The Sky Gamblers games have been going strong on mobile for the past decade now, delivering all the daffy, high-octane thrills that any self-respecting fan of Ace Combat would gladly lap up. After making the jump to Switch with 2018's Storm Raiders port, the arcade flight series is back, but is it better than ever?
Well, the answer is that – while this is likely a series highlight – this latest port's lack of polish and gameplay pizzazz means that Sky Gamblers still has a ways to go before entering the genre's upper echelon.
Stalling on takeoffOn loading up the game, it's clear that there's a lot of stuff to get into. The story mode consists of 15 missions, and the (up to) 7 V 7 multiplayer skirmishes are available from the get-go. Most folk will probably start by hopping into the campaign, which, if you don't know your yaw from your roll, is honestly the best way to learn the ropes.
Falling into formation with your AI buddies is never not cool, and the missions themselves are generally kept short and sweet, with easy to follow objectives and a great mixture of air, land, and sea targets to utterly decimate. Plus, the range of upgrades and jets is admirable, even if the path to unlocking them all is archaic in its rigidity.
In general, it's just a real joy to control the jets with such ease of movement, responsivity, and a decidedly arcadey middle finger to the laws of physics. Targets are easy to track, and even the more complicated aerial manoeuvres can be pulled off with minimal fuss – it's tight, fast, and accessible.
That being said, the moments I remember most fondly from my favourite flight games are the ones where I was made to feel as though I'd only just scraped through the encounter with my life intact, and I'd wager that a good deal of that effect is achieved by some stellar audio work.
In the case of Sky Gamblers, there's little of that instant, frenzied tension that I so want from this type of game, and a large part of the issue is that the sound design here is a little underdone. For example, the audio alert that triggers when you've been locked onto, and the subsequent warnings of incoming missiles, is far too slight.
As a result, Afterburner often struggles to convey the raw intensity of a dog fight, the colossal impact of your missiles on enemy planes, or the sudden, shocking precariousness of life in the air. Where Ace Combat's sound design elicits sudden jolts of fight or flight panic in its players, Sky Gamblers musters little more than a shrug.
This isn't helped by the fact that, even on hard, my jet could take a good few direct missile hits before I'd have to start worrying. But, of course, arcade flying games need not sacrifice accessibility for a sense of immediacy and tension, not when so many classic titles have demonstrated that you can have both.
Crash and burn?On top of these gripes, underserved deaths due to regular freezing issues made the lengthy load times all the more annoying. On-screen text is also oddly fuzzy, and the HUD itself, while functional, could really do with some sprucing up. After all, what was once visually impressive on mobile is not so hot when blown up on a 50" TV.
Now, that doesn't mean that the environments no longer look good – with missions taking place in a variety of famous, picturesque locations – but there's a decidedly ugly smear over everything that signals a questionable resolution. The issue is slightly less apparent in handheld, though still noticeable enough to put a damper on the overall presentation.
All of this isn't to say that the game isn't enjoyable, it certainly can be, but the spark of greatness currently isn't there. It's a shame because the refined controls allow for a tremendous level of aerial freedom, and the missions, while not exactly narratively compelling, do a good job of pushing you onwards to the next bigger and better aircraft. In fact, it gets so much right that its flaws become all the more obvious, unfortunate, and deflating.