I’ve been binging Ace Combat basically on a whim while I slowly go insane in quarantine, and the
second stop on my journey was Ace Combat 4. Coming after Electrosphere’s grand-scale
cyberpunk narrative with four factions, five endings, animated cutscenes done by Production I.G.
(best known for Ghost in the Shell,) and a whopping 52 missions, I went in expecting something
shorter and leaner – Electrosphere was a critical and commercial disappointment to Namco,
and Ace Combat 4 being a soft reboot of the series would inevitably bring a host of changes with
Ace Combat 4, in contrast to the scope of Electrosphere, is remarkably focused narratively –
Mobius One’s meteoric rise to fame is done entirely through radio chatter, with the cutscenes
instead being dedicated to fleshing out the rival Yellow Squadron, with a particular focus on its
leader Yellow Thirteen and his wingman, through the PoV of a citizen living under enemy
I didn’t expect this simple narrative to bring genuine moral ambiguity into the game through
dramatic irony – nobody on the battlefield knew anything about the people they were fighting, and
Mobius One casually slaughtered Yellow Four without knowing the efforts of the barkeep’s
daughter that got Yellow Four in that state, Yellow Four’s character, or any of the things the
player knew. He simply saw a target and blew it up, and then headed back to base.
Unfortunately, they scaled back the scope of the gameplay as well – nineteen missions in
comparison to JP Electrosphere’s 52, and still much less than the English version’s 35.
Additionally, the design changed: Electrosphere’s missions were generally about destroying
specific targets within a strict time limit, while Shattered Skies’ missions tend to be raw score
attack, destroying as many targets as you can within the time limit. The problem arises in the
time limits, where Namco seemed to realize that the game was shorter than the last to a
worrying degree, so they simply cranked up the amount of time you spend in each mission.
Electrosphere’s missions were about three to eight minutes long, while the shortest missions in
Shattered Skies are about seven minutes long. The longest? Twenty minutes.
There are no checkpoints, and crashing can send you back an infuriating amount of time.
Occasionally they throw a wrench into things and add an updated objective or force you to
temporarily change your flight path, but these are relatively uncommon and the distractions
generally cease quickly before you go back to blowing up the five hundredth ground target.
There are obvious exceptions, but several of these interesting missions are then given absurd
lengths and a nice concept is turned threadbare when you do it for twenty straight minutes.
Even the least interesting mission is still rendered at least compelling, however, due to the
excellent audio design and soundtrack. Firefights are incredibly lively, with nonstop chatter, lots
of which is unique to each mission, well-done sound cues mean that even when your HUD is
impossible to read in the glare of sunlight, you can still down a plane and dodge a missile, and
the soundtrack is simply to die for. Holy fuck it’s so good.
These elements and the narrative come to a head in the last two missions. The penultimate
mission starts out as another overlong ground targets mission but rendered climactic and
entertaining by continually adding in mini-objectives like “blow up that bridge,” “take out that AA
gun,” and a second half that is white-knuckle tension that makes you feel like the biggest badass
on the planet, a feeling that is maintained until the start of the final mission, which makes you feel
like the biggest badass in the history of existence across all of time and space.
The final mission, narratively, feels like an excuse – every major plot thread and character arc
was resolved in the prior mission, and it feels like one last victory lap. Until, of course, you
actually start the mission, where it’s a barrage of the hypest possible things that you could think
of within about a minute of each other before you blow up the fucking Death Star in a final test of
your skills as a pilot. Completely narratively superfluous, but they finally let the gameplay speak
and had the already-excellent audio transcend to another plane of incredible, making the game’s
final hours unforgettable.
Before I started the final mission, I felt this game was a 3/5, and the strengths of that final
mission alone bumped it up an entire star. Already, I’m forgetting the sludge of the boring, bland,
overlong missions, and I recall only the simple-but-effective character arcs, the all-too-rare
moments of dancing through the sky and around buildings, shaking off missiles and countering
with a salvo of my own, and, of course, <