On New Year’s Day, 2019, I reviewed a game called La Rana. A quaint free-to-play title, what made it notable was that it was developed by students from SMU Guildhall, a Texas-based university. It provided ample opportunity to provide feedback for those aspiring to become the next great game developer, which I find immensely inspiring. Fast forward to today, the same university has released four new titles into the wild, ripe for the picking. When presented with the options, I had a certain fondness for the goofier, more horrific option of Up in the Air, which made its home on Steam.
Some reservations can be admitted upon the quality of the title through trailers alone. An open-world concept at the price point of pocket change? How open could it be? I’ve been spoiled by the likes of Super Mario Odyssey and Breath of the Wild, which set a certain standard in mind. Obviously this doesn’t have the same powerhouse team developing it, though it was intriguing to see just how they would combat the genre. La Rana, despite being made by a different team, had a simplistic charm to it. If that was its only competition, Up in the Air would make due; many other factors will determine where it may fit into the average player’s plans.
Up in the Air is available on Steam for your regional pricing.
A typical review on this site dictates that “Story” comes before “Gameplay.” However, Up in the Air has no steam to its narrative, therefore dedicating a whole header to it is rather moot. The game’s premise is about all one needs contextually to understand what they’re playing and why.
I’ve peeked at a few other Steam reviews for this game noting its value as a family-friendly title. As someone who tends to prefer a more mature palette, playing this was definitely something I felt was better suited for those more casually-inclined. In a sense, one could use this as a gateway to further open-world titles. What it provides in leniency and subtly pushing the player into discovering things for themselves is, for a project of this scale, rather impressive. Almost a mix of Carnival Games and Grand Theft Auto; taking the core essentials from each to make something unique.
Control in games is an absolute for me. If something does not adhere to a control scheme that makes sense either contextually or externally, it is near-guaranteed to infuriate. Here, perhaps to suit the open-world aspect, one’s balloon animal subject is rather floaty. Imagine trying to control a gargantuan pendulum: too far in one direction will have it careening uncontrollably. One will have to adjust to this immediately, though it’s easy when a short tutorial is the starting point.
This manner of playstyle could be annoying to some, though I think it adds a decent challenge to the scenarios involved. If everything was tight and fluid, much of the experience would be too easygoing, leading to early mental knockouts. It also adds to the “zaniness” factor that the premise advertises, such that players can launch things ranging from sheep to dolls to children sky-high with no consequence. A valuable aspect to Up in the Air is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, while also trying to implement small ways to make the experience rewarding.
It’s one thing to make floaty controls intentionally, it’s another to have them be secondary. One noteworthy complaint to be had with the controls involves the act of grabbing. To initiate said grasp, one must stand next to an applicable item, wait for it to show an outline, then press a certain button. This does not always work, at least not to the extent that it should. The idea of waiting for an outline is already a slippery slope, but for whatever reason, one needs to hold down the button a hair longer than need-be. It was never an immediate press-and-go; I was required to hold it down for about one-third of a second to guarantee it. Not always necessary to grab items granted, it made certain speed challenges very irritating.
What’s to Do?
Aside from the aforementioned short tutorial, one’s time will be spent in a single area. Split up into three different subareas, each provides a variety of things to do in order to collect tickets, which act as currency to buy various power-ups and skins for the player. Tickets can be acquired by doing all sorts of things—locking children in jail, throwing sheep in corrals, playing hopscotch, riding amusement attractions, playing golf, playing Superman 64, among others. One’s enjoyment of Up in the Air will fringe on whether playing mini-games on games on Steam sounds appealing.
Some praise can be given to the commitment of variety provided to each subarea. One is more carnival-esque, another Wild West-ish, and the last very medieval. Difficulty of challenges and the nuisance level of children increase as one explores further subareas. For example, children is the carnival subarea can kick you around and throw off your challenges, but children in the medieval area just kill you effortlessly, sending you back to shop camps where new abilities/skins can be bought/collected. This progression of challenge is something that can ease players into the groove of exploring the park naturally. And should enthusiasts be hasty, they can do what they will. Just like Breath of the Wild.
In terms of just how aimless this is, consider it similar to that of Mario Party. Lots of comparisons with this piece. With the premise in mind, one’s goal is to simply play games, and maybe collect stuff should they desire. With Up in the Air, there is no shortage of things to do, as much of the space one travels through will have some sort of little game to make use of. What it lacks is substance, which can make repeated visits a tad harder to imagine. This is more noteworthy for me, personally, as I prefer narrative-based games or those with characters that make the adventures memorable and eventful. More akin to an imaginative day in the backyard, this is more suited to those that just like fun.
Graphics & Sound
This may not seem apparent, but I couldn’t wait to get to this section of the review. Those horrific, demonic children will forever stay in my mind for the way they’re presented here. Up in the Air feature enemy-type obstacles in the form of raving children, and they look straight out of a Newgrounds-esque nightmare. They’re not only much larger than the balloon-animal player, but if they catch even a whiff of your presence, they bee-line straight towards you, laughing and flashing that detestable, oblivious grin as they destroy and pillage. Monsters. The rest of the game looks alright, though some textures take a bit to load up, but it’s the kids that will never leave me.
From what I can tell, the developers were working with freeware audio, which means they aren’t working with a lot. As a result, Up in the Air does not gain steam from its auditory merits. I’m not 100% sure if this was intentional, but some subareas would play a background track and others wouldn’t. Perhaps it depends on the specific section of the map, perhaps the game is a little buggy. Nevertheless, there wasn’t much from an audio standpoint that impressed me, even if my expectations were already pretty low. I suppose in terms of atmosphere, it was adequate; a tendency to tune out menial music for immersion has occurred with me before, and it was likely the case here.