From the beginning, gamers have longed to kart race. Well, maybe that's not entirely true, but the racing genre, and especially "kart racers" have made up a consistent chunk of gaming libraries since Atari (the original one, not the new, fakey one) burst onto the scene. A kart racer is probably best described as a racing game that's less concerned with simulation as it is with allowing colorful, easily identifiable characters to joust with each other while whipping in circles around fantastical landscapes.
Freaky Flyers, although it is ostensibly a flying game, is easily identifiable as a kart racer. Although racing is the most dominant gameplay mechanic, the game also utilizes a great deal of airborne combat (via onboard machine guns) and the use of a power-up system that will be immediately familiar to those who have played any of the Mario Kart series. Because the game is more concerned with making the racing accessible to everyone, the flying isn't modeled like a simulation, which is an attribute shared by pretty much all the vehicles in kart racers. A more aesthetic tip-off is that the game is aggressively designed around being like a cartoon, complete with wacky Full Motion Video (FMV) sequences between gameplay, something that generally isn't seen in games like Gran Turismo or Microsoft Flight Simulator.
The main game options are your standard story mode, single race mode, multiplayer mode and mini-games. With a fair amount of unlockable characters, game modes and other content, Freaky Flyers sticks with the modern gaming blueprint of providing the gamer with multiple options and replay value in the form of immediately unavailable content. Aside from maybe offering a too-small stable of initial racers, the options and unlockables are well done.
Mechanically, Freaky Flyers is hamstrung by two major issues. The first and most glaring issue is that of the controls and the physics engine. The controls are fairly loose, making it hard for the player to tell exactly when and where they should be pressing the control stick in order to correctly guide their plane. This is directly related to the physics engine, which seems to be largely nonexistent. There is no inertia, no sense of weight to the vehicle, and this makes it hard to not only to invest in the flying as flying, but to gauge how the planes are best controlled.
It's odd that human beings have a certain instinctual knowledge of physics. We can catch a baseball with relative ease—that being the classic example of complex parabolic algebra being performed in our skulls without a conscious thought. Part of this innate knowledge of physics allows us to know certain aspects of activities that we may not have even engaged in. Even though I've never flown a plane, I have a certain expectation of how a plane is supposed to act and react to external forces given certain characteristics, such as speed, weight of the plane, etc. Playing a game like Sky Odyssey, the controls and reaction of the craft feel "right." Freaky Flyers is not intended as a simulation, so a certain amount of leeway is to be expected, but at the same time, if a game is going to be based on the concept of flight, it is imperative that the controls and physics of the game reflect that.
What we do get is the feeling of piloting an inertia-less machine, less flying under its own power and more compelled forward along the lines of an on-rail shooter with the pilot given the option of choosing where the rail is headed. It is unsatisfying and un-engaging, and what should be the meat of the game becomes the garnish for gameplay mechanics that feel out of place. The most obvious of these wayward mechanics are the subgoals present in each of the racing levels. At the start of each race, the player is apprised of a number of goals that can be achieved in the level, such as picking up a person or thing and delivering them to a certain spot on the map, as well as other goals, such as destroying something. In a way, these subgoals are the gameplay mechanics replacing the shortcuts usually found in racing games.
Shortcuts are generally used as bonuses for players who either have a fair amount of experience with the game or access to, and desire to use, a FAQ. They are bonuses because they allow the player to have an advantage over opponents who cannot or do not use the shortcuts themselves. In Freaky Flyers, when the subgoals are completed, there are a couple different things that can happen. The two most common ones are the addition of extra boost gates to the course or an extra inventory slot for the player. In addition, each time a subgoal is completed, the player is rewarded with a special weapon that deals damage to all of the other racers.
Taken by themselves, this would seem to be a fairly effective way of providing the same sort of advantages as shortcuts traditionally do. The issue here is how the subgoals interface with the actual racing. What happens is that the player is pulled in two different directions, racing and looking for the subgoals. At least initially that is the case—after the first few races, it becomes more imperative that the player complete the subgoals in order to advance past a race. Although subgoals can also cause new characters to be unlocked, it still feels like a mechanic shoe-horned into the racing dynamic, and the result is well, overstuffed. There's too much to concentrate on for the game to really get into a sense of flow, a cardinal sin in an action-based game.
Taking a comedic approach is something that's generally been overlooked in the medium of videogames. Considering how strong the genre is in most other mass-media, it's a bit of a surprise that there are so few videogames that try and make themselves out-and-out comedies. Freaky Flyers is a game that most closely resembles cartoon television programs, with the most obvious influences being older Warner Bros. cartoons, Hanna-Barbera cartoons from the seventies and like most modern TV cartoons, a dash of Ren & Stimpy.
But like most modern cartoons, Freaky Flyers also doesn't have a lot of conceptual originality in practice, preferring instead to lean on the support of its influences. Like other works inspired by Ren & Stimpy, Freaky Flyers attempts to have a "strange" side to it that is depressingly conventional and bereft of the surrealism or truly gross humor that set the original show apart. The rest of the humor relies on the inherent "humor" of cultural stereotypes and uninspired slapstick. A grating reminder of the level of borrowing going on is provided by the game's title song, which cribs a rather obvious rhyme from the WB animated program Animaniacs. It's a little detail, but a telling one.
Aesthetically, Freaky Flyers tries hard, but comes up a little wanting. The character art seems largely uninspired, as the characters blend together a little too much, especially with the female characters. The music, although lively and varied, becomes grating very quickly, especially when a player is forced to replay through the same level multiple times with the same annoying music track playing over and over again. The graphics are smooth and crisp, as one would expect on the Xbox, but never venture into anything spectacular.
Freaky Flyers is an excellent concept for a game. It just didn't live up to the promise of the original blueprints. Both the humor and the flight mechanics are poorly implemented, and that provides too much of an obstacle to the success of the game. Although the game does a good job attempting non-traditional conceptual material and mixing up the gameplay to try and keep it fresh, when both the mechanics and the conceptual material wind up basically flawed, it's hard to be anything more than mediocre. There may be flying going on, but it's not really that freaky.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.