By Evan Norris 21st May 2020 | 2,456 views
Red Wings: Aces of the Sky is a promising game. It has all the makings for a great arcade action title, including tight controls and engaging aerial combat, but it surrounds that strong mechanical core with a sizable serving of monotony and tedium. With better level design and greater enemy variety, it could be a sleeper hit on Switch. Right now, however, this World War I flying game makes a shaky landing.
Set during WWI — a historical period largely unexplored in video games — Red Wings follows the exploits of famous German pilot Manfred von Richthofen, also known as the Red Baron. The game supports 50 stages, 25 told from the perspective of von Richthofen's squadron Jagdgeschwader I (known as The Flying Circus) and 25 told from the perspective of his rivals in the Triple Entente. Each campaign introduces several comic book-style cut-scenes, but they're eminently skippable, due to some wooden voice acting and weirdly stilted writing.
Red Wings is a 3D third-person flight-based combat game, akin to titles like Rogue Squadron and Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge. While the game's plot-line is based on historical events and its plane designs appropriate to the era, this is very much an arcade title, with approachable controls and some unrealistic physics. You must monitor your health and fuel levels, sure, but you're also able to turn on a dime and take down enemy aircraft with a well-timed barrel roll. If you're looking for a realistic flight sim, your princess is in another castle.
Tight, snappy controls are essential in a game like this and, luckily, Polish developer All in! Games delivers. Flying and fighting is a breeze, in part because of each aircraft's agility in the sky and in part due to four special moves mapped to each of the face buttons — there's no need to memorize complicated analog stick and button combinations here. If you want to do a 180 degree turn, press B; if you want a barrel roll, press A; and so on. Note each special maneuver requires a brief recharge window after use.
Most of the game's 50 missions — spread across two campaigns, remember — leverage these accessible mechanics and tight controls in a series of dogfights with enemy planes. This is where Red Wings shines. Outsmarting and outflanking a rival 10,000 feet in the air is great fun, no matter what. The game also provides a couple of offensive special moves, to go with your barrel roll and U-turn, that add some flair to the action. The Y button will summon a wing man who attacks a nearby target and X will deliver a killing blow to a near-death enemy, courtesy of your pilot's sidearm. It's the perfect punctuation for a long-fought battle.
Owing to the game's arcade nature, it's not just about defeating the bad guy and living to fly another day. It's also about finishing each stage quickly and with the highest score possible. After completing a level, you'll earn one to three stars based on your performance. You can then parlay these stars into permanent upgrades for your ship, reducing the cool-down period for special moves or increasing your damage against armored foes. You might also unlock a new plane or skin. Consequently, there's a good amount of replayability here.
Despite its solid mechanical foundation and replay value, Red Wings sputters because its scenarios and levels typically play out in the same unchanging way. You arrive in a wide open area and then shoot down the requisite number of ships or balloons. Destroy five planes and a group of five back-ups show up to take their place. Eliminate those five and you'll hear the familiar "enemy reinforcements have arrived". Repeat this process until you annihilate 15, 20, 25, 30 planes. It all becomes tedious after a while. About 80 percent through each campaign a fun new level type featuring a zeppelin outfitted with bullet-spewing gondolas arrives, changing the composition of the combat zone, but it's too little, too late. Red Wings urgently needs novel scenarios, opportunities to explore, and side missions. Even the ability to fly closer to the ground and interact with earthbound installations and artillery would make a big difference.
All in! Games attempts to break up the monotony with specialty stages, but these fare worse than the standard dogfight levels. They come in two flavors: bombing runs and ring races. Displayed in an overhead perspective, bombing runs are short, unexciting affairs where you'll drop your payload on ground targets. Ring races involve speeding through suspended hoops while your fuel runs out. They tend to go on forever.
Outside of Story Mode, there's Survival, a timed Horde-esque mode available in three difficulty settings with local leaderboards for each. Both Story and Survival modes are available solo or with a friend in local co-op. Other special features include Vintage Mode, unlocked after you best Story Mode, which turns everything black-and-white and a Switch-exclusive motion mode that allows you to pilot your vessel using the right Joy-Con as a control stick.
Graphically, Red Wings doesn't push the envelope, but its cel-shaded, comic book style goes a long way. Thanks to solid colors and thick lines, the game's models pop out against its many interesting backdrops — including raging dust storms, destroyers on a stormy sea, and aurora borealis. Less impressive are the visual assets used for the main menu, upgrade screen, and in-game combo notifications; they look torn directly from a mobile game.
In terms of sound, the game relies too heavily on only a few songs and audio files, repeated ad nauseam. You'll probably hear "enemy reinforcements have arrived" over 100 times throughout the campaign. Voice acting in general is middling, unaided by the aforementioned stilted writing.
Red Wings has a lot of good ideas and a strong foundation. It features approachable controls, two different campaigns, unlockable content, and fun aerial combat from a largely untapped period in modern warfare. Yet poor storytelling, monotonous mission design, and unsatisfactory specialty stages ultimately drag this airborne adventure back down to earth.