It’s like Star Wars, but without all the Jedi
A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, there was this evil Galactic Empire. No, wait, sorry. I meant “Royalist Empire.” Anyway, the Empire was so evil that it sparked a rebellion, which was in danger of getting wiped out until this plucky ace combat pilot named Luke Skywalker -sorry, “Sonan Firehawk”- managed to turn the situation around and… well, you can probably guess where this is going.
Let’s get this out of the way: narratively, Star Battalion isn’t exactly original. In fact, the plot is just this side of plagiarism… though I suppose it’s a little difficult to write an epic space opera without borrowing ideas from Star Wars. That said, there is a lot of story to take in, mainly delivered via lengthy text screens and (sometimes painfully-acted) monologues.
While the story may not seem all that original, it certainly isn’t bad, either. But the gameplay (mostly) makes up for that lack of originality with some fantastic action. This is first-and-foremost a dogfight game, which is great fun because it both looks and handles exquisitely.
Star Battalion is fully 3D, and it looks fantastic on the iPhone – even better than Gameloft’s other recent titles. The ships and the environments look surprisingly believable, though it’s not uncommon for the frame rate to stutter a bit during some particularly hectic moments.
There are two ways to handle your fighter: either via a virtual thumbstick or with the gyroscopic sensors in your Apple device. After experimenting with the latter, which works perfectly fine, I opted for the former scheme because it didn’t require me to constantly tilt my iPhone in various directions and look like a whack job while I waited for the bus.
Basic movement for the fighters handles brilliantly, and swiping your finger across the screen will execute barrel rolls and 180-degree turns. Flying is fast-paced and fun. The combat itself is simple enough thanks to auto-targeting and the ability to switch between weapons with some easy-to tap buttons. Your AI-controlled squadmates also do an admirable job of handling themselves and won’t always require you to come to their rescue, and there are local/online co-op modes that let you play with your friends as part of the same squad.
Unfortunately, the gameplay isn’t always perfect. The levels often look bigger than they actually are, and invisible walls that don’t register on the game’s radar aren’t too uncommon. This is problematic because these barriers will sometimes just automatically force your plane to turn around or might even force you to crash into the ground.
There were other instances that let me especially frustrated. There was one boss battle in particular where I couldn’t land any actual damage on my opponent until they’d finished a rather long-winded speech. There’s another level that takes place in an area of outer space littered with debris that will beat the hell out of your ship when a piece of flotsam makes contact , but enemies never suffer any damage if they fly through the shrapnel.
There are a number of small design problems like these, though they become less irritating as the single-player campaign goes on. The game becomes increasingly more enjoyable as the levels become bigger and the action get more frantic. If you can get past these issues, the final few levels are really fantastic.
Overall, Star Battalion a lot of fun, but it’s far from perfect. It definitely needs better frame rate stability, and another round of polish wouldn’t go amiss, either. But the good definitely outweighs the bad, especially since most of the problems will likely be taken care of in a future update. If you happen to enjoy solid sci-fi action, do yourself a favor and pick this (rough) gem up.