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Crimson Skies: Nostalgic Road to Nowhere

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Nostalgia is dangerous. Never meet your heroes, they say. This game, like Ace Combat also did, appeared by random chance in my childhood for just long enough to make a lasting impression on me and then disappeared into the ether. Unlike Ace Combat, however, I never returned to it when I had an Xbox 360 because I never ran into something to remind me of its name. By the time I did remember its name and bought a copy, I had already become a master procrastinator, so I didn’t get around to actually playing it for a long time. Well, now that I finally did, I’m a little sad.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to complain about how bad the game is or how much I hate it like I did with the Need for Speed games, Heat especially. I don’t even think this game is bad at all, it just falls short of expectations, but it’s hard to tell if those expectations are unreasonably high due to the aforementioned nostalgia or not. I want to talk about that primarily, about what sparse and fragmented memories transformed Crimson Skies into in my mind over the years, and maybe gush a little bit about that new ideal.

I do have some things to complain about though so I’m going to get them all out of the way real fast.

First and foremost, and this could easily be purely preference, I can’t stand the controls. I’ve never been able to figure out flight controls where left and right is turn instead of roll, and this one is especially hard for me because there ARE roll controls on the right stick, and the plane rolls a little on its own sometimes making things very disorienting and confusing, especially with the limited field of view given by the aspect ratio, and that you have no free camera control, only an enemy tracking camera that tracks whatever it wants with no option to change targets and limited 90 degree rotation on the D-pad. Can’t remap controls at all either. I do like the maneuver system though, that’s pretty fun. The controls are imprecise too so it’s rather difficult to aim, and pretty much all your offense options are guns that need to be aimed, so that’s an issue. Making that worse is how small the hitboxes are. Making it worse still is how often the framerate tanks hard, not just a little chuggy here and there, but regularly under 30 fps, sometimes even hitting what feels like a stuttery 10. Every single one of these problems all get combined and emphasized towards the end of the game when you’re stuck in small confined spaces with lots of obstacles AND are still expected to fight, along with a nice massive difficulty spike to top it all off. Also the audio mixing is just so, so loud. Like, crazy loud.

Now then… let’s set all that aside and get to what I really want to talk about.

Can we all agree that dieselpunk is the coolest alternative technological setting? Pretty sure we can’t all agree on that but it’s my favorite by a country mile anyway. Cyberpunk is awesome, steampunk is pretty cool too, but dieselpunk is where it’s at. This game, in my opinion, is at the peak of what dieselpunk is. Propeller driven aircraft seem to have basically replaced the car, zeppelins are everywhere, air travel in general is vital to the existence of this world, which leads to sky pirates. Man, pirates are cool, and giving them airplanes and zeppelins is just beyond perfect. In fact, it seems to have defined the dieselpunk genre before the term was even coined, because Crimson Skies actually originated as a board game in 1998, and then this game itself is a sequel to the original adaptation of said board game that came out on PC in 2000. The worldbuilding and lore, the sheer detail of this world, is just beautiful. Playing this game comes with a sense of nostalgia for a time period that you not only didn’t experience, but never even existed in the first place, where the US broke apart into several independent nation states in the 1930s after a failed attempt to make prohibition constitutional and multiple influenza outbreaks leading to dramatically increasing views of isolationism, and eventually leading to constant chaos and small wars between these new nations. Perfect conditions for pirates to take hold.

Where the themes of Ace Combat focus on valor, glory, and honor, Crimson Skies is much more romantic in its presentation. Sure, the stakes may be extremely high in both games, but it feels much more personal in Crimson Skies, like it’s all happening directly to you, because there’s no government for you to answer to, no superior officers, no country to serve, only you and your crew. Jets are awesome and I love them, but there’s something special to be said about propeller driven planes… especially biplanes, or unusual planes with the engine and wings in the back, and this game is chock full of both. They just have “something about them” that draws everyone in, that extra spark, the kind of thing that would make anyone’s eyes light up regardless of age or experience. Add to that the zeppelins swarming the skies and the swashbuckling nature of pirates, and the absolute excess of personality and style dripping off of everything you see, it’s genuinely one of the most enthralling settings I’ve ever encountered. Pure romance. I only brought up Ace Combat here because that series is extremely romantic in its own way, and Crimson Skies almost makes it look drab in comparison.

From what little I had to remember the game by, all of these traits were still there in force. I remembered all the best parts about the setting, the aesthetic, and the concept as a whole, and over time started to glorify these traits and project their quality onto the gameplay, assuming that the game must feel just as awesome to play as the themes are to experience, envisioning something fast, smooth, and rewarding. Unfortunately that’s not really the case, as I already mentioned with my Big Chunk Of Complaints™ above. To summarize all of that, the game feels sluggish in both performance and gameplay, clunky, disorienting, claustrophobic, and devoid of any real challenge, the source of difficulty instead being fighting to play the game at all. The worst part is almost all of these problems could have been solved by simply changing the control scheme to something that gives the player more… well, control. Like Ace Combat, they nailed arcade flight controls a whole console generation earlier than this. Or maybe this is just a me thing… I know there are some people who simply can’t figure out how to control a plane in a game when left on the stick is just roll rather than a full turn, maybe I have the opposite problem. Even worse still is that apparently the PC game before this DID have the control scheme I’m asking for.

I came into this game expecting to experience the glorious game I remembered. I finished thankful it was over.

Is it a bad game? No, not at all. It’s just nowhere near the level I thought it was. Heck, it has to be good considering the cult following it has, and how it’s often regarded as one of the very best games ever released on the original Xbox. That said, I do wholeheartedly believe that the game is deeply flawed and could have been so much better than it is, even after getting past my nostalgic ideal version of what it should have been. Only adding to this is that after doing some research on the original PC game, it seems like that game really ticks all the boxes and solves all the problems I have with High Road to Revenge. Maybe I should find and play that one sometime…

Another thing is that, again, even after getting past my old nostalgic ideal, everything I just said about the world and themes being beautiful still rings true, and I feel like I’m understating just how much I love it. For that setting alone, I desperately hope that one day this franchise can return, or at the very least, someone new can pick up the torch and create something similar. There’s nothing out there quite like this series, and the untapped potential here is immense. Ace Combat came back after 12 years, Crimson Skies has kept us waiting for 17 now. Pikmin fans would know this pain well.

But about the nostalgia thing… I called it dangerous at the start of all this. Personally, I’ve always been wary of recommendations for old games because I’ve found time and time again that the games simply do not live up to the expectation set up by the person making the recommendation. They could still be good or even great games, sure, but if you decide to play them based on the shining recommendation of someone else, then even if the game is still great you could come out feeling disappointed, or worse, be completely turned off the series, or even the entire genre if it’s unfamiliar to you. I would have felt terrible if I’d recommended this game to my friends based on what my nostalgia made me believe it was like, though I never did because I never remembered the actual title. I am 100% sure that at least three of my friends would have sworn off the flight genre entirely if they played this first.

All in all, this game doesn’t suck, but I can’t recommend it either. It’s deeply flawed, but I’m in love with the setting, the world, and the potential it has.

Nostalgia is dangerous. Consider it due diligence to give an old game another try before you recommend it to someone… but remember that you may disappoint yourself in the end.