary a dull moment, and the skies are packed with enemies awaiting the player's gun and missile fire. Though the storylines for each of the three major pilots (with more unlockable) only have five missions, each mission has various sub-missions to be completed, and these can change with how well the player performs. From one-on-one dogfighting to protecting an armored truck to destroying a wall-climbing mechanized spider, the situations are varied and fun to play. The game is very playable, with no impossibly hard scenarios; it is often very clear what mistakes were made by the player if and when the player is shot down.
One problem that does hamper the game play is the finnicky targetting computer. There are two ways to change targets in SkyGunner, neither of which is perfect. The Simple method allows the player to switch primary targets with the triangle button. The All method allows the player to switch between all available squadrons and battleships with the R2 button and change which unit of squadron or battleship is specifically targetted with the triangle button. Neither method is perfect, thanks to a feature which allows the player to rest the aiming reticle on a target and press triangle to immediately target that craft. You can imagine the frustration one might experience when, instead of targeting the intended craft, the player targets a component of the battleship he is currently flying towards. Or instead of targeting what's under the aiming reticle, the target switches to an enemy behind the player and the camera loses sight of the intended target. Maybe PixelArts could have used the select button for additional functionality? Or allowed enemy targeting while paused?
SkyGunner has its fair share of secrets, boasting two unlockable characters, an album mode, scene select, survival mode, and time attack mode. While the extras are worth the price of admission (beating the game with S rank, high score, etc.), once everything is unlocked and played through a few times, there is little to keep the gamer coming back to SkyGunner. A two player competitive mode would have greatly extended the life of this title. A two player cooperative mode would have been even better; it practically begs for it, considering SkyGunner features the three Gunners working together to complete the mission, as well as competing with each other to garner the most prize money. Although it's probably very unreasonable to ask for it, considering how the game's engine is being pushed past its limits regularly, a two player mode would have done this game wonders.
Despite all of the game engine's flaws, SkyGunner succeeds on the merits of its designs, artistic and aural. The imagery the game delivers will not soon be forgotten, and the spoken dialogue gives the characters life that few games on the market can approach. For the anime fan, SkyGunner is nothing less than a must buy. For the gamer in search of 3D flight action, SkyGunner is only slightly less, its limited graphics engine and targeting system flaws keeping the game just shy of greatness. SkyGunner is an excellent addition to any gamer's library.
Primarily it should be noted that this is not the sort of game I am accustomed to picking up. Usually when it comes to flight sims or anything remotely resembling them, I'll perform a swift hand-off. But Atlus has a tendency to bring over some interesting stuff, so here I am. Take this review as that of a novice being introduced to the genre, if that helps you enter my point of view.
My first hurdle was the control. Maneuvering can be difficult to get the hang of at first. There are both beginner and advanced settings - Advanced mode uses R1 and L1 buttons to control the 'yaw' or your orientation along the plane's horizontal axis, and the left analogue stick for aiming and vertical direction. Beginner mode allows you to control the movement entirely by means of the analogue. I found the beginner mode much simpler and more familiar - using yaw felt slow. Probably there's something I'm missing here, but I don't have the patience to find out. After a half hour of fumbling with it off and on I dubbed it too unintuitive for my particular brainwaves.
Targeting systems are similarly divided; novice targeting system only allows you to lock on to leaders of squadrons, while advanced allows you to target anything. While novice mode does help you get the hang of playing the game, it ultimately hinders your advancement in the game. To get the most enjoyment out of Skygunner you need to be familiar with and proficient with the combo system. There's basically no way to get combos the way you want them using novice mode.
Targeting is what I found to be the most difficult aspect of the game. You can use (in advanced mode) the R2 button to switch between leaders of squadrons, and then the triangle button to lock on to individual units within the squad. The order of the switches is determined by a sort of roulette wheel at the top right, which can be useful when you know what your enemy looks like, but can't find it. You can lock on, then go get it. However, flying while locked on to a target is troublesome, as the camera always faces the enemy. To cancel the lock-on you hold triangle to enter 'tail view' which brings the camera back to your rear. This is also the only real way to target something directly in front of you. With R2 it's just luck of the draw, unless you know the shape of the thing you're after. And if your target is something other than a fighter (ie a generator or something), it won't show up in the R2 wheel. Locking on to these sorts of things (always necessary for bosses) can feel like luck sometimes. Simply putting these things into the 'wheel 'o targets' would have greatly reduced the frustration level which can be pretty high with some bosses. With experience you can get better at targeting these objects, but it's pretty tough on the first go-through or two.
The second hurdle is the slowdown. When you get close in to a large enemy, with lots of shots onscreen, the frame rate can drop to 5 fps or fewer. It can be quite frustrating, and difficult to maneuver once you're in the thick of it. This is very odd, considering that the 3D graphics are not spectacular. Low textures, low polygon count…I guess this is surefire evidence that Skygunner was a first generation title in Japan. The towns sometimes have some nice additions, like arches to fly under, and people standing about. But with the camera so often following the enemy, you rarely get to enjoy the scenery and utilize it with any effectiveness.
The 2D art is a different story however. I'm sure Vince mentioned this, but the character, ship, weapon and architectural designs are all very solid. Everything has a unique 1920s European feel to it, complimented by the French names of the pilots and vehicles. The manual presentation is excellent as well. There was definitely a concerted effort to make it look nice. So keep this in mind when looking at the graphics score. The 2D art is the exception.
Honestly I didn't have much fun with this game at first. In fact I had to get a few Coronas in me before I could make myself put in the hours I needed to complete this review. I wasn't compelled to play. So maybe it was the alcohol talking, but once I loosened up the game became a bit more fun. Getting a handle on the controls is truly important. The training mode doesn't adequately prepare you in my opinion. Just get out there and play it until you figure it out. Once you can feel the controls, you can actually make an enjoyable game of it. The so-called 'combos' and 'chain reactions' you can make aren't nearly as intricate as something like Radiant Silvergun, but they add some welcome challenge. It's simply a matter of knowing which weapon to use with which kind of enemy and how.
The music is not good. It fits the mood to a degree, but smacks of low budget and low interest on the composer's part. The music feels like the goofy parts of RPGs. The lack of budget is understandable. It seems Pixel Arts couldn't afford a decent synth. That's acceptable. The lack of innovation is not. Vince went into the dialogue well enough, but I'd just like to add that even though I usually despise dubs, this one is actually good. I really don't mind it. It's well recorded, and works better for me than the subs do. This could be because the subtitles try harder to keep the feeling of the moment, without necessarily actually "translating" the dialogue. Seriously, quite often you'll find that the English subs and Japanese dub have not one word in common. Interesting.
This is not a game for the uninitiated. Those who are not already flight sim/air combat fans need not apply. This game isn't going to win you over to the genre. I'd call it below average for my taste. It tries to run the thin line between sim and arcade shooter, while advancing neither genre. But if you're already interested (and you must be to have read all the way down here to my review ;)), the excellent dialogue, nice art, multiple playable characters and storylines should hold your attention for a bit. I say rent it! Do people still rent games these days? You young kids today…