There aren’t many events in history that have seen as many alternative time lines as World War 2. Aces of the Luftwaffe: Squadron is one of the less gritty takes I’ve come across. Aces is a vertical scrolling shoot em up, or a shmup, fighting back waves of enemies while avoiding countless bullets filling the screen.

Aces of the Luftwaffe: Squadron is a follow up to the mobile game Aces of the Luftwaffe. Instead of defending Britain, you’re taking the fight to the USA to stop an invasion of America. Nazi Aces are invading the US with technologically advanced aircraft, and it’s up to you, Mark Taylor (not the cricketer), and a plucky band of three pilots to stop them. The story goes through five stages, with each of the five chapters ending in a battle with the Aces. After a bit of back and forth banter, you’ll find yourself in battles against enemies such as a Nazi UFO and a Nazi flying train. 

Throughout the 4-5-hour story your crew will exchange banter, sometimes witty, sometimes serious, but more often expositional and setting the stage for one of the four pilots to have a debilitating status effect. These effects will greatly impact the level, as you either lose the pilot temporarily, or they can become an obstacle on their own. One becomes poisoned and has a limited movement, another doesn’t like changing heights, one falls asleep randomly and the last can fly into an unstoppable Hulk-like rage. Along with the dialogue it does go some way to giving these otherwise unseen pilots (outside of their dialogue portraits) some character and adds extra challenge to some levels.

While the point of the game is to stop the Aces and take back America, there is some variety within the 25 levels. Each level has a sub-quest that can be completed; sometimes it’s destroying a set number of targets, in others it could involve rescuing pilots, or dropping off supplies.  This helps freshen up the formula of shooting everything around you. Doing these tasks along with collecting medals will earn you points that go towards an RPG-lite upgrade tree. Each pilot has their own upgrades which either enhance health, damage or power ups. There are also active abilities that can help clear the screen or provide a timely boost. These abilities can be quite useful, but it’s a shame that you only have control over Mark’s abilities. The other pilots will use theirs randomly. It would have been helpful to have control of stealth or healing abilities, instead of being at the whim of AI team mates.

Over the course of the game you can unlock new aircraft. Every plane has different stats, including your team mates’, so you can even use the same plane if there’s more appealing stats attached to it. You can unlock over double the planes that you start with. However, they’re all possible loot drops, which means you’ll have to face bosses multiple times if you want to get them.

Visually, shmups need to be easy to see all the action on screen. With bullets flying everywhere it’s no fun if you can’t see how you’re being taken down. Aces of the Luftwaffe keeps its visuals bold, and planes can be easily seen with the scenery scrolling by underneath. Using a bold and cartoony style makes it easy to see when docked. Handheld mode is clear to see what’s going on for most of the game, but I did find one type of bullet tended to be harder to see. But it was manageable, and the game just as beatable in handheld mode. Most of the game you’ll be dealing with smaller aircraft and the odd Zeppelin, and the bosses take it up a notch. The Aces vehicles are often quite large and the subtle 3D models stand out here. They have designs that are better than anything else in the game. In a game where you see a lot of planes and bullets, they are something nice and different.

For fans of shmups and bullet hell shooters, Aces of the Luftwaffe is a mixed bag. It’s perfectly fine as a shmup – there are a fair few levels, and if things are too easy there’s three difficulties to play through if you want a greater challenge. But regardless of difficulty setting, Aces is easy going for almost the entire game. You’ll die a bunch, but you’ll get through, right up until the last two levels. Here the difficulty spikes. Another issue you tolerate throughout becomes a real sticking point here – bullet hells.  They’re expected to fill the screen with bullets, but they usually fire patterns that allow you to evade being hit. Aces can be merciless, and fill the length of the screen with inescapable bullets.  When the game is easy, and you have enough lives to keep going, it’s a small annoyance. But when one wave is enough to wipe out your plane, there should be some way to evade it.

There is no score ranking or leaderboards in Aces of the Luftwaffe, but there is an option to play the story in a co-op mode. Up to four players can take control of the four pilots.  However, when trying to get the co-op mode running, I found that it wouldn’t allow a game to start with only two pilots – there was no way to progress forward.  With no word from Handy Games on the issue, it appears that co-op can only be played with four players. I find this misleading. “Up to 4 players” implies 2 or 3 people can play at the same time.  If you buy this game thinking 2 players are enough for co-op mode, you’ll be quickly disappointed. If this turns out not to be the case, this review will be amended.

Aces of the Luftwaffe performs well most of the time. When things get really busy there are moments of slowdown, but gameplay is never really impacted. Load times are quite painful in this game. Before any level you’ll be hit by the loading screen that can be nearly a minute long! This is discouraging if you want a short game you can just jump into and play.

Aces of the Luftwaffe is a decent shmup with some neat features, but there are so many issues that weigh it down. If you’re a shmup addict and don’t mind the asking price than you’ll get a few hours out of this. For others, it’s hard to recommend this game, especially when Hamster’s NEO GEO releases have better and cheaper games in the genre. Maybe get Aces in a sale.

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