I went into Wing of Darkness expecting a cross between Liberation Maiden and Ace Combat. You pilot a giant suit of mech armour controlled by an empowered woman (that being the Liberation Maiden part) in aerial dogfights that are similar in style to Ace Combat. That in itself would have been a perfectly worthwhile time. What I didn’t expect was the narrative bits, which are spectacular.
Quite early on the game makes it clear that it’s actually more interested in its visual novel storytelling than it is the combat. The presentation values and delivery of the narrative reminded me strongly of Kyoto Animation’s Violet Evergarden, and while the actual plotline is different, the thematic beats are not that dissimilar. See, in Wing of Darkness, you follow the story of a group of girls that are fighting in some pretty horrible wars, but that’s almost a backdrop to their deepening connection with one another. There’s a compelling juxtaposition between the girls just wanting to have a birthday party together, and the fact that they keep getting called to arms. With a graceful and utterly beautiful series of still images to convey this story, the “visual novel” side of Wing of Darkness was a wholly unexpected, but very much appreciated “bonus” to the action.
That action looks great itself. It’s hard to make environments exciting when, for the most part, you’re high in the sky and the only scenery developers have to play around with are clouds, but Wing of Darkness achieves a soaring sensation anyway, and makes the whirlwind of combat appropriately dynamic and visceral. Working your way around behind an enemy, lining up an enemy in the crosshairs and downing it with a perfectly placed missile is a gameplay loop that I will never tire of. Wing of Darkness does have an auto-aim option, which is going to be essential for players new to the dogfighting genre, but if you want to take it manual for some extra challenge, you can do so, and then you’ll need to aim ahead of the enemy to anticipate their movement just like real fighter pilots do. What’s more, each weapon has a different firing speed, so as you swap between them, you’ll need to also adjust the distance ahead that you aim. It’s challenging to play this game manually, but it makes taking down enemies all the more rewarding. Playing with the auto-aim makes Wing of Darkness a cakewalk. It’s still very worthwhile though, thanks to that narrative, and I actually appreciate that the developer has done all of this to make a generally complex genre accessible.
What I found less enjoyable is the length with which battles last. In most cases, you’ll be given a series of objectives, and each will result in a new wave of enemies coming at you. Then, just as you finish what you assume will be the final wave, yet one more comes at you. Because of this, individual battles can last upwards of half an hour, and the dogfighting can get pretty intense. Some of the most powerful enemies are nothing short of a grind to take down, requiring that you empty your entire arsenal onto them multiple times (weapons refill automatically after a cool-down period and no, none of that was innuendo, you dirty-minded readers). I did enjoy fighting large swarms of relatively fragile enemies. The whirling chaos of combat as they all zoomed around and I picked them off one by one was a visual feast. The big enemies, however, were tiring and a relatively static experience as you just unleashed wave after wave of missiles at them until they finally fell down.
Despite the length of those individual battles, the game itself is very brief, and can be comfortably completed in three or so hours, with little meaningful reason to replay. Now. I would usually defend such a thing because, firstly, I’d rather play a short, intense game that respected my time than a 100 hour-long thing constructed of dull content and secondly, short games are usually short because the people behind them have understood the value of brevity. Just a week ago I reviewed Sumire, which itself was three hours long, and it got me bawling. However, for Wing of Darkness, the brevity is an unfortunate consequence of the game lacking depth. The developers wanted to share an emotional little story of relationships and loss, and highlighting the tragedy of war not through bloody battlefields but through a simple relationship between girls. For that to work, though, the relationship needs to develop and deepen and we really need to care about what’s going on, and Wing of Darkness cuts a few too many corners for the emotional connection to be established. This could have done with a few more anecdotes, perhaps a bit of interactivity outside of the combat, and even a sex scene or two (okay perhaps that’s going a bit far, but establishing a more deeply believable romantic relationship would have helped here).
And so, though I love the concept and presentation of Wing of Darkness, it falls a little short of being an instant indie classic like Sumire was. Wing of Darkness has the right attitude when it comes to depicting the impact of war. It has impeccable presentation and art direction. The gameplay systems are enjoyable and, for the most part, well-executed. Almost everything about Wing of Darkness is spot-on, but it just falls short of making us care enough that the poignant themes and evocative narrative can really hit home. Perhaps this developer will make enough revenue from this to take a second spin at it, and I would play that in a heartbeat, because I am totally certain that the limitations of Wing of Darkness has nothing to do with the developer’s talent, ideas, and ambition.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb