Back in 1990's, free roaming space shooters were much more popular than they are today. Games like Descent Freespace and the Wing Commander series proved that you could have satisfying outer space flying action with a deep and fulfilling story. While space shooters are still common, most don't have the depth of gameplay that these titles offered. Does Square Enix's new offering change that trend and give Wing Commander fans the game they've been waiting nearly a decade for? Almost.
First off is the story, which is actually quite intriguing. You play the game as Katana, a hot shot rookie pilot battling along side the Terrans in the farthest reaches of space in a conflict hundreds of years in the future. The enemy is not aliens threatening humanity's survival, but rather, unsatisfied dissidents that no longer want to be under Terran rule. These individuals, known as AKON, are a group of rebels bent on ending the Terran rule on the outer rim planets. To make the story a little bit deeper, Katana went to flight school with a gentleman named Margras, who is now fighting on the AKON side. What's a little interstellar war between friends?
What's interesting about the storyline is that it has shades of real world conflicts such as the American Revolution, or if you prefer the sci-fi reference, Star Wars. However, Project Sylpheed turns the tables by having you play as the oppressors rather than the rebels. I particularly enjoyed the change of pace and taking out some rebel scum. The Brits and the Empire don't get enough credit in most media, and its fun to play the role of oppressive juggernaut.
Unfortunately, the storyline is rather betrayed by a liberal application of anime cheese, especially during the many cutscenes. The game can't seem to decide whether to be serious or light-hearted, and therefore the story-line becomes an odd mish-mash of the two. This problem causes some identity issues for the game, and it doesn't help that this game has some of the most annoying voice acting I've heard yet on the 360. The actor's range seems to be between perky to excitable to imperiled, and never varies anywhere between these three. Making matters worse is that during gameplay, no one ever shuts up and just lets you blast things. People are always sending you messages, and commonly will be talking over one another. It didn't take long for me to mute the voices entirely and just keep an eye on the text in the corner instead.
Of course, the bigger question is how does the game play? The answer is pretty well, but it's not with out its foibles. Starting with what the game gets right, the game perfectly captures the all out insanity of an outer-space dogfight. You can fly in any direction, any time, and shoot anything you want. A typical mission will feature dozens of fighter planes and a few destroyers, and it's completely up to you how you want to tackle a particular mission. Every ship in the game leaves behind a coloured trail, which goes a long way to indicating just how crowded these battlefields are. It's undeniably fun to jump into a spacecraft and blast away at a few enemies.
It's also a lot of fun to upgrade your ship and add news weapons. Towards the end of the game, my ship was packed to the gills with multiple lock-on missiles, slow moving destroyer missiles, a rail gun, and a beam rifle that could singe the hair off a kitten's back. The more enemies you take out in the missions, the more points you get to research and develop new weapons and upgrades for your ship. It's not the deepest upgrade system in the world, but it is fun in its simplicity.
What's not simple is the extremely crowded HUD interface during the game. There are gauges up the wazoo indicating ship temperature, weapon temperature, shields, armor, distance to targets, voice messages, speed, four ammunition counters, lock on crosshairs, two radars, mission time, kill counters, objectives left and tons of arrows pointing you to your many objectives in each mission. It can be daunting and confusing, especially at the game's outset.
The controls are acceptable after some practice, but there are some bizarre design choices to them that you can't alter in any way. For example, both turning and rolling your ship are mapped to the left analog stick. Push the analog stick a little bit, and you'll turn. Push it all the way, and your ship will roll. In the middle of an intense dogfight, it becomes a bit of a chore to push the analog stick only halfway in order to make a speedy escape. I would have much rather had the ship rolling mounted on the right analog stick, rather than a completely useless camera rotation function. The right and left bumpers control your machine gun and your missiles, which I would have rather had on the triggers due to lessened fatigue on the index fingers. The triggers control your acceleration and braking. A double-tap of the accelerator switches on your after-burners. All of the face buttons are also used for things like switching weapons, special moves, and switching targets. Despite these design choices, you'll eventually learn to deal with the controls, the game remains extremely playable. I'd prefer to play it with a flight stick, but the 360 controller makes an adequate, but not ideal substitute.
More frustrating than the controls are some extremely odd mission design choices. Some missions have an arbitrary time limit associated with them, but you're not informed about them right away. You'll be cruising along, eight or nine minutes into a mission, when you'll receive a message informing you that your mother ship will only be able to fight for three more minutes. Why? I guess they need to pull out to watch Monday Night Football. They never explain why, and if you don't clear out the entire battlefield in those three minutes, you'll need to start the whole mission over again. Making the problem even worse is the fact that enemies on the battlefield are constantly respawning at the same time. Therefore, there is little more frustrating than leisurely flying around, taking out enemies at your own pace, when you get this three minute warning, and the counter reads fifteen enemies left to kill. Before you kill those fifteen enemies, the counter has jumped back up to twenty-five. It's not quite a game-breaker, but comes really close. It also doesn't help that your co-operative AI doesn't do squat, and the entire battle is constantly on your shoulders alone.
You'll typically have to fly three missions in a row before you're allowed to save you game too, which can take up to half an hour not including mission restarts. It's the classic problem with most Square Enix games, sporadic save points. Dating back to the Super NES days, it was assumed that Square Enix games were more important than your day to day schedule, and if you wanted to play, you had to deal with hour long gaps between saves. Still, what was acceptable in the Super NES and even PlayStation days is not on the Xbox 360. Don't play this game unless you know you can devote at least an hour to it per sitting.
The designers were gracious enough to include a "skip mission" option in case the real world comes calling for you, but your score for all the missions since your last save will drop to zero, and say goodbye to any achievements you may have gotten if you use it. Any serious gamer will not want to use this function.
Replay value is also a concern. The entire game can be blasted through in five or six hours without skipping any missions. With a complete lack of any multiplayer, your interest in the game will likely end along with the closing credits.
One thing Square Enix always seems to get right is the graphics, and Project Sylpheed is no exception. This game is absolutely gorgeous, especially in HD. The big empty environments looks simply stunning with really cool nebula and cloud effects, coupled with great lens flare from any nearby suns. The ships are all rendered in intricate detail, right down to what weapon each has equipped. The frame rate takes a dip now and then, but stays smooth most of the time. There are few sights in gaming more impressive than dog fighting around a planet that is looming enormously over you. Project Sylpheed is a colourful feast for the eyes.
Terrible voice acting aside, the audio design is pretty good too. The music is an odd fusion of techno and classical music, and suits the game quite well. The ship sound effects and explosions are all appropriately bombastic and full of bass. This is a solid acoustical effort.
Taking into account its short length, steep learning curve, lack of multiplayer, and some poor design choices, Project Sylpheed is probably only worth a rental; but at same time the game's many positives find a way to outshine its obvious flaws. It's a good shooter romp that could have been great. Considering how scarce solid free-roaming space shooters have been recently, Project Sylpheed is still worth a look, despite its inherent problems.