In my efforts to compose an adequate introduction, I was surprised to discover that AIRHEART: Tales of Broken Wings is a game that took flight through Steam Early Access in the fall of 2016; I had only discovered the game as recently as June 2017. Suffice to say, it is a hard knock life for developers like Blindflug Studios AG, who apparently have had a functional build of their game for a couple of years now with little recognition. That is a shame, for the Zürich, Switzerland-based developer has produced a take on the super-saturated roguelite genre that seriously warrants special attention.
The primary mode of violence in AIRHEART is conveyed through aircraft dogfighting. Airplanes and drones of various sizes will explode or be “downed” after suffering too much damage. The game is otherwise unproblematic. On a different, but important note, despite its genre classification as a roguelite, AIRHEART is a game that through both its story and core gameplay, encourages perseverance.
AIRHEART (*snicker*) begins with protagonist Amelia (*giggle*) reminiscing her childhood; her father trekked across the desert in search of a better place to call home. The transition from childhood to adulthood is abrupt and unclear, but Amelia establishes that as an adult, she has ascended to the sky city Granaria, residing on the precipice of its underbelly as an airplane mechanic while skyfishing on the side. Believing that there should be more to life than her meager existence, she further recalls stories from her youth concerning the legend of a skywhale that resides in the Mesosphere*. Should she catch it, she might become rich!
Speaking of rich, AIRHEART abounds in aesthetic appeal. I have spent the past few months enduring a deluge of shooters, roguelikes, and roguelike shooters, and they all take the pixel art approach. While I do not intrinsically oppose pixel art, after playing about a dozen of those games, they begin to become indistinguishable. AIRHEART does not have this problem, sporting the sort of alluring visuals that make me think of what The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword could have looked like had Nintendo bothered to populate the “overworld” with…well…anything. Though AIRHEART is not as interactive as an adventure game, it nevertheless successfully captures the sensation of a fun but perilous voyage, with airborne islands sprinkling every biome, and flora donning the colors three seasons, from spring to autumn to winter. A variety of fish, drones, and enemy planes are easily distinguishable while in motion as the design of this game exudes polish. Bursts of color litter the skies with hues of clouds and gasses that one might find in the upper reaches of the atmosphere.
Blindflug Studios describes its game as “dieselpunk.” Admittedly, I do not recall encountering such a genre description before, but considering films such as Mad Max, the concept is not difficult to discern. Steampunk depicts early 20th-century aesthetics fused with anachronistic technology that may not even exist in modern times. On the other hand, Dieselpunk is something of the opposite—set in a (usually) post-apocalyptic future where the existing technology is dated. This theme works for AIRHEART; immediately noticeable is that it is a game full of airplanes that has missiles and rockets but no jets.
The propensity of propellers, then, makes sense. The starting plane, the Pinty Canary, establishes the game’s down-home feeling of a crop duster spontaneously resolving to compete with P-51 Mustang Fighters. Augmenting these choices in presentation is the music. Fans of Far Cry 5 will certainly pick up on the country feel from “Workshop,” where they will spend no small amount of time purchasing, customizing, crafting, and tweaking their custom aircraft. However, the primary melody of AIRHEART begins with the “Main Menu” theme, which I find inspirational, especially when it reappears at beginning of “Cherry Blossom” as uneasy, clumsy, and awkward, as would be fitting for fitting Amelia’s during the early stages of the game as a low-level nobody. But as she ascends to higher levels of the atmosphere, the song evolves into one that summons forth magnificence, to parallel the allure of the more exotic fish at higher elevations, additional scenery, harder enemies, and the progressive development of her aircraft that enables her to advance that far. “Autumn Forrest” appropriately illustrates the struggle of the midgame phase, while “Snow Crest” reestablishes wonder as Amelia approaches the sky’s zenith.
AIRHEART is brilliantly designed in this way, where every singular design choice works toward its efficacy as a whole. As it is a roguelite, the game is divided into three layers where each hosts its own biome. Those biomes then consist of at least four “levels” that increase in difficulty and fish profitability. As an airborne angler, Amelia makes money by catching skyfish and going back home to sell the fish oil, which she, in turn, uses in exchange for weapons or better aircraft parts. As she defeats enemies in the form of air pirates, they may leave behind scrap materials that can be collected and used for crafting. Though the game recommends a controller, KB&M, my preferred method, is impressively responsive. As better aircraft materials are purchased or forged, speed, handling, and armor are notably improved.
Amelia herself is not immune to being downed; if she suffers too much damage, the game will alert the player that they should retreat to base. When activated, this creates a “dive” minigame where she must avoid the airborne islands of every “floor” ascended while returning to base. This mechanic ensures that even when players “fail,” they can “succeed” by cashing in their fish and securing crafting materials for future runs. This is how AIRHEART executes the roguelite genre’s “grind,” by way of starting players with low HP planes and low-damage weapons, and requiring them to craft and purchase better gear over time. Even so, it is all cleverly veiled: as long as Amelia returns to base, the game maintains the same seed, and the layouts of each “level” remain unchanged, making it possible to commit the world to memory for quick future runs.
Players who ignore the damage warning might find themselves forced into an emergency landing, where if they manage to crash-land on base, they risk losing ship parts, and certainly a large portion of what was gained in the skies. Furthermore, it is possible to miss home base entirely; if this happens, the game takes the form of a roguelike, where death is permanent, and players will have to start a new game, losing everything but the blueprints gained from previously successful crafts. This is a brutal penalty, but a fair one—after all, AIRHEART issues a warning when it is recommended to end a run. I found out the hard way, suffering a true “game over” in the first four hours of my playthrough. After that, I was since significantly more obedient to the damage warnings. Okay, okay—I still pushed things further as I became more experienced with the game’s mechanics.
Take her down gently after a good run, or be forced down.
I have made it no small secret that I hate crafting, so I did roll my eyes when I realized that crafting is a core mechanic, and not merely optional. It is possible to complete the game without it, but improbable. In this way, crafting is imperative. Under normal circumstances, I tend to penalize games for forcing me to engage with a feature I innately dislike, but shoutout to Steam users Skooler, who provided the item templates, and Griffin Seasnake, who created an easy-to-read chart. The crafting screen uses a color-coded system to provide hints as to what materials one should use to craft, but ain’t nobody got time for that, especially the higher-tier weapons and plane components, which are cheaper to craft than purchase from the store. That said, I also…like…the crafting in AIRHEART, because while it is possible to find random powerful weapons on enemy ship cargo, the game allows the player to unlock their own arsenal, rather than depend on conventional roguelike convention where the player has to randomly encounter gear during a run. I am grateful that Blindflug Studios puts the power into the hands of the player. Finding the appropriate materials for crafting is all that is necessary.
AIRHEART takes customization seriously. There are too many options ot cover here, but do note that certain plane parts grant active and passive abilities, too, such as fish radars, laser aiming, item magnets, or active shields.
There are plenty of methods for fighting in AIRHEART. The tether mechanic is worthy of note by itself: with a right click, one can catch smaller fish (hold down the mouse rather than press rapidly click to reel-in), drag enemies behind, or anchor Amelia to rocks or larger craft for better stability. This rope can also instantly-kill stationary drones and disarm or de-armor larger foes. Early game, I used a machine gun with burst fire, but it is also inaccurate and low-damage. I set my sights on crafting a sniper rifle that is powerful, but has a low rate of fire. Higher tier airplane wings allow players to use two weapons; I added flak cannon that does more damage up close, especially when dragging enemy aircraft, but less damage the further away enemies are way on the screen—perfect for my sniper rifle. I have also managed to blow myself out of the sky after developing a big bomb and getting too close to the payload. Whoops!
When I play a new game, especially indies, I always go in hoping, expecting a good time. AIRHEART actually exceeds my expectations, providing relief from the pixel art that has been excessively popular, a soundtrack that has me buying Michel Barengo’s work, and introducing forgiving mechanics in a genre where soul(s)-crushing difficulty is a foundational principle. My only gripe, albeit a significant one given the game’s innate grind for fish and materials to finally reach the game’s apex elevation, is that the ending is disappointing, producing an ellipses rather than a period or exclamation mark. That aside, AIRHEART is a terrific package that merely stumbles on the perspective that the ends may not justify the means, yet the pursuit itself maintains value.
Review code generously provided by Sandbox Strategies.
*This is complete conjecture on my part, but given that AIRHEART divides levels into sky layers, and the highest altitude achieved by an aircraft not powered by rocketry is 96,800+ feet, or eighteen miles, and Amelia fancies (stylish) propeller planes, the mesosphere is likely the highest she is able to climb.
The Bottom Line
Despite industry inundation of roguelite shooters, AIRHEART: Tales of Broken Wings offers a series of uncommon features accompanied by a remarkable grade of polish that should renew interest within those fatigued by the genre. I offer no apologies for the following pun, only for the cliché: Blindflug Studios’ offering here soars above the competition.