Bomber Crew - from British studio Runner Duck - is a half flight/half management simulator set during World War 2, complete with frequent references to planes, events and locations from the conflict. Going up against stellar games such as Rogue Aces and Skies Of Fury DX on the Nintendo Switch is no easy task, but Bomber Crew does enough to not only differentiate itself from the competition but also finely balance aerial action and strategy.
Despite various primary and optional tasks when you take to the skies, your main objective is to survive. But there's enough nuance, as well as engaging real-time management to go with the dogfights, surveillance and reconnaissance missions that even when you fail, it’s tough but fair structure will bring you back in, analyse your performance and get you back in the air.
While the option to customise your aircraft with your Switch avatar and slogan of choice is merely cosmetic, the real meat of Bomber Crew is in your preparation and increasing your experience. Selecting and kitting out your seven-strong squad with uniforms and gear is only the beginning, as various parts including engines and turrets are available for your plane along with different categories of personnel, such as mechanics, gunners, radar and bomb deployment experts which are all required before you start a mission.
Upgrades and unlockables become available frequently as you earn cash and progress, with different crew members able to level up their skills, such as pilots that can perform more effective evasive manoeuvres or gunners that gain ’focus’ and become more accurate. Combined with certain missions that require a precarious balance of risk and precision, the stakes get higher but so does the chance for glory. It's a perfectly reasonable strategy to grind through a few easier missions in order to feel better prepared for later, more intense skirmishes.
A typical mission in Bomber Crew will revolve around two things: tagging and moving. From the outset, you’ll see various icons appear around the edge of the screen, and when in view, holding ‘ZL’ will perform the desired action, from shooting down enemy fighters to identifying approaching photo locations or pinpointing your landing area. This simple but multifunctional mechanic keeps things moving along at a decent pace while the camera is manually zoomed in to deal with proceedings aboard your craft.
While the interface and button-based control scheme might initially seem at odds with one another or even cumbersome, Bomber Crew demands and rewards perseverance, attention and observation. Holding ‘B’ will allow you to scroll through your team, with a few shortcuts available to execute commands smoothly. Members will have to move from place to place repairing damage, replacing ammo and so on. With instructions and damage reports coming in from all sides in the heat of battle, at times the events unfold and escalate at an uncompromising rate. Health bars deplete, targets are missed and weather disrupts your efforts, sometimes ruthlessly.
Ammunition runs out and has to be retrieved, engines get hit by enemy craft or overheat and a set landing procedure has to be followed. Each skill is carried out by a specific member of your crew, so being responsible for their welfare as well as the integrity of your aircraft is key. Mechanisms fail and a mechanic who has just repaired a wing may be injured, or reaching a high altitude puts all of your cohorts in danger.
Don’t let the cute, blocky characters and camaraderie fool you, this is can be one tough cookie - there’s a lot to manage and because there aren’t any checkpoints, there's very little room for error. It can feel overwhelming more often than not as there are plenty of split-second decisions and seemingly impossible situations to get out of. Keeping track of all the various elements to successfully maintain your aircraft is as daunting as it is gratifying.
Despite its simplistic visuals, Bomber Crew has excellent music and sound design, highlighting subtle details such as indicating malfunctions, or the rousing strings and pounding drums during more epic moments. The game also ups the ante with a roguelite structure, as crew members’ experience increases you can unlock additional skills once you reach a certain level, but if they are killed in action, it's back to base for a new recruit.
This is one aspect of Bomber Crew that feels somewhat jarring. You might well find yourself completing a few missions, getting familiar with your set up and reading a small but significant amount of information about your crew members, only for one (probably critical) mission to go horribly wrong, and things end in tragedy. Despite the games continual attempts to elicit some kind of attachment to the characters, unfortunately, it won’t take many failed attempts before you aren’t actually bothered about the fate of your crew, due to the whimsical approach to replacing them. For all the little nuggets of personable backstories, the number of new recruits you get through might just be too many to care about.
Despite its unyielding nature and curiously juxtaposing approach to its characters, Bomber Crew is a sometimes thrilling and constantly rewarding title. Favouring roguelite progression, strategy and resource management over frantic arcade-style combat, if you can get past the simple, cute visuals and steep learning curve you’ll find a rich, intense and satisfying experience here.