"The following persons and events are fictitious” states the disclaimer as the game loads up. “Any resemblance to actual events or actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental”. It’s a fairly standard notice, but also amusing as it’s hard to imagine anyone mistaking Aces of the Luftwaffe - Squadron for an historically accurate simulation. OK, at first glance it looks like a World World II-themed shmup, but it’s a game that sees German forces appearing in America after the war is thought to be over and these forces include metal insect-like craft, a flying saucer and an aerial train. In any case, it’s up to you and your team to stop them across twenty five levels of action for up to four players.
Play solo and the rest of the squadron still joins you, flying in formation and adding to your firepower as you shoot down the many enemy craft heading your way. For the multiplayer the challenge increases slightly, but this allows for higher scoring as well as the benefit of being able to cover different areas of the screen. Player One has a set character, but additional players can pick from the remainder of the team.
The team consists of Mark Taylor, Melissa Monroe, John King and Steve Davis. Steve is an interesting fella who will, on occasion, fall asleep at the controls, requiring the others to protect him until he wakes. The other pilots have their own issues, too. Melissa dislikes changing altitude so will sit some sections out while John will become enraged at times and start flying wildly about the screen ramming into anything in his path. This would be useful if it didn’t also include the other members of the team. Main character Mark suffers from bouts of sickness and when one of these hits, you must move as slowly as possible whilst you recover. These moments can sometimes annoy if you are trying to focus on the main task, but do add a bit of variety to the proceedings.
The pilots communicate throughout the missions, bantering or just commenting on the situation. Radio communications are accompanied by a static character portrait, but are fully voiced which adds to the experience, with other characters also chipping in (your general, the bosses) as the story moves along.
The game features a simple, bright and clean art style that allows for easy-to-follow action. Aircraft are generally small which allows the screen to be filled with dangers and necessitates constant movement as you avoid bullets and missiles coming from different directions and get into position to shoot down your attackers (some requiring more hits than others). Due to the large swarms of smaller craft, larger ones feel imposing when they appear, but are satisfying to shoot down.
Though mainly shooting anything that comes your way, the game also tasks you with completing sub missions. These are briefly described on the loading screens, a fact which doesn’t quite hide the up to 45 second loading times, but is a good idea nonetheless. The missions can include dropping supplies (hover over the indicated areas for a few moments), protecting an airplane or keeping up with a fleeing craft. One mission offers an opportunity for stealth as you weave about avoiding searchlights rather than bullets.
The main gameplay is standard but enjoyable shmup fare as you blast away at the bad guys and collect power-ups to send blast waves or missiles to aid in your survival. Initially survival doesn’t seem to be a problem however due to a few factors. You have a number of lives for each level and should you lose one you’ll resume at the same spot. You can also take a few hits before destruction, so perfectly navigating the bullets raining across the screen doesn’t seem essential and whilst your squad members can be shot down in single player mode, they too will return after a short time out. The challenge does arrive however, particularly if you fail to upgrade your craft.
Throughout the levels, medals can be collected (further medals awarded for successful side missions), which level your squadron up and award you with skill coins. These skill coins can be spent to upgrade the abilities of the team (each has different skills), increasing defensive and offensive capabilities, provide special items to repair craft or deploy a devastating (and spectacular looking) bomb attack. You can even spend coins to reduce the recharge time on these specials. At launch this was a bit too effective, allowing constant special attacks, but was fixed in an update a few days later. One good feature here is that you can reset the skills and redistribute your coins on different abilities if you feel you made poor choices previously, or if you just want to try something different for a particular level.
After a gentle start the difficulty steadily increases, with the very effective cracked screen effect (signifying your plane is near destruction) appearing more and more often, but as long as you stay focused and keep spending those skill coins, the challenge is not insurmountable. As well as the normal difficulty setting there is a hard and (unlockable) extreme mode, both of which unsurprisingly increase the challenge while also giving you less lives to get through the stages. Further upgrades help you through but do not make the game a pushover, with the extreme mode in particular requiring frantic movement around the screen as you attempt to avoid a fiery death.
Boss battles are enjoyable, and conversations with the wacky characters (undead train conductor, mad scientist) push the story along while providing a stern challenge (whatever the difficulty). They are generally large enemies, giving you less room to manoeuvre as you avoid the circling lasers and spiralling bullets. Some have parts that suddenly shoot out to ram you (although these can be avoided when you recognise they’re coming) and the runaway airborne train is happy to plough straight through you. “Terror Twins” Luzia and Angela fly relatively small craft, but as you are fighting both at once, they cause plenty of trouble.
There’s no online leaderboard (which is a shame as this kind of feature works well in the various ACA Neo Geo shmups), but the game keeps track of your best score for each level, providing some replay value as you attempt to see how much better you can do. The stats screen also lists the longest time undetected in the stealth stage, giving you another area in which you can try to improve.
Aces of the Luftwaffe - Squadron provides plenty of action as you do the standard thing of shooting anything onscreen while avoiding getting hit yourself, and variety is provided by squadron's various troubles and the optional side missions. It's fairly easy to begin with, but the challenge steadily increases as you progress without being too difficult - as long as you keep upgrading your skills, that is. Two additional difficulty settings provide a tougher challenge, and fun boss battles add to the enjoyment. With support for up to four players, Aces of the Luftwaffe - Squadron is a good pick for those seeking multiplayer shmup action.