Flight can be fascinating stuff in video games. Some games get bogged down in complicated simulation mechanics, others opt for aerial combat, while many limit your time in the air to quick transport. These are all valid uses of flight, yet there’s something wonderfully adventurous about simply exploring virtual worlds from the skies, and perhaps mixing in some challenges to keep life interesting. Pilotwings 64 was my earliest experience of flight before I jumped towards Ultrawings in more recent years. Looking at The Wings of Sycamore, I believe it holds similar potential.
Shown at the WASD event this September, the game’s booth had old-school aeronautical styling that quickly caught my eye. Featuring an anthropomorphic cast in a Victoriana inspired world, The Wings of Sycamore immediately appealed to that lovely sense of aerial adventure. Based on the early days of aviation, you play as the protege of a legendary pilot, the reclusive Captain Maurice Sycamore. Across three demo missions, what I saw hints at a lively cartoon tale.
Each mission is suitably varied, and the first involved flying toward different landmarks to snap photos with a Wright Flyer-esque machine, leading into a quick-paced camera mini-game that involved overlapping two circles. The closer these circles matched, the better the quality of your picture. Securing top marks for fine photography was encouraging, and flying around town offered a nice introduction to the game’s world. It was all given a boost by the game’s distinctive papercraft visuals that feel like someone could have built all this in real life.
Glorious absurdities continued across the next two missions, and I can already tell that half of The Wings of Sycamore’s appeal lies in its humour. With each aircraft launched from a catapult, the second mission involved flying an absurdly brilliant Butterfly-esque plane at night – a craft that looked like someone had attached giant wings to a bike. Meanwhile, the third mission’s design featured over six different wings.
The final mission exchanges the freedom of movement for an on-rails approach, as you’re tasked with drawing smoke patterns in the sky to make shapes like a heart. There’s good variety between the objectives and while this approach naturally limits exploration, it’s still enjoyably replayable. A ranking system tallies your points at the mission’s end, but any major mistakes will penalise your score. “Crashing is generally frowned upon in aviation,” creator John Evelyn joked with me, as I learned the hard way after misjudging a turn early on.
The game feels creative and these entertaining vehicle designs reflect the adventurous spirit of aviation’s infancy. “I keep finding that my ridiculous ideas for aircraft aren’t as ridiculous as the real ones that people make” Evelyn tells me, citing Alexander Graham Bell’s AEA Cygnet as one example. “Some early aviators were clearly equipped with far more money than sense – and the result was some beautiful machines that were oftentimes more artwork than aircraft, and flew (or fell) about as well as you might expect.”
In fact, Evelyn’s whole inspiration draws from how early aircraft design aesthetics often came at the expense of functionality. This led into a “childlike optimism” that he finds energising. “It’s such a satisfying creative experiment to try to forget everything you’ve ever known about aircraft, put common sense to one side, and put yourself in the mindset of those early aviators – particularly the more naive and eccentric ones.”
Though the demo focused on gameplay over narrative, I can already sense this adventurous spirit and optimism is baked into The Wings of Sycamore. From these brief interactions alone, there’s already some wonderful character here, thanks to the game’s lighthearted take on early aviation. Exploring the skies was certainly enjoyable and I’d love to see where this story goes when it arrives on PC.
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