Demo Driver 8: Forward to the Sky
I find myself for the first time in the weird position of being able to say that Forward to the Sky is probably my favorite of the vaguely anime brawler titles that I’ve played for this feature, which is not a phrase I expected to type more or less ever. Not that I consider that to be high praise, though; it just means that the game manages to deliver its contents more effectively than others.
By the same token, it’s not dismissal, either. Like so many before it, this game was and is a labor of love; the people who made it are self-described fans working to make a game that feels like an anime game, and to their credit they’ve succeeded at that. The downside is that ironic as it sounds, a game all about climbing a tower winds up without a whole lot of verticality. The demo itself feels like a demo for what’s coming next, because it’s a very thin experience; at the same time, it’s a product that clearly wants to be exactly what it is.
The story that we get is sketchy in the extreme, but it’s really… well, Anime Prelude Plot #12. A mysterious sky tower existed, blah blah witch, blah blah reappeared, blah blah rebellious princess, something something skeleton fight. The demo, at least, relies on pages of narration and bits of dialogue between two characters (or one character and one disembodied voice) for all of its storytelling, which is a trick that Portal made work chiefly by having excellent voice acting. Forward to the Sky, meanwhile is…
Well, let’s be honest. What we’re dealing with here is a game that manages to consistently hit “talented amateur” level on multiple points. Which is not an insult, but it means that you’re not going to be dazzled by the strength of the writing or the acting. So the narrative is kind of a wash.
But, hey, did that ever matter? No. This is a game in which you do a thing, and the strength of that thing is going to be what ultimately makes the game good or not. So what are we doing? We’re… climbing a tower. And collecting crystals to unlock story stuff. So it’s a 3D platformer with some light combat, that’s all well and good. How well it delivers is the pudding one generally finds proof in, and that’s when it becomes a more complex piece of work.
See… the combat is bad. But it’s not bad to a staggering degree. It’s bad like, well, far too many Playstation 3D platformers. Things are a bit floaty, impact generally seems to be missing, but all of the mechanics work. There just aren’t many of them. You have a dodging backstep, a pair of attack buttons, and no powerups or enhanced attacks or anything else to complicate matters. Or, perhaps more accurately, nothing to make combat more than hammering on one button until all the enemies are dead or you are.
It’s honestly fairly boring. Far more interesting are the game’s platforming sequences and dodging the extending and retracting spikes that show up throughout the levels. There’s a very solid three-dimensional feel to the areas, a lot of puzzles that involve you rotating around the tower in interesting ways, and patterns of movement on spikes and platforms that feel very organic while at the same time being unique. Considering how many games use the third dimension for verisimilitude without ever really exploring what a climb could feel like, it’s actually a breath of fresh air.
Certainly the visuals don’t hurt. Saying a game is cel-shaded brings to mind the best and worst examples, but Forward to the Sky used that aspect with a light touch. It looks good. I wouldn’t say that any of the platforming elements raise the bar to puzzle status – they’re all pretty straightforward – but they’re satisfying. It’s at its best when it goes for platforming.
Unfortunately, the lack of any powerups or life pickups or much of anything makes the play a little bit repetitive. There’s also the fact that the game just doesn’t have much to it, as a whole. Your goal is to reach the top of the tower, but that only lasts for six levels. You unlock more story by collecting crystal, but as I said, it’s pretty straightforward. Once you’ve gotten all of that done… what next?
The game doesn’t seem to have much of an answer. It’s small, it’s not terribly ambitious, and it doesn’t actually involve a whole lot of stuff to do other than the obvious. I don’t dislike it, but it feels very simple and half-finished, like the idea for a larger game got lost somewhere along the way. What you’re left with is $8 for a pretty quick experience – if the demo’s level 1 is any indication, and it probably is, you can blow through the whole thing in an afternoon.
Despite that, I have a certain affection for it. The combat ain’t great, but the parts that focus more around movement are fun, and I never had the feeling that the game was padding itself out or trying to be cleverer than it was. It is, as I said, an enthusiastic amateur project.
Could I tell you why I have more affection for this enthusiastic amateur project than others? Chiefly, I think it comes down to a sense of potential. I feel like, given time, the people who produced this could produce something notably better, that this was a first effort that wasn’t reaching too far. This was a rough first go, but an expanded and refined version with combat that’s a bit more fun could be a real experience. And I’d rather encourage more along that line than discourage by focusing on the fact that it wasn’t so great by itself.
Or maybe I’m just fickle. I’d believe either.