Another Take – Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge

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All you need to know is that there are sky pirates.

If I asked you about a handsome, wise-cracking video game adventurer with perfect hair named Nathan; you’d no doubt immediately think of Nathan Drake the main character of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series. In fact there was a Nathan fitting that description four years before the original Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was released. He was also far more likable, took his corny lines far less seriously and had a manlier voice. He’s also a pirate that flies planes. I’m talking about Nathan Zachary, leader of the Fortune Hunters air pirates. The setting is an alternate 1930s where the United States has broken apart into multiple territories and air piracy is the norm. Think of the serials and paperbacks that influenced Indiana Jones along with a thumping orchestrated soundtrack, airships and almost non-stop air combat and you have Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge.

High Road to Revenge is something of a sequel to a PC release Crimson Skies by FASA Interactive, the same developer. It released in late 2003 to positive reviews but was not nearly so successful commercially. One reason for this may be that it is in a genre that was beginning to die at the time; that of 3D flight games. Its arcade flight style is similar to series such as Rogue Squadron which also ended around this time. I write “something of a sequel” because this was designed for console and while I haven’t played the original, I assume it was far less streamlined.

Crimson Skies is off-rails and all-range as Star Fox would have it. Most missions are set in open areas and you are free to fly anywhere that an invisible barrier doesn’t prevent you. A number of these missions also offer multiple sub-missions that can be completed. The vast majority of these missions involve shooting down enemies but there are also time trial races and transport missions. Most other missions while still in an open world are just set objectives with little option to deviate. As you can probably guess, the missions with more freedom to explore are a lot more enjoyable and I would have preferred there were more of them. The other problem is there really is little variety in the missions that are there and most of the time is spent doing dangerous chores.

Something common in most genres now but once largely restricted to RPGs was progression systems. High Road to Revenge has multiple different aircraft, most of which can be upgraded. Upgrades are purchased with a combination of money and tokens which are both awarded and collected during missions. This is a welcome feature but while most aircraft can be upgraded, they can only be upgraded once. This means you’ll want to be very careful which ones you choose to upgrade as there are simply not enough tokens in one playthrough to upgrade all the planes you find. The Devastator, which is the starting plane is, also one of the best so this is the most obvious choice to upgrade. I did try all the other planes but only ones found much later in the game are comparable and when in doubt, the starting plane will get the job done.

Even with the above criticisms, the game is still comparable in features to most others in the genre of the time especially with regards to progression and mission variety. Outside of the presentation, Crimson Skies strength lies in its gameplay which is easy to learn but has the depth for those that want it. Controlling your plane, breaking, firing and boosting is all simple enough but there is also a useful trick system. Using directional combinations of the analogue sticks along with a single button click enables a variety of maneuvers like quick turns and barrel rolls. I do mean actual barrel rolls and not the misnamed spin of Star Fox fame too. These are all useful to bringing down enemies while avoiding their fire. The enemies are more of a threat because of their number but even when dealing with small numbers, it is best to avoid clumsy attacks.

As mentioned the setting is 1930s and Zachary is your typical dashing, cocksure, philandering hero. This is mostly played out through the entertaining cutscenes after every few missions but also through in-game dialogue. Zachary has his wingmen and crew who thankfully don’t just talk but do engage and shoot down enemies as well. The story is engaging and takes you through a good variety of areas leading into a suitably epic finale. Unfortunately once its over there are no additional single-player scenarios outside of replaying on higher difficulties and no option to select individual missions. Online play which was the most attractive feature of Crimson Skies is unavailable now. The game supports local play including system link but online went down with the original Xbox Live service all the way back in 2010.

Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge is still available for purchase on and compatible with Xbox 360 systems, it is also widely available in physical form and quite inexpensive. Even though I was limited to the single-player experience, I had a lot of fun with Crimson Skies. It’s a shame that a series with so much potential wasn’t more commercially successful as this is just the kind of game I’d like to see more of after so many years of first and third person action games. It is also one of those games where the flaws are better seen what could be improved than something that limits the experience. If like me, you miss this genre and games that don’t take themselves too seriously in general, then this is well worth your time.

July, 2016

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