You can't shake a stick around here these days without coming across an indie game with roguelike elements, especially when it comes to permadeath and procedural generation, but forgive us if we sound cynical. Among the swathes of games taking leaves out of Rogue's book there are plenty that get elements right, and after playing a lot of Infinite State Games' suitably titled Rogue Aces, we can say this fits into that category too.
Rogue Aces isn't about dungeon-crawling though. Oh no, this is all about dogfights instead, taking to the skies to battle it out and rat-a-tat-tat your way through other fighter pilots, big old blimps, armoured trains, battleships, and a lot more. You might at this point have an image in mind along the lines of something like IL-2 Sturmovik or War Thunder, but shelf that right away, because this is instead a flying game in 2D, with pixelated visuals to boot.
The premise is simple, and very much like fellow flying game Luftrausers, released in2014. You control one of a limited number of fighter planes on an aircraft carrier, you take off, and you pretty much do whatever the frightfully British commander tells you to do, be it take down two aircraft or just the one blimp (he's awfully specific about numbers, old chap). Then you land on the aircraft carrier before carrying out your next assignment. As you've probably guessed, all of this is randomly generated as well, from the enemies to the land mass, and once you run out of planes that's your game over with.
This isn't a game you can afford to skip the tutorials for though, as it's actually rather tricky to pick up. Right stick controls the throttle, so you slam it upwards to take off, at which point the left stick changes your direction. It feels a little awkward at first doing this, and you'll find yourself turning wider than you expect, occasionally crashing into the sea or a mountain as a result, but it really is a matter of getting user to the plane and how different amount of throttle changes your ability to turn. The hardest part by far is landing though, as you'll need to go straight in, lower throttle to half, before lowering it all the way to softly land, and trust us when we say this is particularly tough to get right.
We haven't even talked about the weapons of war though, as with ZR (we played on Switch) you can fire your regular cannons, while with X you can fire rockets and Y is to drop bombs. Be careful though, because your base capacity is two rockets and four bombs, so you can't go at your targets all willy nilly. Accuracy is key, as it's always been, but here you'll find yourself particularly stuck if you're caught short with a whole train left to destroy still.
Of course though you're liable to take a few scrapes when up in the clouds, and with a simple tap of left on the d-pad you can see the damage you've taken. If you've taken a hit in the fuel tank, for example, you'll start leaking fuel, and damage elsewhere can impact things like speed and how well you turn. If things go really bad and there's no way out without your plane exploding, double tapping A will eject your cute little parachuted pilot, who then has the ability to shower grenades on anything and anyone below them.
So as you've probably been able to tell by now, the lovely simplistic exterior of pixelated planes hides underneath it a rather deep experience that lets you use a number of different weapons as part of a gameplay loop that keeps you coming and going from your base of operations. What's more is that as you gain XP you level up as well, meaning that you can equip randomised boosters like increased bomb capacity before you start a new campaign. By shooting down other fighters you can also pick up bonuses too, so there's plenty on your mind when you're in the cockpit.
It's not just the base campaign that you can keep yourself entertained with though, as there are other campaigns like Frontline that you can play, as well as arcade modes like Survival, which as the name suggests sees you take to the skies to try and get the highest score as an army of foes look to send you crashing and burning, which reminded us the most of Luftrausers. These all have to be unlocked gradually though, which means you'll have to play one at a time to unlock all the options in the main menu.
We honestly thought that the 2D perspective wouldn't work too well having first got into Rogue Aces, but once we got into our stride and got better and better, we found ourselves hooked as we swiftly navigated the skies all with the smoothness of the left stick and the ease of the throttle. Everything is accessible, but hard to perfect, producing a challenge that keeps you coming back for more as part of that "one more go", "I can do better this time" mindset. It all looks great in this Metal Slug-esque pixelated style too, bathed in colour at all times.
That said, a touch more variety wouldn't have gone amiss. Whether it be your plane, the commander, the enemies you face, or the environments you see, it all gets repetitive rather quickly, and we just would've liked to see a touch more in this department. The modes provide a lot of different challenges, but that doesn't stop things feeling familiar.
We have to say though that Rogue Aces surprised us with how much it hooked us in, getting us into a rhythm of taking off, wreaking havoc on our foes, and landing again in no time, getting better and better to reach higher scores, all of which was underpinned by a soundtrack from Kevin 'Kevvy Metal' Black that really got our motors going. A bit more variety would've been great, but we can't take away from a great arcade game, one that took us to the clouds above.