Version tested: PSP
Pilot Academy is a game about flying planes. It's got civilian planes, military planes, new planes, and old planes; it's got missions, challenges and lessons; and it's got records and achievements and multiplayer modes. It's an extension of the Japanese flight sim series, Pilot Ni Narou (or Let's Become A Pilot!), which has been brought out over here by Rising Star Games, a publisher with the admirable mission of releasing lesser known or niche Japanese titles in the west. But on balance, they probably shouldn't have bothered with Pilot Ni Narou.
The reason they shouldn't have bothered is that the game will only appeal to a small subset of PSP owners: hardcore flight sim fans. In fact it'll only appeal to a small subset of those PSP-owning hardcore flight sim fans: hardcore flight sim fans who like the added challenge of controlling a plane with the PSP's useless analog stick.
See, while the super sensitive and squirrelly handling and long periods of doing very little are probably pretty authentic, real pilots don't have to use the PSP's awful nipple to control their planes. So they're probably less likely to inadvertently send their craft into a sudden tailspin, or to accidentally have a malcoordinated panic attack that leads to a horrible fatal crash while trying (but miserably failing) to touch down on the runway. Which is good news for air passengers, obviously, just not for people who play Pilot Academy, because it means the game can veer between bouts of easy ambling and moments of sudden crisis: between frustrating difficulty and just plain boringness.
On top of that there are a number of quite baffling interface quirks in the game. In spite of an extensive course of flying lessons (which force you to boringly fly through a series of hoops) your instructor doesn't tell you what buttons do what, and there's no menu option to find out (or to reconfigure the controls). Indeed there's no way of reaching an options screen without quitting the mission and heading back to the main menu - which takes about half a minute to load. And when you do find the options menu you'll wish you hadn't bothered, because there aren't any options apart from volume control and the option to invert pitch control.
Equally baffling is the fact that after completing a lesson or mission there's no option to proceed directly to the next lesson or mission. Instead you'll have to head back to the main menu - which takes about half a minute to load. But waiting half a minute for the menu to load is only marginally less exciting than the in-game action, because it consists largely of not doing much (i.e. the game's civilian missions), or doing too much for the PSP's nipple to bear (i.e. the game's military missions).
In the game's defence, it is technically impressive, boasting well-realised environments, and impressively depicted aircraft, and the free flight mode can be pleasantly engaging and relaxing. Indeed flight sim nuts will no doubt find the whole thing amazingly brilliant, because you get to fly planes and stuff. But then flight sim nuts like re-enacting 11-hour flights to Tokyo, or pretending to be air controllers and stuff, and if you're buying this as a game in the hope of being entertained and you're not into recreating long-haul flights, you'll more than likely be disappointed.
In fact, if, like me, you find yourself the victim of a game-breaking glitch, which requires you to hold down the SELECT button the whole time you're in the air, you'll definitely be disappointed. This review originally started life as a tirade about the idiocy of requiring players to hold down SELECT the whole time they're in the air in order to keep their landing gear retracted (because if you leave your landing gear down, your plane will eventually disintegrate). But it turns out that was just a glitch. Upon starting the game again, I discovered that you only have to hold down the button for about a second - which is still far from perfect if you're trying to land a fatally wobbling plane.
So if, after uneventfully flying through arbitrarily positioned hoops for about seven minutes, only to fail the mission because you mistime your approach and let your landing gear out too early, or because you land about a metre before the runway starts, or because the oversensitive squirelly handling has spazzed out as you try to decelerate using the face buttons while raising or lowering the landing gears with SELECT, and if you do that about ten times - if, after all that you could bring yourself to give this game more than four out of ten, you're a more patient man than I. Or you like pretending to be an air traffic controller.
4 / 10