Genre: Arcade Flight
Developer: Big John Games
Release Date: March 5, 2008
Spitfire Heroes: Tales of the Royal Air Force is a flight combat game based on the book series by the same name. The focus, as the name implies, is on the European side of things, where you'll take control of a British pilot who is tasked with a variety of missions set against the backdrop of World War II.
While Spitfire Heroes presents an interesting concept for Nintendo's handheld (there aren't a lot of WWII fighter pilot games, after all), the actual execution feels incredibly shoddy, with some horrible visuals and a difficulty curve that'll have you wanting to break your DS in two after the first mission, even on the easiest difficulty selection.
Before each mission, you'll be greeted with a small file detailing your task and the bits of story that the title offers. The game isn't necessarily focused on actual events from history, so if you're looking for historical events, then prepare to be disappointed. Even without historical context, the missions themselves never feel particularly grand or engaging, and after you reach the end, you'll realize you've done the same handful of tasks over and over again for the past few hours. You'll engage in bombing runs, such as a mission that has you taking out advancing tanks while holding off enemy fighters as they approach your objective. Later, you'll be forced to fend of waves of frustratingly competent AI fighters, and then you'll have to defend your base against a similar set of opponents.
The difficulty of Spitfire Heroes is definitely the lowest point, and I'm not typically a person complain about a game being too hard. However, a lot of the difficulty problems come from the inability to get a real sense of speed, which is especially aggravating considering that you can control your throttle at any given moment. Speeding up or slowing down has no real noticeable effect except when looking at your radar, so it becomes really difficult to fight other planes because you can never tell how fast or slow you need to go to get an advantage. The other big issue comes from how bland the environment around you looks, which sometimes makes it near impossible to figure out your distance from the ground. You'll have to graze the ground to take out the targets, and you'll constantly be surprised when you manage to run your fighter into a small hill that doesn't become visible until you've already run into it.
Speaking of controls, everything is played out via the top screen, with the bottom touch-screen being used strictly for basic information about your plane, including a damage indicator that will go from green to red on certain sections of your plane diagram, depending on where you're being hit. You'll control the direction of the plane with the d-pad (and yes, the controls are inverted so up is down), and then use the A or B button to control the throttle. Pressing X performs a barrel roll designed to help you break your enemies' lock on you, but it's hardly viable for the most part, and you're better of simply bringing your throttle way down and turning when someone starts firing away at you. The right trigger button allows you to fire the main guns, and then you can access bombs a little later in the game to drop on ground targets.
Each mission requires a certain percentage or grade for you to advance to the next one. However, Spitfire Heroes is never clear on what that grade is, what might be considered too low to pass, or how much percentage is given to the various tasks you have to perform in a single mission. Percentages are deducted for deaths and being too slow, while percentage points are added up for how quickly you complete your objectives, or how accurate you are in battle. It'd be nice to have a clear goal in mind so I know whether it's worth the time to even finish up a mission before I'm forced to restart it for the sixth or seventh time, but Spitfire Heroes is unrelenting when it comes to giving away enough information to help you achieve your goals.
The last big complaint I have against the single-player objectives is the lack of any additional support from friendly fighters. You'll often encounter enemy units in a series of three or more, but for someone who's supposed to be a pilot in a Royal Air Force, you're definitely alone out in the skies. The game never offers up an AI partner to drive home the feel of being in an actual force, which detracts from the immersion quality of the title.
Outside of the frustrating single-player missions, Spitfire Heroes offers a four-player mode that can only be played through local wireless connections. Each player is also required to own a copy of the cartridge, so good luck in ever getting a full game together. The idea sounds like a lot of fun, but all of the problems (outside of mission objectives) that plague the main game will also be present here, such as the visual issues. Also, there's only a single head-to-head mode to choose from, with no team-versus-team or even co-op modes, which would make complete sense for a title such as this. I don't know anyone else who owns this game, so I can't speak about how well it performs on the technical level, but I can't imagine it making any marked improvements to the basic gameplay I've already experienced in the campaign.
It's a shame that Spitfire Heroes isn't all that fun to play, simply because I really like the concept of a portable fighter plane title. The presentation of the game is pretty decent, with some nice cut scenes that mimic a 1940s style news reel, something akin to what would be presented at a local theater during that era. Also, the music and sound effects are all really solid, which isn't a feat to be taken lightly considering the less-than-stellar performance of the DS speakers with various other titles. If the same attention had been given to the in-game look, and maybe a bit of a more stylized approach to the graphics that would have worked better within the specs of the DS hardware, I imagine Spitfire Heroes could have been a much better title to play.
For those of you brave enough to venture the skies, there are three difficulty levels to choose from, all of which sum up to really, really hard. I can't imagine taking on the hardest difficulty myself, and I'm not ashamed to say that I played the entirety of the title in the easiest mode possible. Even then, the challenge is incredible, but like I said, a lot of that is due to the sloppy visuals. Outside of decent viewable pictures of actual aircraft, there are no unlockables to be discovered either, creating very little replay value for the game.
Even at $20, which is definitely budget-priced, Spitfire Heroes: Tales of the Royal Air Force isn't a game that I could suggest to anyone, whether they're general plane fanatics or World War II history buffs. The idea itself is solid, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired.
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