The Steam store page for Red Barton & the Sky Pirates says it is reminiscent of N64 classic Star Fox and the arcade smash hit After Burner. That is one terrible use of the word ‘reminiscent’. ‘Mockery’ would be a lot closer, because this game…
Where do I begin? No, really, where do you begin with a game that does absolutely nothing right, at all, at any point? Actually, that’s not quite true – let’s get the ‘OK’ stuff out of the way first. The opening FMV is not too bad. The logo for the game is nicely done too. It doesn’t seem to be an asset flip either – everything seems to be graphically cohesive with nothing sticking out like a sore thumb. There, that’s that. Prepare yourselves for a torrent of criticism now, because there’s nothing else left but that.
So, the graphics. PlayStation 2 standard, with muddy textures everywhere. The detail on Red’s plane is OK, but the landscape is woeful, and the enemy design is just a myriad of turrets with little distinction between one and the other. Not only are the graphics sub-par, but there are massive issues with the out of bounds pop-in. The whole game takes place in a tunnel, and when you go to the side or high up, you can see through the game to the outside, making you painfully aware that your surroundings are a paper-thin veneer wrapping around a long tube that you play in. It’s rank amateur game coding that you’d expect in a tech demo, not a fully released game. Not only that, but the collision detection is absolutely laughable. The very first object you see in the game – a floating plane on the left – you can fly straight through it with no damage whatsoever. It doesn’t stop there – trees are nothing, certain parts of the wall don’t work. On one stage massive stalactites hang down from the ceiling that are a focal point of the level, and you can just fly right through the damn things. Invisible walls are the only thing that save you from leaving the level entirely on multiple occasions. Indeed, when you die, sometimes the game doesn’t load the Game Over screen properly, meaning you can still control the plane and fly off anywhere you want.
But graphics aren’t everything; what about everything else? Well, first off, actually playing the game is a challenge in the first place. Oh, it loads OK, but I mean the controls for an Xbox 360 controller are… wrong. Literally wrong. The in-game control scheme lies to you – it says A shoots when it’s actually B, and it says X is a boost when it’s actually the Start button. There is no option at all to rebind these keys either, so you’re stuck with it. Fancy pausing the game? No button on the control pad does that, so you have to press Escape on a keyboard. But that just freezes the game – no pause menu comes up. Indeed, there’s no in-game menu in existence, as far as I can tell. Oh, and if you do use the Escape key to pause the game, sometimes the game will crash. There’s also no way of getting back to the main menu once you are in-game. Oh, not only that (as if that wasn’t enough!), there are pre-mission cutscenes that consist of portraits with speech bubbles communicating the story. The screen proudly says “Tap/Click to Continue” to move along the cutscene – revealing that this is a mobile port, despite the fact it’s actually releasing on PC first! Anyway, no button on your control pad will allow you to move along the cutscene. OK, no problem, click the mouse instead, right? Well, yes, it works – but only every so often. You have to click like a mad man to get it to actually work once every ten clicks.
Right, so the story. You play Red Barton as he takes on his former King who has gone mad with power and upset the noble traditions of Diamondia. With help from the Sky Pirates and a Princess who was a childhood sweetheart, it’s up to you to attack the King’s forces and restore the kingdom to its former glory by deposing the tyrant monarch. The story attempts a comic book style of narrative and fails miserably. Here’s a typical cutscene – “I’ll get you King Diamund!”, “No you won’t, my General will kill you!”, “No, he won’t!”, “Yes, I will, bwahaha!” Rinse and repeat four times and you’re done. I say four times because this game has only four levels. These aren’t labyrinthian, multi-branching levels either. No, I first played the game on Easy to give me an easy ride in and grab some screenshots – I beat the game in 20 minutes. After laughing at the ending (more on that later), I thought maybe Easy was an intro mode, so I put it on Normal. And I promptly beat the game in 20 minutes. With the same ending.
There’s another difficulty mode called “Good Luck”. It is aptly named, because instead of coming up with more difficult enemy fire patterns or, heaven forbid, new enemy types… instead, it’s the exact same game, but every enemy in the game can kill you in one hit. Lazy. So goddamn lazy. It’s gameplay up next, and it is awful. You shoot slightly above the iron sights, and you adjust to this after a few minutes, but you move like a flying tank. You know in Star Fox where if you move swiftly to the right then your gun sights will swing with the nose to the right too? You don’t in this. Instead, you are always shooting in a straight line – your plane moves laterally from left to right. The boost button is absolutely pointless as you never need to increase your speed, and bizarrely it barely increases it anyway – it acts as a field of view changer more than anything. Various power-ups exist that drop as tokens when you kill enemies. Bullet upgrades give you a spread shot, shields add defense, red crosses restore health – all standard stuff. What I don’t understand are the fuel power-ups and the fuel meter in general; they simply don’t need to exist. I’ve never once come close to running out of fuel. It’s actually impossible – I tried it. I avoided every fuel power up on one level and got to the end boss just fine. Sure, you can make the argument that the third level boss is tougher because he shields himself, so you might run out of fuel, but honestly, it’s just a completely pointless feature.
After each mission you return to the hangar where you can upgrade your plane, weapons and so on through coins you collect throughout the mission itself. Weaponry upgrades include rockets, grenades (?) and bullets. However, you only ever have to upgrade your bullets, because rockets and grenades are almost as pointless as fuel. Once you upgrade your bullets for dirt cheap a few times, you mow through everything in the game anyway. Upgrade your plane to the top level for 120 coins (easy to do, two missions or so) then max out your bullets, and you’re unstoppable. That includes bosses. I feel terrible here because the devs have obviously thought them out carefully and probably think they’ve done a good job, but they just haven’t. At all. I’ll detail why by picking the second level boss as an example – it shields itself every now and then and releases a hail of floating bombs in a wide circle as an attack. In theory, it’s a good mechanic; in practice, you avoid everything easily in the 20 seconds it takes to just shoot it dead, taking no damage. Sorry, I have to note the final boss too. I killed it on Easy in eight seconds. I killed it on Normal in seven seconds. I really don’t have to say why this is ridiculous, do I?
Now, about that ending. After four painful, laughably terrible levels that last 20 minutes, you’re treated to what is actually a rather fun little comic book strip sequence detailing the adventures of Red Barton…and then it ends by advertising DLC. I kid you not, an actual DLC promo is the ending. I really, really hope they aren’t expecting that to be paid DLC. I’ve played some shovelware in my time, and they’re bad, obviously. What makes Red Barton & the Sky Pirates a unique experience for me is that this isn’t shovelware, yet it is every bit as bad as it. It’s been made by a team who have thought it out and put honest effort in, yet they’ve failed at every foreseeable step to get anything right! Everything reeks of a development where they had an idea, did some groundwork and persisted with it because they didn’t want to waste what they had done. That was a terrible decision.
It is a budget title at £4.99 RRP, but it isn’t even worth that, unless you want to laugh at how seriously wrong a game can get things. When the best thing a game does is the design of its logo, you’ve got problems. Avoid. Red Barton is no aerial ace.
Developer: Schism Worldwide
Publisher: Plug In Digital
Available: PC – Steam (Coming soon to iOS and Android)
Release Date: 14 March 2017