The Ace Combat series is pretty silly when you think about it, and it is also really good.
The fifth game ends with your squadron, named the “Demons of Razgriz” after a fictional fairytale, fighting the falling debris of a giant super-weapon hijacked by a shadow organization of nationalists that somehow tricked two of the world’s largest nations into waging an all-out war against each other by kidnapping the president of the world’s largest superpower in secret.
Ace Combat Zero isn’t much different. In that game, the titular “Belkan War” ends when your former war buddy turned enemy, who joined a radical anarchist organization hellbent on using nuclear super-weapons to rid the world of borders and nations, appears out of nowhere in a snowy wasteland after he hijacks a plane equipped with a laser, cluster explosives and a defense mechanism that makes it so that you can only defeat him in a plane jousting match that will decide the fate of the world.
These two are some of the best moments in the whole franchise. I understand all of that sounds incredibly complicated and raunchy on paper. But the funny thing about Ace Combat is that it doesn’t matter how it sounds. I know I technically spoiled the ending of these two games, but that doesn’t really matter. All that matters is how each of these moments utilize the presentation of their medium to great results. That is why context matters in Ace Combat. It’s not enough to know what happens in these games, you need to experience it for yourself to feel it.
To explain my point, I’m going to break down the individual moments that I just described and how the game uses its presentation to make them work in the context of the narrative. Without further ado, here’s the wonderful world of plane combat.
Ace Combat 5: Mission 27+
An Unsung War
One important thing to note about Ace Combat 5’s final mission is that its not a stand alone mission. Mission 27+ “The Unsung War” comes immediately after the game’s proper 27th mission, which is no pushover either. There you fight the last forces of the mysterious “Grey Men” that are behind the events of the game. After a large battle, the game takes you on a trench run through the confined spaces of an underground facility. This ends after you destroy the control unit of the monolithic super-weapon you have to destroy in the next mission.
The important thing about these two missions is that they offer a cathartic finale to the events of the game. Throughout Ace Combat 5, you are constantly fighting a war without meaning. As the game’s characters constantly remark, the game’s war is ruthless and cruel. It is only after the game’s halfway point that you can bring back peace to the world, and these two missions are the culmination of all that build up.
“The Unsung War” is not exactly a difficult mission. Most of the mission involves flying through empty space and fighting a squadron that’s not hard to take down. Despite that, the mission carries a powerful and solemn air of suspense and anticipation. The stakes are higher than ever, and the end of the war is near. Your teammates are hopeful, and the sky is painted in the beautiful colors of dawn. But you only have a limited amount of time before you fail the mission, so the player is constantly dangling from a thread of suspense as the giant looming threat literally falls from the sky.
A Squad of Saviors
A new gameplay addition of Ace Combat 5 is the ability to control a squad of AI teammates. Your squad, “The Demons of Razgriz”, are your only companions when facing against the many enemies in the game. These include, but aren’t limited to: other fighter planes, giant battleships, monolithic super-weapons, armies of tanks, among others. Over time, you learn to become truly attached to this group of characters. Ace Combat 5 uses its gameplay features to develop a strong connection and attachment to these characters. Their sacrifices, successes and failures matter to you as a player because they’ve been with you the whole journey.
So when the final mission comes, you have a moment to reflect on the long journey. There is much that was lost throughout the course of the war. There are friends and squadmates that will never return to see you end the war and deliver the finishing blow. That aspect adds a lot to the solemn and winding ending of the game. It is the moment where your motivations as a player and those of your mates as characters come together in one last act that is sure to save the world from destruction.
A Stylized Fairy Tale
One of the weirdest aspects of Ace Combat 5 is its fascination with the lore of its own alternate earth. As is known, most of the Ace Combat series doesn’t take place on earth, but on a fictional alternate world known as “Strangereal”. The history, culture and geography of Strangereal isn’t too different from that of our own world, but what makes it unique is the attention to all the small details that make it come to life. The most important one for this game is the existence of the fictional short story “A Blue Dove for the Princess”.
The important thing about this tale is the mention of “Razgriz” a mythical figure with an ambivalent morality. When they first appear, Razgriz abuses their power to bring death and famine upon the land. After their demise, Razgriz returns as a great hero to give life and peace upon the world. In a shocking twist, the game uses this simple fictional fairytale as the metaphorical basis for its own story.
Essentially, the story of the game is a metaphor for the legend of Razgriz. Early on, you use your power to further the war and bring death to soldiers and innocents alike. After a turn of events, your squad-mates are considered dead. However, all of you return to form the “Demons of Razgriz” squadron that will set things right and return peace to the world.
The way this relates to the final mission is that it is the point where your squad embodies the role of the hero. Your journey has come full circle, from furthering the cause of the war to ending it, much like the fairy tale. The moment you personally destroy the SOLG weapon has a cathartic fairy tale quality to it. This wouldn’t have been achieved without these parallels, giving the player a satisfactory conclusion to the chaos of the war.
A Musical Finale
The final quality that completely sells this moment is the music that accompanies it. Though several tracks play on this mission, I want to focus on the last song you hear: “The Unsung War”.
This song starts with the solemn atmosphere of the moments before it in a winding crescendo that leads into a choir. The song continues to transform the scene from solemn to triumphant. As the orchestra adds more layers of instruments and melodies into the song, the track has fully transitioned into feeling cathartic. This catharsis is felt completely when the song proudly evolves into the game’s heroic main theme.
The lyrics of the song tie into the story of the game as well. The latin chants that accompany the song are singing the story of Razgriz piece by piece. Though this detail can easily be missed, it definitely adds to the weight of the scene once you know what its trying to say. Its not enough to describe the effects of this composition however, so I definitely recommend listening to it for yourself.
Ace Combat Zero: Mission 18
A Personal Conflict
Moving onto Ace Combat Zero’s final mission, we see a lot of the same techniques being used. However, what’s important about this game is the different ways it uses these techniques. Ace Combat Zero features the same squad system carried over from Ace Combat 5. What’s different this time however is that you don’t get to give commands to multiple squad-mates, but only one instead. You always have the company of your partner, code-named Pixy, when fighting the Belkan War.
Much like the last game, you learn to care for Pixy because of how your bond manifests through the gameplay. What’s different this time however is that Pixy isn’t always going to be your ally. After a crucial point in the game the events of the war have twisted him to the point of betraying you and disappearing, seemingly for good. Pixy is then replaced by a new companion, but it doesn’t feel the same way anymore. After becoming attached to Pixy as a character through the gameplay and story, you can’t easily accept this new character.
That is until the end of the game, when Pixy suddenly comes back to state his newfound purpose: to fight you and start a nuclear war. Fighting him brings a lot of mixed feelings of betrayal and duty into the fight. It’s not easy to fight a character that you have become attached to, especially not when that same character was helping you through most of the journey in a tangible way.
A Difficult Fight
Fighting Pixy is not an easy feat. He moves quickly and dodges your missiles easily if you don’t time them properly. His movements are definitely hard to catch-up to and its easy to become hunted when you’re not playing carefully. Pixy’s laser is also monumental and threatening. Seeing it fired off unpredictably in the distance can easily intimidate a player.
Even when you do manage to catch up to him, Pixy continues to change his pattern of attack and surprises the player with new moves. When firing a laser isn’t enough to take you down, Pixy starts using explosives with a vast radius that take you by surprise. And when that isn’t enough, you are put under a strict timer to deliver the finishing blow on Pixy, which can only be achieved through a tricky strategy of attacking him head-on.
And throughout all that, the player is constantly treated to the passive-aggressive taunts of their former friend. Pixy is constantly trying to demoralize and provoke you throughout the fight, longing to prove his superiority.
A Mythological Legend
While Ace Combat 5 made references to its own mythology to bring style, Ace Combat Zero is more reliant on the mythology of our own world, specifically references to King Arthur’s trials. Arthurian references are aplenty in Ace Combat Zero. The giant desert plateau that is home to the greatest battles in the game is called “The Round Table”, one of the game’s superweapons is named “Excalibur”, Pixy’s fighter plane is codenamed “Morgan”, the final fight is decided by a metaphorical jousting match, and many others.
Ace Combat Zero also manages to sneak in some biblical and Norse references into its subtext as well. The main character Cipher shares many similarities with Lucifer or the Devil, which is befitting considering his title of “The Demon Lord”. The main squadron he belongs to is called the “Galm Team”, which is a reference to the Norse demon hound that guards the gates of hell.
Though these references are not really important at face value, they do help establish one strong aspect of the scene. The fight between Cipher and Pixy feels monumental and worthy of legend. Combining all these different mythological sources makes the Belkan War feel like a mystical and mythological event that culminates in the epic and tragic final battle that you get to play for yourself.
A Powerful Scene
The staging of this scene is perhaps its greatest strength. Besides the mythological references that give the scene weight, there are also aesthetic choices that make the scene stand out. The scene takes place in a cold and lifeless wasteland that reflects the tragedy of the event. Only the powerful light of the sun breaking through the clouds illuminates the world as you fight to the death.
More importantly, there is also the accompanying theme “Zero”. Masterfully composed by Keiki Kobayashi, the titular track takes you through the evolving emotions of the fight against Pixy. The song starts out slow, letting you take in the shock of Pixy’s actions, before quickly layering new melodies into the scene. The use of Spanish guitar stands out as it makes the fight feel like an aggressive dance.
As the beat continues, the player hears Ace Combat Zero’s own main theme, followed up by Pixy’s theme and then concludes with the Razgriz theme from Ace Combat 5. This progression of melodies tells its own stories, as it goes from the memories of the Belkan War, to the significance of Pixy and then culminates with the theme of Razgriz, which this series associates with acts of heroism and triumph.
All these melodies are brought together with the clashing instrumentals, which continuously add new elements into the mix such as choir, strings and percussion. The instrumentals rhythmically convey the intensity and flowing emotions of the scene as the melody progresses. This song carries the power of the scene almost entirely. It is most definitely one of the best compositions for any videogame. It is not enough to describe how the song feels like however, so I definitely recommend listening to it yourself.
So why does context matter anyways?
At the end of the day, it is not just one of these elements that make these scenes stand out, but all of them together. The Ace Combat series isn’t shy about doing weird things with its story, but it still makes them come together because it effectively uses its gameplay and presentation to make these moments memorable and interesting for the player. It may not have lofty political commentary like Metal Gear, but it has plenty of sincerity to compensate.
Usually, many games are desperate in seeking for validation, shying away from crazy ideas because they might be perceived as silly or outdated. However, a series like Ace Combat proves that context does matter. It proves that you can make moments like these work so well because of their sincerity. It doesn’t look for ways to subvert or deconstruct these moments. Instead, it presents these moments with all the honesty and glamour they deserve. It gets away with concepts that sound silly on paper by carefully crafting a scene around them.
Perhaps I’m not able to truly explain why these scenes are so good. But that’s where I ask you to seek these games out for yourself. Try out these moments and discover, just like I did, how impressively creative and stylish the world of Ace Combat is. After all, Ace Combat is not just a game about planes. It goes above and beyond to tell epic stories through the context of its gameplay and framework. The talent behind this series is well worth checking out. If nothing else, then just for the opportunity to live these moments yourself.