All I knew going into the Xbox One version of Flying Tigers: Shadows Over China was that it was an arcade-style flying game originally released for the PC, and one that Steam’s user reviews were decidedly split on for whatever reason. A significant number of the complaints seemed to be focused on various errors impeding the ability to play, however, or invoked other arcade-style flying games (which is generally code for “I went in expecting something different and this thumbs down doesn’t actually reflect anything but those original expectations”). I always relish the opportunity to drill deep into unfamiliar territory and figure out which criticisms are valid and which aren’t, and right off the bat, the fact that I finished the campaign in something like 3 hours suggests that those centered around Shadows Over China’s length have merit. That is, if you’re the kind of person who requires a certain amount of longevity to their games; if you’re, say, a stressed out games critic prone to foamy-mouthed rage whenever a game comes along and intentionally wastes your time with repetitive filler, then a game like this that gets to the point and avoids outlasting its welcome can be a wonderful experience.
And you know what? I really enjoyed Shadows Over China
Normally, I start off by talking a bit about the story. That’s going to be incredibly difficult here, though, because while this focuses on U.S. involvement against the Japanese during World War II (though the specifics detailed in mission reports are a bit more nuanced than that), I’ve never really been big enough into history to know how accurate Shadows Over China’s portrayals are. Beyond which, missions occasionally jump around in time rather than playing out as a linear sequence of events, and while mission reports (which you get both for failing and succeeding at missions) specifically mention your Xbox username every so often, you frequently play as multiple pilots named such generic things as “AVG Pilot” during missions. Or maybe AVG pilot was someone else? To be perfectly honest, I never really had a handle on who was who, or even who I was playing as. The story, then, is mostly a series of big-picture happenings that necessitate shooting at or bombing various Japanese planes, convoys, and ground soldiers.
In another game, this lack of characterization would probably bother me, but it’s easier to forgive this since no one is ever seen outside of planes; given the backdrop of war and the importance of everyone doing their job, there’s really not much room for dramatic character arcs. That said, there’s one moment in particular that stands out among the rest. At one point you’re tasked with bombing a Japanese convoy of medical supplies, and actively participating in something that would likely now (and possibly even then) be considered a war crime definitely felt wrong. When someone in the Royal Air Force expressed regret shortly afterward and in doing so gave voice to that nagging sense of wrongness I felt, it proved a bit of a cathartic moment. Now, I don’t mean to build this up as a Spec Ops: The Line type of moment, because it’s not one of those. It’s the mundanity of following even horrible orders that makes this so interesting. It doesn’t become a huge plot point, and no one gets hung up on it or experiences any subsequent angst. You just do a bad thing, feel bad about it, and continue on.
Of course, this is maybe a minute or two of a three-hour campaign, but there’s one more scene I can recall that approaches something similar. In it, you take down a Japanese ace and they maneuver in order to land upside down in the water, presumably as a form of honorable suicide or something. Someone makes a joke about it immediately afterward, only to be rebuked and told to show a little respect since the ace seemed important and just took their own life. Moments like this tend to be rare, though that’s not to say that the average mission has no elements similarly elevating it. The various pilots have a friendly rapport with each other that somehow makes dialogue replete with colloquialisms (ack-ack for anti-aircraft guns, for example) and ethnic slurs (“Jap,” while probably historically accurate, isn’t exactly a term that people look upon fondly now) enjoyable, believable, and surprisingly easy to follow.
The gameplay is much more natural than I expected
This is an arcade-style flying game, but it’s also one that has consistent rules for how things work that ground it somewhat (much like Novalogic’s F-22 series, except more intuitive). The right trigger and left trigger increase and decrease the power of the engines, and keeping an eye on your speed and adjusting it as necessary is important because you can crash into other airplanes and instantly explode while following them if you’re not careful. It’s also useful for keeping a target in your sights for longer, allowing you to fire more at it. Firing the machine gun is accomplished by holding down the A button, though it overheats and has to cool down if you use it too much at once. Bombs are dropped with the B button (provided you’re in a plane that has them), and this is really where you start to feel the arcade part of the game; rather than being given a set number of bombs that you have to manage, all bombs and torpedoes regenerate over time. That means you can unleash every single bomb you have at a target, fly forward a short ways, and trust that your bombs will be back when you turn around to make a second pass. Ammo management is never a fun aspect of flying games, anyway.
Another complaint I’ve seen directed at Shadows Over China is that the enemies require too many bullets to go down. This one strikes me as a matter of taste rather than being an absolute; enemies here are definitely a bit on the spongy side, but this means that you have to follow along with them. At the end of the day, I feel that the entertainment value that goes along with stalking prey throughout the skies rather than shooting them a couple times and being done with it outweighs how long it takes to down each one, especially when you factor in the game’s pseudo-bullet time effect. Called TrazerTime for reasons I don’t really understand, pressing X slows down time to allow for better aiming, though like bombs, this has a cooldown attached and can’t be relied on too much lest you not have any left when you most need it. Early on, you probably won’t see the point of TrazerTime. The first time you have to fight an ace while they fly around unpredictably, however, its value becomes quickly apparent.
In addition to the things listed above, you can also turn sharply, do a maneuver when being tailed that seems to grant you temporary invincibility (not very realistic, but very useful nonetheless), and take off/land. Landing is probably the most fun I had with the game as a whole, and that really comes down to how hilariously bad I am at it. The first mission that required landing caught me off-guard, so I tried landing on a street and taxiing to the objective marker. No dice—the wings touched the ground and caused the plane to explode. I failed at this several times, laughing like a maniac every time I’d suddenly explode, and I can’t really explain why this was so amusing aside from the fact that the game is generous enough with mid-stage checkpoints that my failures weren’t actually setting me back. This allowed me to revel in the hilarity of the hyper-explosive plane wings without getting frustrated, and the wings aren’t the only thing that can cause planes to explode. Planes are also allergic to water, as evidenced by the fact that you can taxi toward a body of water and instantly explode upon making contact with it.
Graphics, music, and little touches
There are a few occasions where you’re given control of a rear gunner and tasked with taking out oncoming aircraft. They’re mostly unremarkable, if a bit awkward, but what’s interesting about them is that you can actually damage your own plane with your shots (there’s no friendly fire, though, as you can even fly through allies without any harm befalling you or them). That means you have to be careful to avoid damaging your own plane while you gun down enemies, and this is one of those little touches that always wins me over. Speaking of things that won me over, I came across what might be my favorite bug in any game ever (note: the short skips in the video are where I was taking screenshots and aren’t what the game is normally like). As for the graphics, they’re incredibly pleasant. This is one of the areas where I was genuinely surprised; I was expecting something much less pretty, but Shadows Over China has some real screenshot potential. There are a few areas where the textures are noticeably blurry, most notably in the snowy mountain area, but by and large the game is incredibly pretty, and touches like the screen vignette as you accelerate add a lot to the experience.
The only problem I have with the visuals is the red screen flash when you get hit; during daytime stages, this isn’t too bad or distracting, but during nighttime missions it can become incredibly overwhelming and disorienting. Then there’s the music, which is decent all around. It’s usually a good sign if I can close my eyes and recall at least one or two melodies, and that’s the case here. Like the graphics, I have a single problem with the audio in this game, and that’s the inconsistency of the voice volume. Every so often, a voice will sound much louder than all of the others surrounding it, and I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be the pilot of whatever I’m flying or just a strange audio quirk. Either way, the game has adjustable audio levels, but you can only adjust the volume of all voices together. That doesn’t really help when the problem is inconsistency within that group.
*An Xbox One review key for Flying Tigers: Shadows Over China was provided for the purpose of this review