My love of video games started as an arcade rat in a local pizza shop on Cape Cod. I was obsessed with the quick, rewarding button mash mechanic that, to this day, still makes my heart sing. As I got older, my generation embraced the burgeoning social scene of the MMORPG genre. I was one of its earliest and most stalwart advocates.
So when I was offered the opportunity to review an indie game that combines the action of arcade games and the beautiful social mold of a massively online multiplayer, I chucked whatever I was playing into the computer’s recycle bin and said, “Yes, please!”.
That game is Steambirds Alliance, an MMO plane shooter from developer and publisher Spry Fox. Let’s discover it together!
From Arcade to Now
Steambirds Alliance borrows heavily from 1990s video game lore. Your character is a pilot in a resistance movement that seeks to defeat the Feline Empire, an evil kingdom of anthropomorphic cats that in no way resembles Wing Commander’s Kilrathi. You and your buddies are the Bird Rebels. Your goal is to take to the skies to defeat Meowza, the empire’s titular leader.
The developers of Steambirds Alliance wisely borrowed from the aesthetics of older arcade plane shmups that you punched your quarters into when you were a kid. The character designs, world visuals, and sound effects are a beautifully rendered 3D mix of Sonic Wings, 1942, and Raiden. The homage is apparent down to the dieselpunk planes of the Bird Rebels and the pew-pew sounds of your fighter’s cannons.
The interface and controls are also crisp and well defined. I was especially impressed by the equal attention given to both controller and keyboard setups. Dropped loot is auto equipped based on the highest skill level; simple gauges tell you when your health is low and you ship needs to recharge.
The gameplay is streamlined for nostalgic effect. Your plane has a primary fire mode, power up move, and an aerial maneuver for tight spots by which to fight an ever-expanding horde of antagonists. A wisely designed teleportation feature also transports you back to base or to nearby players, if you ever need to.
I am also happy to say that there is adequate focus on gameplay progression. Steambirds Alliance includes RPG mechanics and skill trees, as well as multiple planes to unlock as you rank up; all designed to give you a unique play experience. The grind mechanics and new planes add replay value to an already solid game.
An interesting a feature of this game is the separate leveling of your pilot and your plane. Although your pilot rank and level are permanent, your plane’s is not. If you’re shot down, that’s it, and your new plane starts at level one. This rouge-like element adds a great degree of difficulty and care in your gameplay choices that isn’t seen in most games.
This all culminates in moments of fantastic, high stakes aerial dogfights. You’ll find yourself grinning and reliving childhood moments when you and your friends have your screens filled with droves of enemy planes determined to send you to bullet hell. Overall, despite only being in Beta, Steambirds Alliance is already the foundation for an amazing game.
A Need for a World
Amidst the optimism, it’s important to mention that Steambirds Alliance isn’t complete. The game hasn’t embraced a better sense of role playing and world building. An important element of MMOs is a sense of ownership – part of the fun is building a unique character by which to distinguish yourself in a populated world. Other than a portrait selection in the tutorial, however, every person starts the game with the same stock plane. There is zero customization.
The loot from enemies only improves your stats and does zero for your character aesthetic. The only things you can customize – trail and plane colors – are maddeningly locked behind a real world money wall in the game store. Apparently, not even indies are immune to the insidious ethos of corporate gaming profit culture.
In addition to my own lack of importance, there hasn’t been much care in populating Steambirds Alliance with NPCs or random social interactions. All of your missions are at homebase, instead of being located within the beautiful world that has been built. This is a mistake. There are no random character meetings in the skies, no separate factions, and no social features by which you can create a group of planes to go take down Meowza’s henchmen.
Fixing the Fixable
The lack of social interaction and non-playable characters, coupled with the continual destruction and replacement of my featureless plane, made me feel like the last member of a flying ant colony in the middle of the desert.
Where are the NPC mice pilots that need me to save their flying rodent utopia? where’s the loot pool with that badass, platinum propeller with the 5% drop rate that makes me feel like top dog when new characters stare at me enviously in homebase? A raid queue of bird rebels looking to blow stuff up on the weekend?
Steambirds Alliance can easily fix these issues by dipping into the wealthy history of the plane games that predate it. The joy of a shmup was grabbing the power-up that gave your plane five bullets instead of two, complete with a killer visual upgrade. A party feature is the most basic aspect of an MMO and needs to be added to the menu. If the game adds these elements, then the developers will have a hit on their hands.
In conclusion, I’m excited to see what Steambirds Alliance evolves into. Despite the game’s sense of self and social hierarchy still being in its infant stages (and it is – that’s what Beta is for), there is a gloriously fun amount of gaming to be had for an aerial shooter fanboy like myself.
I’ll continue to visit this world for a while. There is simply too much fun and potential to miss. If you want to tag along, simply head over to Steam!