The console flight sim has always had a tough time balancing the complex controls necessary for this type of game design with controllers that rarely have enough buttons—or even a proper joystick. Some design conventions transfer more easily than others: putting someone in a cockpit works fine for flying in space because the player doesn’t really have to worry about the ground, while a third person perspective is usually more effective when a player needs to keep track of a surface in relation to themselves. Unfortunately, it’s also a lot harder to dog fight in the third person. The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces suggests a lot of innovative solutions to these issues with mixed results.
The game’s control scheme might be the most clever thing that I’ve seen anyone use for the Wii. You hold the thumbstick controller in your steering hand, holding the Wiimote in the other for controlling speed and secondary attacks. Tilting or raising the thumbstick controller itself steers like a joystick would. Raise the Wiimote and you accelerate, lower it to a horizontal angle and you slow down. The trigger brakes, the A button launches special attacks. The system generally was very responsive for me once I got used to it. I ended up holding the thumbstick controller loosely in my hand and tilting angles by just rotating it in my fingers, but it still had that satisfying feeling that a joystick gives you.
The basic problem with third person flight sims is that whenever you have to make a sharp 180 degree turn the control scheme inherently results in slow movement. This must be done to make the ship manageable. If the ship turned on a dime, the controls would be too sensitive. This becomes a problem when you’re trying to dogfight because dogfighting is nothing but tight turns. A first person flight sim can usually manage to be more sensitive because of the immediacy of the perspective, but third person viewpoints tend to adopt shortcut maneuvers like a speed boost or just a button that automatically makes you flip around.
Sky Crawlers is different because it gives you four different maneuvers that you can pick with the thumbstick and execute by pressing A. If you’re about to run into a bridge, there’s a swooping option along with three other choices that will get you to immediately face in a different direction. It’s still a shortcut, but it’s a really well-organized one after you figure out what they’re offering. The instant maneuver option even applies to dogfighting. In Sky Crawlers, once you get behind someone you start building a meter. At level one, you’ll swoop behind them and will always be right behind the weaker fighters. If it’s a stronger ship, you’ll have to adjust your aim. Building the meter higher means that you will get a better shot at their tail for a longer period of time. It speeds the game up and keeps the controls feeling fluid because dogfighting is now more about pointing yourself in the right direction than precision aiming.
It’s also a bit problematic because it unbalances the rest of the game. Most of the game is spent flying towards objectives, using the auto-attack to rip apart the enemy and then flying to other parts of the map to repeat the process. Only the last few missions are actually challenging. Two of them cross into being genuinely well made, an elaborate fortress attack and an ambush. Unfortunately, the rest of the hard missions feature the awful “Fly the Most Inappropriate Plane for the Mission” design. The fact that a few of the missions are really clever makes the blandness of the rest all the more irritating. While the controls for the game are interesting, they don’t give you too many fun times to use them.
None of this is helped by the fact that the plot is pretty hard to follow if you’ve never seen the anime that the game is based on. It all takes place in some kind of alternate reality where corporations stage mock battles for some reason. You’re the leader of an elite squadron fighting for the blue side, and you’re eventually paired up with a group of kids who are all ace pilots. I stopped following the plot at about this point because all of the cutscenes consisted of long, slow shots of people staring out at the sky or talking about mundane things. Skipping them along with the briefings, didn’t make game any harder to play, and it got to be a relief once the story became impossible to follow.
The Sky Crawlers suffers from a few other basic issues. The tutorial is a long series of hand holding sections instead of a more fluid and engaging experience. It makes the already complex system even harder to learn. Secondary weapons never seemed particularly useful because bullets on any plane are infinite and can destroy anything. Your best bet is always to go with the fastest plane and just use that advantage heavily. The game employs a lot of clever solutions to problems that have always been present in the design of third person console flight sims. It’s just that the rest of the game doesn’t offer you a chance to actually use these improvements.