A beautiful mess.
As an airplane twin-stick shooter, Airheart: Tales of broken Wings is fairly unique among roguelikes. You play as a flyfishing pilot named Amelia in the skies above the floating city of Granaria. Flyfishing is a very literal term in Granaria—the skyways are populated by winged fish that are caught by local pilots and sold on the market. Amelia’s dream is to catch a legendary creature known as the Skywhale in the highest layer of the skies so that she can gain incredible wealth. Unfortunately, she is struggling to make ends meet as an inexperienced flyfisher, so she’ll need to earn money for better planes and equipment first as she climbs ever higher.
Flying fish are plentiful throughout the sky and collected simply by flying over them. As you get to higher layers, you’ll start to encounter hostile pirates that you’ll need to defeat in dogfights to proceed. Combat in Airheart is actually pretty interesting as your guns’ kickback drastically affects your plane’s flight path. You can strategically take advantage of this by firing behind you to increase your forward speed or to the sides to dodge out of the way of obstacles. Also available is a harpoon that can pull shields off enemy ships or anchor smaller planes to yours that can be dragged along and easily fired upon. This unique combination of weapons and tools helps combat feel engaging as you’re ascending into the clouds.
That said, the rest of the game outside of combat isn’t nearly as interesting. Periodically you’ll need to return to Granaria to sell off your fishing haul and upgrade your plane. Once you’re ready to take off again, you’ll need to start over from the very bottom sky layer. Upgrades and plane parts are expensive, so the low cash yields of the starting areas quickly become meaningless, and fighting your way back up to the higher levels of the sky forms a repetitive chore. You’ll spend a lot of time grinding out money to buy new parts and guns so you can keep climbing higher, but the gameplay loop of the starting areas is simply too monotonous to stay interesting for very long. I hadn’t even beaten the first boss by the time I felt like I’d seen everything there was to see in Airheart, and later sections didn’t add enough variety to renew my interest. The grind only gets worse when playing on the actual roguelike mode where you’ll have to start the entire game over after a death.
Airheart does have a crafting system that is theoretically supposed to speed things up. At least I think it’s supposed to speed things up? The crafting system is so breathtakingly obtuse that I never really understood it. The tutorial claims that you “don’t have to guess combinations out of the blue,” and I’m not sure what to call this promise other than a blatant lie. Crafting in Airheart is predicated entirely on guessing out of the blue. The crafting bench has five slots where you can combine objects, but the only information you’re given from the start is how many materials a crafting recipe takes—nothing else. You’re not even told what the recipe is for! Once you attempt to craft something, the crafting bench will tell you if any of the materials you used were correct for any of the available recipes. The only way for you to make any headway with crafting recipes is through blind trial and error or online walkthroughs, which is made even worse by the fact that each attempt at crafting costs money. I actually ran out of money in the middle of the tutorial for crafting—something that the developers clearly didn’t expect to happen given that the tutorial was completely softlocked from that point and couldn’t continue any further. Grinding out upgrades may have gone faster if I sunk time into experimenting with the crafting system, but given how little I enjoyed crafting I would’ve just been trading one boring task for another.
Airheart is beautifully unique and thought-out in some areas and bafflingly half-baked in others. Aesthetically, the skies above Granaria are sublime. The graphics are beautiful, the music is superb, and the incredibly deep ecology of the flyfish that realistically react to overfishing patterns is so extensively detailed that I have no choice but to be impressed. However, repeating the same sections over and over to grind out money while trying to make progress with a crafting system that is so poorly explained made me dread every minute I spent with the game. There’s a solid foundation for gameplay once you’re in the skies chasing fish and fighting pirates, but every minute that you’re not dogfighting your way through the clouds to chase exotic creatures is so frustrating and dull that I just can’t bring myself to spend any more time searching for Amelia’s elusive Skywhale.