"I want to fight you!"
Things start to get a bit strange for the fighter pilots of Cougar squadron, mercenaries fighting in a war between rival corporations, when their latest recruits turn out to be a group of eerie children. But it's only when two of these new pilots are shot down and killed that things become truly weird.
A spin-off from the Mamoru Oshii film that I've been dying to see for two years now, but which is only seeing a UK DVD release at the end of May, Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces is an action-packed game of aerial combat that values thrills and excitement over simulation. Flying retro-futuristic propeller planes, there are no guided missiles, but instead a meter that fills as you fly close to an enemy, allowing you to trigger flashy manoeuvres that will put you on your target's tail. This is not only cool to watch, but also nicely places you in the role of a superlative ace.
The player's character is faceless, voiceless and defined only as male. As I wrote recently, this is par for the course in a lot of games that feel this is some sort of short cut to getting the player to identify with their role, but the silent protagonist of Innocent Aces is actually quite strongly characterised. His silence and his absence from the cut scenes mark him out as somewhat distant from the other members of his squadron. His mission objectives define him as an efficient, almost cold-blooded killer (although there is the option in one mission to show mercy to a fleeing, terrified enemy). And this is all intentional, as becomes clear once this character's role in the wider story is made obvious.
Missions are interspersed with traditionally animated cut scenes, which fit in nicely with the chatter during missions and seem right at home in the game. An example of how well these are handled is the way the first one doesn't crop up until after you've played the first short mission - something I wish every other game with cut scenes would do. Although these scenes occasionally display low production values, on the whole they're quite lovely, showing the gentle everyday lives of the pilots on the ground between the frantic action of the gameplay, with an emphasis on low angles that place beautiful cloudscapes in the background.
The music is an unconventional soup of folk, metal, electronica and ambient that manages to be atmospheric, thrilling or unobtrusive as the situation demands.
Innocent Aces runs through 17 diverse missions, without drawing anything out or retreading old ground with slight variations. It progresses through a relatively focused story, albeit with a few detours, and then stops when that story has been told. Now, I like the odd 80 hour epic as much as the next person, but there's also plenty of room for games that are short and sweet, a description that fits this one to a tee. Although, anything this fun and smooth to play naturally has a good bit of replay value, enhanced by the chance to unlock new planes, upgrades and achievements (in the form of medals).
My one criticism of Innocent Aces is that it seems like there's a deeply moving personal story in here that doesn't quite get told. Evocative themes of the beauty of flight and the exhilaration of air combat are conveyed through the pathological feelings of admiration and murderous impulse that one of the strange new pilots develops for the player character, but this keeps getting sidelined by a broader war story that has far less to offer. When it gets its priorities straight, Innocent Aces manages to be quite touching - but even when it doesn't, the game's still a bundle of fun.