Last year Windows Phone Central's "Gorgeous" George Ponder reviewed an indie game about hot air ballooning called Reach for the Sky. It came from Copenhagen-based indie developer Aemto and utilized a charging pixel art style. Sadly, that game is no longer available on the Windows Phone Store (per the developer's decision). From the ashes of the first Reach for the Sky comes a new Reach for the Sky sharing the same title.
Although the name has not changed, the new game is essentially a sequel. Reach for the Sky (2014) is still all about climbing the screen in a hot air balloon, but the visuals and gameplay have changed quite a bit. It still features a lyrical theme song from these guys that sounds catchy at first but becomes maddening before too long. It's completely free (with unobtrusive ads), compatible with phones with 512 MB of RAM, and only takes up 4 MB of storage. Just be sure you switch the controls to "Tap" before playing…
Reach around (your phone)
Reach for the Sky plays a bit like Doodle Jump and other endless jumping games in that players hold the screen vertically and try to climb as high as possible, getting the best score they can along the way. But this game does not offer tilt controls (which we'll discuss in a bit), and there are no platforms to jump on. Balloons don't so much hop around as fly, after all.
You can move the hot air balloon left or right at will, but not up or down. Reach's unique mechanic involves hot air. The balloon is constantly losing the hot stuff. It will sink off-screen if it runs out, ending the game.
Grabbing some of the orange hot air drops that constantly fall from the top of the screen will put some life back into the balloon, causing it to rise on-screen. But rise too high and you won't be able to see the obstacles that approach, such as birds and helicopters. This creates an interesting risk-reward mechanic. To grab or not to grab? It's often harder to avoid the hot air than not, though. If only we had a button to let some steam out.
Diamonds also fall from the sky in abundance. Grab them to boost your score. The more of these you collect in a row, the higher your combo multiplier climbs. Miss one and the multiplier resets. The combo mechanic is actually pretty fun; I like seeing how high I can get my starting combo. Shame the game doesn't track the player's maximum combo or other stats.
To infinity and beyond
Unlike most endless jumping games, Reach has a definite ending. The higher you go, the more the background and enemies change. You'll first encounter deadly ducks (whose hitboxes are too large), and then tangle with dangerous helicopters. Soon jets enter the scene, first harmlessly flying up in the background and then descending along the same path in the foreground.
To reach the end of the game, you have to stay alive until the song ends. I haven't managed to get there yet because things get really tough once your balloon soars into space. Asteroids start falling like crazy. They move pretty quickly, not giving players much time to react.
I'm also not quite sure how close the space section is to the end because I turn the song off to preserve my sanity. You can only hear someone wail "Reach for the Sky" and something unintelligible that sounds like "I hate the Jimmy grind, Jimmy grind" so long before it erodes at your very soul. The game could use an instrumental track, and maybe let us choose between one or the other or alternating between them.
Navigating the deadly skies
The default control style for Reach for the Sky is "Swipe." Unfortunately, swiping is super awful and slow. This is a game that requires fast left and right movement, not measured swipes. Actually, can you think of any Doodle Jump-style games that use swipe controls? They all use tilt, which makes the lack of tilt here conspicuous.
Then again, Reach for the Sky does offer a control style that's more precise than tilting could ever be: Tap! After switching to Tap, you just have to hit the left or right side of the screen to move in that direction. It's fast and accurate, like you'd want.
Simply put, Tap needs to be the default control style. A swiping style in which you put your finger down once and just drag left and right constantly to move would work okay. But the swipe controls just aren't there yet.
Room to rise
Once you get the controls set properly, Reach for the Sky really picks up. I like that players can aim for score or distance, and the latter actually means something since the game eventually ends. But Reach for the Sky could still use some side objectives, be they Jetpack Joyride-style missions or achievements. The original game had its own achievements, so why not this one?
The game tracks the player's high score and most recent score. But you have to visit the "Hi Score" screen from the main menu to see them. High scores are more compelling if displayed during gameplay or at least at the end of the game. And the "Hi Score" screen displays the "World record" score, but it doesn't have a real leaderboard. World record is better than nothing, but every score-intensive game needs a proper leaderboard.
Two other things the game needs: more sound effects and more humor. The sound effects for collecting diamonds work very well, their pitch rising as the combo grows. But there are no other sound effects. No sound when you hit a bird, no sound when you run out of hot air.
Besides just being a basic thing that every game needs, sounds for these events are also a great chance to inject some levity. Make the duck sound cute, make the hot air sound like a balloon deflating. Make us smile even though we just died. I wouldn't mind passing some silly things in the background (and even other ballooners) every now and then, either.
Finally, Reach for the Sky needs a pause menu. Pressing the Back button during gameplay takes you straight to the title screen with no confirmation. What if we just want to take a break and resume later?
Free and fair
It's refreshing to play a free game that does not suffer from obtrusive in-app purchases or energy mechanics. Reach for the Sky has ads on the title, Options, and Hi Score screens – but nowhere else.
Reach might not be all that complex, but its mechanics are actually fairly unique and fun. The art style is also pretty unusual, relying on bold, large polygons instead of a hand drawn look.
Hopefully Aemto swaps the default controls (which would probably make a big difference in Store ratings) and continues polishing the game. That's how you reach for the sky, by making your game the best it possibly can be. A Windows 8 and RT version would be great as well.
- Reach for the Sky – Windows Phone 8 – 4 MB – Free – Store Link