Avatar Squadron is a 2.5D side scrolling, comic styled, co-op shmup! Featuring non-stop airborne action where you will pilot Beano the biplane on a perilous adventure to rescue the land from the dastardly Dr Weevil and his infernal flying machines! Packed full of excellent gameplay and some genuinely funny humour! Twelve levels, DropIn/DropOut multiplayer, fearsome boss fights and crazy weapons!
Good avatar games have been on an uptick lately with Avatar Squadron being the latest avatar game which refuses to compromise gameplay on account of the inclusion of the Xbox Live avatars. Featuring 12 levels of shooting action, while Avatar Squadron will not impress many shooter fans, it still is a solid offering which should appeal to children and those who can enjoy its 4-player local multi-player. The cartoon style reminds me a lot of Gadget Twins, another primarily multi-player shooter using a cute style and an assortment of silly power-ups.
Avatar Squadron has players pilot a biplane through a mostly easy to manage gauntlet of World War II assortment of enemy planes, tanks, jeeps, helicopters, and dirigibles. Each stage begins with some chatter between our avatar pilot and the tower, written as to sound of that era and containing some amusing jokes here and there. Avatar Squadron definitely doesn't take itself seriously and is apparent from the first take-off as waves of face painted unmanned planes throw themselves at the players. Armed with just a pea shooter, available power-ups tend to be over-sized and silly, including a giant Donkey Kong hammers which smashes all in its swing and a pinball plunger which fires bouncing pinballs into the screen to obliterate everything it strikes. While the pea shooter cannot be upgraded, one power-up allows players to pick up ground based enemies which continue to fire without discrimination and taking out their former allies. The players' gun is mounted to the plane such that it banks with the plane as it rises and dives, angling the shots to match unlike most other horizontal shooters where the waves of lasers do not account for the aircraft's positioning. It's hardly a selling point but makes for a nice change of pace.
The graphics are fine with good 3-D models and reasonably detailed environments. The background texturing could be better, and the game basically reuses the same three environments for the entire game, but little changes to the time of day, textures, and foreground detail keep things from feeling overly repetitive. The models do clip through other enemies and items when bunched together, but I found it largely excusable. On the other hand, the constant trailing cartoon puffs of smoke behind the player and enemy planes are annoying and look odd as the exact same graphic is used for the explosions as well. The developer could have definitely spent some more time polishing the graphics and level design, because while the models are mostly excellent, the poor enemy and foreground layout can definitely use some work. Levels often drag due to poor enemy pacing, leaving lengthy stretches with little to shoot at and evade, and collecting floating gems for points doesn't make for interesting level intermissions. The tediousness of playing made me grateful that the game uses a world map for level selection and can be exited and resumed at any time, because I had to revisit the game three times to make it through the end. Likewise, while the addition of foreground scenery is a nice touch, using the same stock tree and copy and pasting it four deep for a forest just looks weird and lazy, lacking the variety and placement depth it needs to blend.
Half of the game's stages culminate with a boss fight, and while none should pose a threat to fans familiar with the genre, they do alter tactics enough to be interesting and welcomed diversions. I enjoyed the bit of back-and-forth between the avatar pilot and the boss prior to the fights, full of puns and other tongue-in-cheek dialogue. As much as I love Mussorgsky and despite it making for fitting boss music, I tired of having to hear "Night on Bald Mountain" for each and every boss encounter, especially since the game just loops for first 20 or so seconds of the song. The soundtrack can definitely be fuller as the game relies too much on playing Zimmerman's "Anchors Aweigh" for the pre-flight banter and Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries" for the level music. There's one amusing deviation in soundtrack I do not wish to spoil, but having to hear these three pieces again and again is tiring no matter how excellent they are in their own right. I also am disappointed that the difficulty selection is little more than a speed select, controlling the pace of the scroll with no apparent new enemies or formations to be found. Given how the levels drag on already, I'd encourage anyone playing to go to the options menu and bump things up from "normal" to "hard" or "crazy" to give the scrolling speed the kick it so desperately needs. Despite the difficulty labels, Avatar Squadron remains just as easy as players will still earn an extra life for every 20 medals collected, and shot players can still recover by mashing on the A button.
My experience with Avatar Squadron shows a flawed but playable game worth the price of admission for those with children too young for Thunder Force III but old enough to hold down a button and dodge some stuff. I can imagine it like most games would be more enjoyable in multi-player as well, and even though my single player experience dragged on to the point of tedium at times, I don't regret my purchase. Despite some desparately needed improvements in soundtrack, pacing, and design, Avatar Squadron was enjoyable enough for me to see it through the end thanks to its entertaining dialogue, tight controls, and save feature allowing me to break up my gaming session. I think avatar game fans will enjoy being able to paint their biplane one of four colors on the fly as well as having access to an avatar action button so they can enjoy some taunts and motions in the cockpit, and Avatar Squadron should be commended for taking the path less traveled and giving such fans a playable and fairly enjoyable shooter.