Just to bring you up to speed with what’s in store for the next 600 years or so: Mankind breaks the boundaries of the solar system in or around the year 2130, sets out across the stars with an imperialist agenda, eventually terraforming planets within eleven newly-colonized star systems, all while over 75 percent of the population adopts a pointy-haired anime style hairdo. But don’t take my word for it. Square Enix peered into its shiny, neon-emblazoned crystal ball to extract this image of a shiny, neon-emblazoned future populated with shiny, neon-emblazoned ships and naval pilots. Even ragtag rebels and bomb-ridden cityscapes still keep their glistening aura intact.
A parallel, six-stage tutorial provides quick and dirty insight into a hectic, knee-deep flight model. It won’t stress out Flight Simulator X captains, but it certainly pushes past simple yaw and pitch thumbstick maneuvering. Droll text rolls out instructions on the most basic of controls to include interpreting the convoluted heads-up display; a radar that’s less useful than the HUD indicators themselves; special moves to up the ante during dog fighting; in-flight replenishment to resupply fuel and munitions; and three-level D-pad memorizations for wingman orders.
The happy-go-lucky space techno undercuts the gravity of a distant-future civil war, and turns the soundscape into a loopy, cotton candy rave. The tracks are incessantly upbeat, and identifiably J-pop spinoffs by design. It’s the musical equivalent of a dazzling “Welcome to the Future!” sign buzzing in your face, but is fairly blameless in the sense that it matches the brightly-colored, animation art style working into a majority of the project.
Your name is Katana Faraway, and you are the typified, teen-angsty, androgenous (but that means “male”) protagonist that is the glue for most games developed on the west side of the Pacific. A black guy here and a white girl there are thrown in for diversity’s sake, but the entire roll call is cast from the same mold. Katana’s personality differentiates from his wingman’s, Ellen Bernstein, only because they made her slightly more whiny than Katana himself.
As Katana struggles to become a man, dog fights draw long, Silly String streamers across the entire battlefield, and explosions rip sharp pinpoints of light amidst it all. Aircraft tear past one another at speeds too fast to gauge, which leaves your visuals of the bad guys reduced to red circles, squares, and triangles on your 2-dimensional HUD. And there’s lots of ‘em. The first level alone racks up 70 kills during sortie after sortie of enemy waves, weighing in at 1.3 kilotons of enemy wreckage. Also, while the lock-on feature provides copious assistance during dog fights, the Times-Square crowded HUD makes it impossible to discern distant targets. The HUD’s just begging for a mini screen to display an image of the enemy target -- a sprite, a red triangle … shoot, I would’ve settled for a legible ship name. As it stands, you’ll have to make due with small-ship identification by discerning how it moves. Coupling that level of HUD corner-cutting with a difficulty level that moves up and down like a heart monitor, and you’re sometimes stuck in murderously hard scenarios. Show-stopping hard, sometimes. And that’s when Project Sylpheed’s easy-going charm begins to ebb: When you get nabbed with a Mission: Impossible on a series of sorties that were moving along (for all intents and purposes) on a smooth and fun-loving scale.
The only closeups you’ll ever catch of this Dynasty Warriors-sized number of enemies come during hyper-animated cutscenes, all sprinkled liberally between levels. The melodrama is expectantly eye-rolling, especially as the storyline tries to pour on the sad-girl tears in the first scene when an NPC you care nothing about is turned into a handful of space dust. A funeral scene reminiscent of the Wing Commander series is held (minus the gravitas), and a coffin is sent out into the blackness trailed by broken, flash-frozen carnations. It’s typical artsy, esoteric Japanese faire that’s indicative of nothing more than the fact that somebody on the design team likes carnations.
Wingmen require extensive babysitting, serving as little more than bullet sponges, since they attack nothing, defend nothing, and all-around do nothing unless ordered specifically. In the real world, that’s top-notch wingman flying. In the game world, it’s a certifiable reason to ground your buddy pilots for taking zero initiative in accomplishing mission goals. And they don’t so much fly on your wing as they swarm into your line of sight. Tarry too long flying in one direction, and your wingmen will run ahead like unleashed puppies, still not engaging the enemy until ordered, but cluttering up the microphone with friendly-fire rhetoric: “Was that Katana that just fired at me?” “Katana, your stray fire is hitting me!” “Hold up, Katana, I’m on your side!” Sending them out to attack specific targets is indeed crucial in taking down capital ships, but their rate of success in swatting down smaller flies is difficult to measure in the fast-paced field of battle. Accepting your wingmen’s shortcomings is a necessary evil in the long run, since artificial time constraints press the scenarios ever onward. You’ll often hear the phrase “In three minutes it will be impossible to continue combat.” Why? No reason. Just keeping the chapters short and sweet, is all.
While the full-controller setup will test your fingers’ Cirque du Soleil skills, the interface between combat stages is reverently polished. It’s not deep, it’s not unforgettable, but it is cleanly guided. Moving through the levels inexplicably unlocks bigger guns, bigger missiles, and bigger lasers. Why? Again, no reason. Just keeping the artificial sense of character progression intact, is all. But the dull mission briefings are outlined in chalk (read as: dead on the sidewalk). Which barely matters anyway, since mission objectives boil down to nothing more than sci-fi equivalents to hack-and-slash dungeon crawls -- the only real difference being that stone walls and mossy undertones are replaced with asteroid belts and nebulous gas clouds.
Project Sylpheed avoids being a button masher by narrow margins, and that’s only because they’ve spread the button mashing out across the entire face and backside of the controller. Clean-lined graphics and coming-of-age melodrama aren’t enough to mask overly busy controls and over simplified ship-based RPG elements. This is not the grand space opera you were looking for.
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