A flight game called Air Mail landed on iPhone and iPad last week, carrying cargo of sharp visuals, smooth controls, and a whole lot of charm. You control an old-school pontoon plane through a series of story missions, delivery challenges, and exploratory expeditions around the fantasy island kingdom of Domeeka and its environs. Even as a grown-up, it's hard to play this and not get a little taste of child-like wonder.
Game types are pretty standard, and include pick-up, drop-off, and flying through target rings. These are often framed as interesting and diverse tasks, like dusting fields, or scaring off pigeons. Through each level, you're scored out of five stars based on accuracy, speed, and how banged up your plane gets. Finding objectives is generally pretty easy, as there are beams of light landing directly where you need go next. Even if you're dealing with really cramped field of vision, there's an overview map on the pause screen to get you situated, plus there's an in-game indicator arrow that pops up if you're just flying around aimlessly.
The core tilt controls are very good, but Air Mail tries to get a little too fancy with an advanced control set, which includes manual pitch, tilt, yaw, and throttle control. This advanced control scheme isn't particularly great, despite the extended handling; the two tilt control sliders on the side also act as throttle up and down if you tap on them, which not only means you can accidentally crank up or down your speed when you're trying to do a barrell roll, but the function is also redundant with the throttle slider along the bottom. Beyond that, the sliders don't coincide with the standard inverted layout for flying controls, as sliding both controls down points your ship to the ground; usually that action should pull you upwards, and unfortunately, there's nothing in settings to set invert those controls. Stick with the standard tilt controls and you'll be fine, though I wouldn't mind a setting option to adjust the sensitivity. There's also touch controls if you prefer something more traditional.
Throughout the single-player game, you're taken to a variety of fantastic settings, all with distinctive flavors and great visuals which are optimized for the new iPad's Retina display. Cutscenes between missions use little more than 2D cut-outs, which is a pretty sharp contrast to the excellent in-game graphics. The audio in Air Mail is wonderful, and features full Disney-style orchestral adventure music. The voice acting of your piloting mentor is a bit grating in his pleasantness, but other chapters aren't that bad at all.
I don't see a whole lot of replay value in the game once you've plowed through the single-player campaign, unfortunately. The desire to five-star every mission is only vaguely present, since there isn't anything in the way of unlockables for getting those achievements. Luckily, Air Mail is geared towards kids, who probably won't be interested in the game long enough for that to become an issue.
Air Mail is universal, so you only have to buy it once to play across iPhone and iPad, but unfortunately saved games don't sync over the cloud. Game Center is enabled for leaderboard tracking on the handful of challenges included in the game, as well as keeping tabs on achievements.
- Fluid, sensitive gyro controls
- Eye-popping Retina-optimzed graphics
- Distinctive childlike charm
- Little appeal to adults
- Mediocre cutscenes
- Limited replay value
The bottom line
Air Mail is a great game for kids who are into wide-eyed, Disney-esque adventure, and even adults who are young at heart, but older children and serious grown-ups might think they're too cool for this kind of thing. All in all, Air Mail for the iPhone and iPad delivers a top-notch flying experience full of whimsy.
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