Frequent Flyer soars, but it doesn’t take shoot-em-ups to new heights
Frequent Flyer is the second Steam release from Latvia-based indie studio Coldwild Games. Coldwild is about as indie as they come. Its development team consists of Vladimir Slav, the lead programmer, and his girlfriend Helen, who handles drawing and design. Together (with a little help from Dmitry Zadonsky, who wrote the music for the game) the duo has created what they describe as “a tribute to old-school shoot-em-up games with a modern twist.”
As a shoot-em-up, Frequent Flyer’s core premise is to stay alive while flying around the map and blowing up enemies. Along the way, you'll pick up increasingly powerful ammo types, encounter more dangerous enemies, and unlock up to ten planes, each with unique visuals and attributes. The premise sounds simple enough and, on its face, Frequent Flyer is simple, but if you think it’ll be a walk in the park, you’re wrong. It gets very hard, very fast. Ultimately, the difficulty level is one of the major factors which will keep you playing in an effort prove to yourself that you really can’t be that bad at this game… can you?
The mechanics suit the simple premise of the title.
Players navigate using the WASD keys (the Steam release als o includes gamepad support) and fire using the spacebar. There’s also a nifty little mechanic that lets you dive down below the action for a few seconds using the shift key. Overall, the mechanics are easy to pick up and do what they’re intended to do, however, in a title focused primarily on World War II-era airplanes, there could have been some more added flair. Fans of barrel rolls will be disappointed to learn that – other than the dive mechanic mentioned above – there are no additional aerial maneuvers that a player can execute.
The user interface is as straightforward as the mechanics. There’s an ammo counter, a health counter, and a small meter that tracks how much “energy” you have to perform a dive or increase your speed. In the bottom-right corner of the screen, you can see how many stars you’ve accumulated (stars are used as currency to unlock the various planes in the game). The minimalist user interface is appropriate, allowing players to stay focused on the actual gameplay.
The audio in Frequent Flyer is adequate but leaves a little to be desired. The music is high-energy and upbeat, which makes it suited to the frequently frantic gameplay. Likewise, the in-game audio effects are well executed and support the identity of this title as an arcade shooter. It's the effects that aren't in the game that leave the audio lacking. For a release that primarily features propeller-driven airplanes, you won't hear a single propeller churning, or a single engine turning over. That's something that might turn off players whose interest is based on the theme, rather than the gameplay.
Graphically, Frequent Flyer shoots for, and hits the mark in capturing, a retro 16-bit feel.
The different ammo types each have distinct visual effects that add to their fun factor, explosions are vibrant and satisfying, and each of the available planes is faithfully researched and recreated in a style that will make history buffs smile.
The different planes all have their own stats which suit them to different play styles. The PE-8 is tanky and bristling with firepower, but it’s slow, while the Spitfire is much faster, but has less damage and health. The diversity of aircraft, the way each one handles, and the desire to unlock them all helps to drive Frequent Flyer’s replayability.
There are four different playable modes in Frequent Flyer. Each mode (other than Missions) can be tuned to easy, medium, or hard difficulty, and every mode allows the player to accumulate stars.
In “missions” mode, the player progresses through 24 levels, each with a victory condition. While 24 missions might seem like an impressive amount of content for an indie title, it loses some of its luster when you consider that all of the victory conditions rotate between one of the same three formulae – namely: (1) destroy X number of enemies, (2) survive for X amount of time, or (3 ) score X amount of points. It would have been nice to see some more variety in mission types, or a boss battle or two. As it stands, missions mode feels like a repetitive and increasingly difficult grind through the same set of objectives.
Then there’s “Infinite” mode, which plays more like a traditional shoot-em-up. There is no victory condition in this mode. Rather, you try to amass as many points as you can, by exploding as many things as you can, while avoiding getting yourself killed for as long as you can. Enemies continuously spawn on all sides, and as your score grows, progressively harder enemies begin to appear. Infinite mode is a fun mode to push your limits and see how crazy the action can get.
“Organized” mode is almost identical to infinite mode, except it's more – brace for it – organized. Rather than having multiple enemy types spawning spontaneously around the map, enemy spawns are restricted to one type at a time from each side. This can be useful to practice nailing down the best strategy for killing (or not dying to) certain enemy types. Other than that, the mode doesn't offer anything extra that Infinite mode doesn't already cover.
Finally, there’s “Time Attack!”
Here, your goal is to not let the time on the clock run out. The 30-second timer that you start with immediately starts counting down upon spawning. Your plane doesn’t have any health in this mode, rather, every time you take damage precious seconds get shaved off the clock. Conversely, you gain seconds every time you dish out damage. You can also put time back on the clock by picking up randomly spawning hourglasses. This mode is suited for players who like to live on the edge of having an anxiety attack, as you’ll often come within a fraction of a second of the clock hitting zero.
Frequent Flyer is a game you can picture yourself shoving fistfuls of quarters into down at your local video arcade (if you're so fortunate to have one locally). The retro, 2-D graphics, waves of different enemies, and variety of fun weaponry are a throwback to a time when blowing things up and racking up points were all you needed to have a good time on a Saturday afternoon. While it's certainly a solid title, Frequent Flyers likely appeals mostly to gamers who are already fans of the genre. There isn't much here that would attract players without an interest in either arcade shooters or World War II-era airplanes. If you're looking for your next love, this probably won’t satisfy that craving, but it's worth considering if you want to relive the glory days of 16-bit pandemonium.