Publisher: Big Fish Games
Developer: Big Fish Games
Release Date: September 5, 2006
There are times when using the word "clone" becomes somewhat of a dichotomy. The subject of today's writing is a perfect example- Atlantis: Sky Patrol, produced by Big Fish Games, is at its core a replica of Zuma and Luxor, yet it adds so many different features and twists on the theme that it's a disservice to dismiss it as just another re-hash. In all honesty, saying Atlantis: Sky Patrol is just another Zuma is pretty much the same as saying Gran Turismo is just another Pole Position. This game is a perfect example of how a genre can fold in on itself in an evolutionary period of introspective development and burst forth from its chrysalis as a force reborn.
Have I given away too much too soon? Does my adoration of this game shine through my supposedly objective façade? Probably, but it can be difficult to hide enthusiasm. I will do my best to maintain professionalism as I break down the play features. So, for those of you unfamiliar with Atlantis (Sky Patrol is actually a sequel), I will attempt a quick description: You have a little icon at the bottom of the screen that represents your "craft," and this craft fires multi-colored spheres in a straight line upwards. You can right-click your mouse to switch colors.
Above your icon is a track, along which lines of other multi-colored balls travel, from a start point inexorably towards an end point that represents failure. Your job is to fire a colored globe at a string of three or more like-colored balls in the track above. Repeat until the level is over. Occasionally a power-up falls that helps you in your task: a targeting line, complete stoppage of the track, reversal of the track, etc. What made Atlantis stand out was its "steam-punk" graphical style. It had a look and feel that was very Jules Verne, "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea," with rusting iron plates and rivets, that sort of thing. Sky Patrol takes that and runs with it.
The first thing the developers did was polish the sci-fi atmosphere of Atlantis with a glossy art-deco/googie coating. The end result is immediately reminiscent of the film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the first in many similarities that leads one to assume that this game was heavily influenced by that movie. The basic plot breakdown (yes, there is a plot) is that you are the ace pilot for the Sky Patrol, a group dedicated to keeping the world safe from arch-villain tyranny. The sudden appearance of massive floating doomsday devices all over the world leads to your mobilization, and you must fly from country to country disabling these mechanical monstrosities.
The game itself treats these ideas as abstractions. The levels are still fixed-frame displays, with the doomsday devices themselves being static clusters of multi-colored spheres that need to be cleared out in the same manner as the track-lines of balls. In this way, you need to be much more skilled at multi-tasking than previous titles in this genre. It's like this: The tracks represent the fighter planes sent out to shoot you down, and the clusters represent the doomsday devices. You need to clear both to finish a level. The faster you clear out the "fighters," the more of a bonus you get at the end of a level, in the form of machine parts that you can spend between levels to upgrade your Sky Patrol ship. However, the fighters keep coming so long as the devices are still intact, so the faster you can take those out, the faster you can clear the fighters for the sweet bonus parts.
The ship upgrades are a great addition and are more than just a cursory nod to the idea of avatar development. There are five abilities in total, with five levels each. These require more machine parts with each level purchased: 100 parts for level one, 300 for level two, up to 900 for the final level. The powers themselves are all quite utilitarian. You can buy a targeting beam, faster firing speed for your spheres, a magnet that draws machine parts or one-shot power-ups towards your ship instead of just falling in a straight line, an increase to your machine part bonuses, and a disruptor that delays the deployment of new lines of fighters. For my money, the firing boost, the disruptor, and the magnet are the best skills to start with, but all of them are extremely handy to have. By the time I had finished the game, I had maxed out all of them except the targeting line, so fear not; you'll have your chance to dabble in all of these benefits.
The challenges Sky Patrol throws at you range from the mundane (as you progress, the doomsday device globes take more than one shot to wipe clear, and then develop on/off shields that limit when you can fire at them) to the maddeningly clever (some of the levels have curved tracks for your ship, which throws off your targeting completely). There are also indestructible "bumpers" on some levels that deflect any balls shot at them, and these sometimes appear on moving tracks directly above your ship. It's almost like having a predictable goalie side-stepping back and forth in front of you. Not particularly difficult to get past, but enough of a pest to throw off some sweet shots that would otherwise have produced an excellent combo.
What is the best part of Sky Patrol? I would say that is quite easily the graphics. This is rare; usually these casual/portal games are low on visual acuity and high on addictive play features. Sky Patrol has both in equal measure. While not a fully 3D title, there are some spectacular particle effects, but what really cooks is the artistic direction. As I have said on many occasions, technology means nothing without a strong sense of style behind it. This game has an excess of style; it's pure eye candy. That it utilizes an overlooked science-fiction milieu is just icing on the cake; I would hope this sparks an upsurge in pulp design.
Atlantis: Sky Patrol is beautiful, fun to play, addictive, has a near-flawless challenge scale, sounds amazing, deep without getting lost in mechanics, and does all of this while still maintaining its demographic appeal. (My wife is as hooked on this as I am.) I was a little let down by the ending, as it wasn't quite the spectacular reward I was hoping for after 111 levels of saving the world, but what a stunning ride. As I said in the beginning of the review; Atlantis: Sky Patrol is the new standard to which all casual/portal games will now be held. Consider this a "must-have" game for your collection.