Hands-On: Airheart

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I had a chance to sit down last week with Moritz Zumbühl, President and Co-Founder of Blindflug Studios, based in Zürich, Switzerland to talk about their upcoming game Airheart. But first a little background.

The studio was founded in 2014, having grown out of the creative agency Feinheit. As part of Feinheit, they originally took on corporate work, looking to make big campaigns built around complex issues. One of their early projects, Born to Run was published by the Anti-Doping Associations in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria.

Born to Run is a rooftop racing experience where you can either play it straight or try to cheat your way to the top by taking illegal substances. Getting caught can mean being banned from competition. With the online leaderboards, you don’t know who may have cheated to achieve their ranking.

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People who get caught end up on the Wall of Shame, but it gives the player an understanding of what it’s like for a professional athlete, never knowing if your competition is playing fair or using performance enhancing drugs.

When Blindflug spun off of Feinheit to create games on their own, they wanted to fun and really good looking games that were still built around complex issues. The first to come out of this was First Strike, a fast-paced simulation strategy mobile game about nuclear war. It was a critical and financial success which gave the studio seed money to continue making games.

The next game, Cloud Chasers – A Journey of Hope is set on a planet that has dried out. The story focuses on a father leaving home with his daughter Amelia to find a better life for her. It’s based in part on the real stories of migrants and their harrowing journeys.

The game contains around 260 events that are mixed a different way each time you play. The wealthy people of the planet have already taken their airships and moved to cities in the sky. You travel through the deserts in search of an escalator to reach the cities above the clouds. It’s a gorgeous game with an interesting mix of strategy and resource management.

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Airheart is actually a direct sequel to Cloud Chasers but they’re both made to be stand-alone games. You don’t have to play one to understand the other, although after seeing both, I’d recommend Cloud Chasers anyway. It’s all part of a cool little universe they’re building.

You’ve made it to the islands in the sky and you’re continuing the story of Amelia, who has grown up at this point. Her father told her fairy tales about a giant whale living near the stars so she’s going to look for it.

The studio started work on the game in February and they’ve made Airheart a roguelike twin-stick shooter. You have a base with a hanger for your airplanes where you can work on upgrades.

Flying out of the base takes you up to the first level. You play with a top down view, circling around fighting sky pirates. You have two main weapons, with one firing directly from the front of your plane and the other firing in the direction of the targeting reticule controlled by the right stick.

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Destroying the enemy planes will net you oil, scrap parts, and health and clearing out all of them will give you access to the next level up. There are twelve levels in all and each successive one gets a little bit larger while the enemies get tougher.

When you feel that you’ve collected enough or your health is running low you can dive back down to your base. You’ll have to avoid obstacles on the way down but it’s pretty manageable, unless you’re about to crash.

If you take too much damage you don’t automatically die and lose everything like a standard roguelike. You have a chance to crash land your plane but it becomes much more difficult to control and to hit the landing pad at your base, especially when you’re on the far side of a higher level. It’s all about the risk/reward.

You’ll also find flying fish in the game scattered around the levels which can be caught and then sold to neutral fishers and traders within the levels themselves and here’s where things get interesting.

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There are twelve species of fish in the game and their population will continue to grow naturally. However, the overall population is shared by every single person playing the game. If all the players combined hunt the fish too fast and too often, they could be wiped out entirely.

Moritz told me that they’re still tweaking this, deciding on how exactly to make it work and how long it will take for the fish to come back if they’re completely wiped out. It’s a really interesting addition to the game making people more aware of shared resource management in a cool way.

Back at your base/garage, you can use the oil and scrap parts to upgrade your planes. You can purchase five different types of planes and you have the ability to change out the chassis, engine, wings, turret, and front guns.

Blueprints are available as a way to save your progress. You break down existing airplane pieces to make blueprints. According to Moritz:

Each item that the player has successfully crafted can then be broken down again to create blueprints. Blueprints will enable the player to always, even after restarting the game, buy the weapons directly from the store. In case of failure, or if you already own the blueprint you get 1/4th of the scraps back.

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Your plane also has a harpoon which can be used in a number of ways. The first, and most obvious is to catch bigger fish but you can also harpoon enemy planes. Bigger opponents may have shields and you can use your harpoon to remove them. You can also hit an enemy plane and pull it into the side of a cliff or drag it down to your base and use it to build a new plane.

You can have multiple planes in the hanger and there are five different types each with their own strengths. There are five different engines per plane, around twenty different guns and a number of different wings for more maneuverability.

It’s still early, but the controls already feel tight and it looks absolutely beautiful. I kept getting caught up in the fight, forgetting to get back to my base until I was in trouble. It made for a harrowing experience.

The art style drew me in but the gameplay really got hold of me. The roguelike aspects of the game combined with the finite number of fish should really help to set this game apart from other twin-stick shooters.

Airheart has already been Greenlit on Steam and Blindflug plans to have an Early Access version available by the end of the Summer or early Fall just to gather feedback. The plan is then to have a full version ready for release on Steam, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One in 2017.

 

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