Majestic flight mechanic has its wings clipped

Release date: Nov 18 (US), Nov 30 (AU, EU) Platform: Wii U

Flight mechanics have always been very common in video game design. An obvious reason for this is that they offer increased depth of exploration -  moving from place to place can become more streamlined and elegant, plus maps can be built vertically as well as horizontally – but a deeper impetus could be found in every human’s latent desire to take flight themselves.

Playing with flight can be extremely fun, particularly if the mechanic is tuned just right to ensure control is complex yet not overly challenging. People want to feel as if they’re in practised control of something very freeing and powerful. It’s this balance that is all but perfected in Chasing Aurora: one of the handful of indie games to grace the Wii U’s eShop at launch. Once the controls are learned and mastered, flight in this mountain-themed, bird-focused game is very enjoyable. The game implements a combination of fine analog stick control, a variable flap (long even flaps to propel you, short rapid flaps if you need to climb or push through resistance) and a dedicated dive button that sends you plummeting in a satisfying arc. It’s easy to imagine how, with a free and varied game design to complement the flight system, this could become a standout downloadable title for Nintendo’s new system. The problem with Chasing Aurora, however, is that the surrounding game design very rarely allows the central mechanic to reach its lofty potential.

The main issue here is that the game is very obviously designed around the idea of five-player simultaneous play, and Chasing Aurora becomes less and less fun the less people are involved. In fact unless you have consistent access to at least four players the game is very difficult to recommend at all, despite its undeniable quality in many areas.

The singleplayer game is extraordinarily limited, consisting of small maps with a series of ‘gates’ dotted around to make a circuit. The player must fly around the circuit hitting every gate, completing a requisite number of laps in as quick a time possible. A score is calculated based on how consistently you hit the gates. Considering that freedom and exploration make up a central part of the fun in playing with flight, such a restrictive game mode is a stunningly wrong fit. It is not without depth – there are 20 different courses and varied conditions such as wind or falling boulders – but the alluring trees, clouds and waterfalls that border the courses are a constant reminder that flying in a small defined circle is just not that fun.

The multiplayer ‘tournament’ mode is where the game starts to hit its stride. There are three game types: Hide & Seek, in which a player with the gamepad guards a golden token against all other players; Freeze Tag, in which the gamepad player must seek out and freeze the other players, and; Chase, in which each player fights to take control of the golden gem and then put as much distance between them and the other birds as possible – fall behind and you’re eliminated.

Each game type is fun (particularly Chase, which can actually play out like a group of birds fighting over treasure mid flight) and any given tournament is a mixture of these three game types in various environments. The gamepad is smartly rotated amongst the group to make sure everybody has an even advantage.

Unfortunately, the quality of the experience really doesn’t get a chance to shine even with two or three players. The maps are all built for five and often the person doing the seeking is at a severe disadvantage. For example in the Hide & Seek game the gamepad player can usually sit in a corner of the map and avoid being found as the other player or pair of players fly around aimlessly. Compare this to the same game mode with five players – the gamepad player is constantly on the run as the other four communicate to split the map into quadrants, block off useful choke points or shepherd their prey into a corner.

It’s a true shame there’s no game mode that allows for free flight in huge environments, as the visuals are often spectacular - ranging from snowy peaks to leafy forests to lightning storms – and it’s a joy to climb all the way up to poke your beak through the clouds before zooming all the way down to dip it in a running stream. It’s disappointing that such experiences only occur as momentary distractions from the hunt-based game modes, which as I say are definitely fun if you have the requisite amount of people. The music too is of high quality - prototypically cool and outdoorsy, mainly acoustic guitar.

Out of the way, stag!

Out of the way, stag!

The game does not support the Wii U Pro controller, so you will need four Wii remotes to play with five players (the fifth uses the gamepad). You may wonder if a complex flight mechanic that makes great use of analog sticks and triggers would be a little awkward on the Wii remote – which has neither – and sadly the answer is yes, it is. The game works well enough with the remote’s d-pad but for each player in a five-player game to have the optimum control you’re going to need to have four remotes and either a Wii nunchuck or classic controller for each. That’s a pretty big ask.

Another gripe I had with the game was in overall presentation. The menus, visually, are highly stylish in a minimalist pop-art poster kind of way. It’s a definite case of style over substance however, as the menus are sorely lacking in vital information. The two main game modes, for example, are options on the main screen with no indication of what either of them involve. But this is a minor gripe.

A little more worrying is the game’s framerate, which tends toward inconsistency. This is especially unfortunate given the precise nature of the gameplay and you will notice it every time you play. This is not a catastrophic game-breaking issue but it’s another small imperfection in a list of small imperfections that combine with the aforementioned multiplayer problems to really hurt the overall experience.

If you’re in a share house with four other enthusiastic Wii U players looking for a go-to party game, or if you have regular game nights, Chasing Aurora is easily worth the price of admission and you’re likely going to have a great time. Those are relatively uncommon scenarios though. If you’re on your own there isn’t enough here to justify a purchase. If you’ve ocassionally got one or two others to play with you’re better off with a game like Nintendo Land, which offers asymmetrical gameplay that does a much better job of scaling for different numbers of participants. If you have the cash and the friends give it a go. If not, join me in hoping someone can take the big, fun ideas that developer Broken Rules has showcased in Chasing Aurora and express them in a game worthy of their potential.

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