SkyDrift was developed by Digital Reality and published by Namco Bandai. It was released September 7, 2011 for 1200 MSP. A copy of the game was provided for review purposes.

Any fan of arcade racing games loves the Mario Kart series, and any fan of Mario Kart knows and loves Diddy Kong Racing as well. It introduces planes into the racing combat genre, something that more experienced players fell in love with. Others tried to take plane combat to new levels: in 1998 Inner Workings released Plane Crazy, a visually realistic take on the genre. Unfortunately nothing ever met with DKR‘s level of success–that is until now. SkyDrift is the perfect combination of Diddy Kong Racing‘s combat system, Plane Crazy‘s realistic art style and visuals on par with Hydro Thunder Hurricane. It’s beautiful, action packed, and frankly a complete blast.

Here’s what we liked:

Lush visuals – The first thing anyone will notice when taking their first lap around a Skydrift course is just how pretty everything is. Each of the game’s three main environments have unique and beautiful themes. The tropical Hawaiian courses feature realistic waterfalls, translucent blue water and realistic rock faces and flora. The Alaska setting takes players from high, snow covered mountains and down into the thawed forests at the foothills. The canyon environment perfectly captures that Grand Canyon feel found in southern Utah and northern Arizona. The places look great, too; each one has a unique-yet-believable design seemingly inspired by the fighter planes of World War II. We with there was a free camera or replay cam with the ability to take and save screenshots–it’s that pretty.

Easy to learn, difficult to master – Even a complete novice will be able to grasp the basics of SkyDrift by following the game’s tutorial. Its pick-up-and-play focus is one of its major appeal. But in order to win races you’ll have to learn a lot more than the basics, and that’s where mastering the controls come in. It’s one thing to guide the plane with your finger off the throttle, taking the simplest route around a course–it’s quite another to run full throttle, using the right thumbstick to dig into the turns, performing barrel rolls, scraping the bottom of the course and navigating tight passages to gain an advantage. It’s that nail-biting, fever inducing sense of speed and danger that make the game enjoyable long after the easy courses are beaten.

The little thingsSkyDrift‘s developers clearly took the time to go inside out with their game, honing every bit of the gameplay to be enjoyable. For example, each plane can carry two different powerups at a time, and players can switch between them at will; other combat racers like this only allow one. Powerups can also stack: pick up two of any given powerup for a more powerful version of it. While not a new gameplay mechanic, it certainly provides that edge that might be needed to gain position. Picked up a powerup you don’t want? It can be converted to boost energy with the press of a button. And speaking of boost, the mechanic for gaining it is ingenious. Boost is gained by being–for lack of a better word–daring. Flying close to the ground or through tight spaces will more readily fill your meter.

Varied planes – Even though one’s in the air and the other is on water, we can’t help but compare this game to Hydro Thunder Hurricane, an office favorite. In HTH each boat feels unique and comes with unlockable skins. SkyDrift follows that same formula. Each plane is unique, yet there are multiple planes that suit each player’s style. New skins offer the variety sorely needed for each player to stand out from the crowd.

Here’s what we didn’t like:

Picky powerup pickups – Key to any combat racer are the powerups, and while SkyDrift’s are plentiful and powerful they’re sometimes too difficult to grab. In games like Hydro Thunder Hurricane we have no trouble grabbing powerups, but when you have to manipulate two control sticks (in precision turns) as well as a throttle and weapons it’s sometimes maddeningly difficult to it a powerup. We recommend that they be made larger to ensure that all players have equal opportunity to get them.

Empty lobbies – To be fair this is no fault of Digital Reality’s, but the multiplayer player base is a lot lower than expected. Maybe it’s just warming up, maybe there are underlying issues we don’t know about (doubtful). All we know is that we need more players online. If you’re a fan of racing/combat games then pick this up and tell your friends, then find us on Xbox Live. This game deserves a strong multiplayer experience. Online gameplay is solid, but gameplay is only half of the equation: players are the other half.

We all know racing games like any other genre are a dime a dozen. It takes something more to stand out above the crowd and be truly exceptional, and SkyDrift just has it. It may not have quite the over-the-top feel that Hydro Thunder Hurricane does, but in our opinion it’s marked a position in the top three Xbox Live Arcade racing games. The combat is exceptional, too. In that regard there really isn’t an equal on XBLA, and we’d be surprised if anyone could match it anytime soon. This is an absolute purchase for any racing fan at 1200 MSP. Those on the fence might want to wait for a sale but should snatch it up as soon as it’s discounted. See you in the not so friendly skies!

Score: Buy It!!

Second Opinion by Todd Schlickbernd:

SkyDrift, Skydro Thunder, BlurrySkies, SkyKart, or any other permutation of air and weaponized racing comes with a certain set of assumptions. For instance, this genre of game usually is pretty average-paced with some generic weapons, maybe one or two nifty ones to keep things interesting, and then the map design and difference in vehicles allows people to play the game into the ground and then some. Well SkyDrift does that (literally, frequent collisions with the ground are part of the learning process) but replace “average” with “increasingly fast”.

SkyDrift nails all the staples while whizzing by at a breakneck pace, presenting an exhilarating and thrilling experience. Tracks are tight and satisfying to navigate and filled with some great views, the controls and flight mechanics are equally tight though they take getting used to, the variety of planes is decent and the details are top-notch, and the powerups, while a little bland, are functional at least and upgrades provide for some strategy along with being able to store two powerups. The planes, tracks, powerups and controls are really all that SkyDrift has to offer, but the parts combine into a fantastic experience, albeit a short one. Since there’s no local co-op, players may be forced to wait until the multiplayer really takes off, but there’s no overt lag issues and the game is far more intense with real players, so multiplayer should be a natural step up for most SkyDrift owners.

Score: Buy It!