The Playstation hardware family has become something of a victim of its own success with so many good (and bad) titles available worldwide it’s very easy to lose sight of the smaller, off-beat games that have cropped up throughout Sony’s gaming history. One of those under-the-radar games is Tori no Hoshi: Aerial Planet for the Playstation 2, a game perhaps “best” described as a sci-fi hang gliding survival-adventure with alien spacebird photography.
The setting for this unique title is a simple one – Hugo, with his AI partner Carl, is stranded on one side of the mostly aquatic alien planet Cornius Blue after some trouble aboard the orbiting research station where Hugo, his father, and the rest of the crew were living and researcher-ing on. With nothing more than an fancy futuristic glider designed for bird watching and an awful lot of youthful determination it’s up to the player to help Hugo survive alone on this alien world and reunite with the rest of the crew.
This means that the basic goal of the game is to not die. Now you could argue this is the goal of pretty much any game that has ever been created, but in Tori no Hoshi’s case things are a little different. Most of the wildlife you encounter is either disinterested or outright afraid of you as you gently glide past so there’s little in the way of traditional enemies to bother you while you play but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about - instead of typical adversaries to battle with the game instead offers the far more primal obstacles of finding enough food to eat and a safe place to rest before the night draws in. Hunger becomes a constant worry as you glide over the uncharted terrain of this unfamiliar world – will you find a new campsite? Will there be any food to forage there? Even if you do will you have enough time to dry out your provisions in the sun or will a storm sweep in and ruin everything? On more than a few occasions you’ll be forced to send an exhausted Hugo to sleep in the rain with an empty stomach and have little more than hope that the next day will fare better.
This might sound like a meandering exercise in unrelenting depression rather than an exciting adventure on an alien planet, so this is probably a good time to mention that at all times Tori no Hoshi has a laundry list of quests to keep you busy; some of these are vital to progressing the story while others are entirely optional but might offer some useful knowledge or simply test your skills. These varied quests mean there’s always something to think about other than the gnawing hunger in Hugo’s stomach because all your food supplies have rotted away, and they help to give some focus to what is otherwise a rather freeform experience.
When playing the game is split in two distinct segments – camping and gliding. The camp is where you’ll sleep for the night, forage for food, dry out the food you find if the weather holds out (dried rations tend to last longer than their fresh counterparts), and where you’ll have the opportunity to observe the behaviour of any bird groups pecking around nearby. Gliding is all about exploring the islands around you and hopefully finding more safe campsites to rest at as well as photographing birds in flight (shots of new birds give a permanent HP bonus) and using the glider’s on-board research capabilities to record any bird calls Hugo hears. As gliding in a regular hang glider is a one-way trip, Hugo’s sci-fi variant comes with a limited boost function that allows him to generate lift even when there’s no thermal currents around.
But far and away the centrepiece of this game are of course the birds themselves – nameless and unknown, yet Hugo’s life depends on the player being able to interpret their behaviour and turn them into survival skills. Which foods do birds avoid? Which birds do birds avoid? Each species has a preferred terrain, meal, and place in the local ecosystem and by learning and then using the glider to play back different calls Hugo can scare dangerous birds away or have more sociable species them follow behind him in a beautiful formation. It can be daunting to read about here but the game eases each of these concepts on to the player at a reasonable pace, allowing each idea to become familiar and useful before layering further complications on top.
Unfortunately this is where the issue arises for gamers without some grasp of written Japanese, as the game does do a very good job of explaining itself… but only if you can read the text. Visual clues are virtually nonexistent – great for the atmosphere, not so great for brave importers who’d like to try out one of the most memorable and unique games of its generation. With any luck though a fan translation for this game will arise at some unknown future date, and perhaps then Tori no Hoshi will finally get some of the attention it deserves.