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  • Writer's pictureAaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza

Blue Sky Aces (Steam Next Fest 2024 Demo)

Updated: Apr 8

Stumbling upon a stylized, retro inspired World War 1 indie flight game

 


Steam Next Fest February 2024 is on! It has been quite some time since we checked in on one of these game festivals. In the past, we had been introduced to many interesting upcoming flight game titles; many of them putting out public demos for the first time during this event. While sailing through the digital ocean of indie titles available, a video of a World War 1 era swirling air battle began to play. 



Blue Sky Aces by Curious Dog Games was announced to the public on August 5th, 2023. When it comes to indie flight games, I cannot say there are a steady stream of World War 1 always in development and on their way to release. While this immediately caught my attention, I can genuinely say this is a completely new title to me. A cursory search about Curious Dog Games shows that they are a hobbyist game developer that has been “tinkering with games” for over 20 years. It was not until they stumbled upon the Unity game engine a few years ago until they started to build complete games, which are available on Itch.io


Rather than dig intensively through the dev logs on YouTube and Steam, I am going to jump in blind and experience the current state of the game. 


Demo Overview

The demo presents the British and German side as represented by their aircraft. Though each country has three aircraft in the demo only the Airco DH.2 and Fokker E.III are available. The British side has 1 training mission and 2 combat mission. The German side brings 1 training mission and 1 combat mission. 





The game supports keyboard and mouse (which the developer suggests), gamepads and more advanced flight controllers thanks to its ability to remap buttons and axes per controller. There are options for aim assists and lead indicators to assist players. 


Aircraft can be flown in third person view and first person view (cockpit view), though first person view does let players free look around the aircraft. In either view, the on-screen user interface shows gauges for airspeed, altitude, direction, engine RPM, fuel level and oil level. Curiously, oil level acts as the aircraft damage gauge; the more oil you lose indicates the more damage you have taken. Machine gun ammunition count, a proximity radar of allies and enemies, a visualization of kill score and status messages about how a target was damaged is also shown. 


Example of Blue Sky Aces in game UI.
Example of in game UI.

As mentioned in the recent trailer, it provides “simple, no nonsense gameplay”. This game sets aside large, complicated briefings or trying to dive into the politics of World War 1 to simply focus on aerial combat and simple objectives. The demo has a leaderboard function built that shows the top scores of the “Highest Scoring Aces” (players that have been shot down during the mission) and “Highest Scoring Living Aces” (players that have completed the mission alive). 


Simple Looks, Serious Combat 

The first impression of this game can give off the feeling that this is a basic game with chunky hit boxes and minimal effort put into certain aspects of it. On the contrary, it took me some time to adjust to the level of difficulty of combat in this game. 


Each aircraft has hit boxes for certain sections of the aircraft that receive damage at different rates depending on how often they are hit and from how far away the attacking is coming - i.e. bullets losing muzzle velocity. Focusing damage near wing roots can snap them off, damage to engines can severely reduce aircraft performance, and the tell-tale sign of a small cloud of blood with a critical hit is landed on the cockpit.


Of course, this goes both ways. It is possible for the player’s aircraft to be completely destroyed in a few seconds during one poorly planned strafing run or by reacting too slowly to incoming fire from another aircraft. I went down a handful of times, mainly do to me not quite taking this title seriously enough I guess. Once I started flying in a more thought out, calculated way, everything fell into place. 


There is now mid-mission save system in this demo, so do be sure to think long-term when in combat. You will find yourself losing your last 5 to 10 minutes of progress in the blink of an eye. 



Flight Physics 

The flight physics are simplified enough to where someone could learn how to fly the aircraft in this game within five minutes or less on a keyboard, game pad or even a flight stick. Mastering takeoff and landing can be done in a single training mission. Achieving a near maximum rate turn is as easy as rolling the wings perpendicular to the ground and pulling up without having to think about much else besides altitude and maybe engine RPM. 


However, there are enough details, closer to a flight sim lite that players more knowledgeable about aviation can utilize.


Performing certain real world maneuvers at the right time and with the right conditions provides a noticeable edge. Alternatively, attempting them at the wrong speed and altitude has absolutely unforgiving results.


More than once has the High or Low Yoyo been a go-to tactic for me in the middle of a uncoordinated "dogfight”. Coordinated turns with plenty of rudder applied significantly improved air-to-air gunnery and made it easier to evade ground fire.



Performing high altitude diving attacks then transitioning into The Immelmann Turn to then regain altitude and take time to reposition for a follow-up attack. However, the WWI namesake Immelmann relentlessly punished me for Stalling at its apex. A few seconds of uncontrolled flight and loss of altitude is often a death sentence for these canvas, wire and wooden wonders. Mainly due to how low engine output was in WWI aircraft. Every well known basic fighter maneuver handles very differently than when a high output engine aircraft does them. 


It was nice to see Blue Sky Aces emulate the overall low output engines to see how basic fighter maneuvers were effective in a different way during this era of technology. 



Unexpected Ground Combat Details

Within my first play through, the most surprising part about Blue Sky Aces was its portrayal of the air-to-ground combat of the era. Even in the most advanced combat flight simulators of 2024, the explosions are often clinical with the human factor on the ground removed or limited. Yet within this indie game, the most memorable aspect of strafing an airfield or trench is seeing individual human beings scrambling for cover. It made me realize that this is a detail traditionally overlooked in a majority of flight arcade or flight simulator titles for the past few decades. 


I fully expected a mission with the primary objective of strafing aircraft at an airfield to have a few hangars, tents and trucks gathered in one spot with static aircraft sitting on the grass airfield. But this was compounded by visible personnel on the ground running from the strafing runs. Even during the Big Battle mission, where dozens of aircraft are locked in air combat above No Man's Land, I could see individual soldiers reacting to stray bullets landing near them.



Lone soldiers in sandbag bunkers manning machine guns just as deadly as those carried by aircraft. These anti-aircraft gunners are hard to ignore, as they are the only real form of land based air defense. Observant players will note the shape of their anti-aircraft positions and find blind spots in their firing arcs. Patiently maneuvering to attack these AA guns from behind, strafing the gunners directly will disable these positions and make further ground attacks easier. 


Beyond that, trains and trucks behind enemy lines can also be attacked and disabled. 



 

I am happy that my introduction to Blue Sky Aces was through this Steam Next Fest demo and look forward to taking time to dig a bit deeper to better understand who the developer is and how far they’ve progressed in their own time. 


Steam Next Fest runs from February 5th to February 12th, 2024. I do not know if the demo for Blue Sky Aces will be available after this time frame, so I do recommend giving it a download and checking it out for yourself! 



 

About the Writer

Co-founder of Skyward Flight Media. After founding Electrosphere.info, the first English Ace Combat database, he has been involved in creating flight game-related websites, communities, and events since 2005. He explores past and present flight games and simulators with his extensive collection of game consoles and computers.


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