IMPORT REVIEW: If you're the type of person who considers snowboarding an extreme sport or thinks cliff divers risk extreme danger on a daily basis, Idea Factory's Sky Surfer might be too extreme for you. Imagine a blend of skydiving - arguably the most dangerous sport in the world - with snowboarding. Add in a flimsy parachute and tricks, and you have an idea of what Sky Surfer is striving to achieve.
Sky Surfer contains two basic gameplay modes: Dive to Air and Balloon Beat. Dive to Air is a two-tiered competition in which you perform free-fall aerobatic stunts in the first half and demonstrate parachute navigation skills in the second. Balloon Beat is a minigame in which you use a high-powered wind tunnel to float yourself into a series of balloons, emulating a majority of the mechanics of Dive to Air's second portion.
Once you choose the game mode, it's time to select from one of three characters: Ryo Kazami, Harvey Hamilton, or Mai Natsume. Ryo is heavy and strong, Mai is light and weak, and Harvey represents the in-between. From there, choose one of six various name-brand boards and one of three courses: easy, medium, or hard. In terms of gameplay, the main difference between each of the locations is the air currents - the easy course has no turbulence, and the hard course requires a lot of give and take with the analog sticks. To help you, a spherical onscreen crosshair shows your character's position with respect to the horizon.
When it comes to performing tricks, the mechanics in Dive to Air 1 are decent, in that tidy bowls, somersaults, and free falls come out with ease in response to quick, four-digit button presses. Unfortunately, performing multiple-trick combinations isn't intuitive. Combining multiple melodies of the four main buttons with both analog sticks is simply too difficult. Furthermore, the need to pay attention to the spherical crosshair is so great that you rarely see how exciting your tricks actually are. Provided an air current hasn't brought your demise, it's time to hit the shoulder buttons and open your parachute, paving the way for Dive to Air 2.
Dive to Air 2 is highly reminiscent of Nintendo's Pilotwings. Using wind currents, you need to proceed through a series of balloon-laden checkpoints. This is where skillful use of the analog sticks becomes important. The left stick controls your overall positioning on the horizontal plane, whereas the right stick lets you tip and lean in more vertical efforts. Should you miss a checkpoint, each course has a focal point that can lift you higher into the air. While this mode is less aggravating than Dive to Air 1, you're limited in the number of ways in which you can achieve your goal, leaving little room for improvisation. Even more baffling is the inclusion of the Balloon Beat mode, which truly amounts to nothing more than a practice mode for Dive to Air 2, only with less danger and half the maneuverability. Prattling on for hours about Sky Surfer's gameplay isn't necessary - it's just not fun to play.
If mediocre gameplay isn't damning enough, Sky Surfer's visuals further disappoint. Though the character models are well done, their level of animation and fluidity is less than adequate. Each course presents a number of balloons and other obstacles to interact with, but little excitement or hilarity results from such collisions. In a game where you're free falling from 5,000 feet, witnessing the consequences of a failed attempts would have been nice, but such is not the case. The game's backgrounds - all six of them - are both large and well defined but sparsely detailed, almost as if birds or weather hazards never crossed the designers' minds. Sky Surfer's looks just don't do the PlayStation 2 justice.
The only aspect of Sky Surfer that isn't terribly flawed is the auditory experience. The sounds of parachutes opening, boards skipping across air currents, and the wind blowing are conveyed well. Character vocal response when colliding with obstacles is also fitting. Music tracks are subpar in spots, but they give an amply new-age feel regardless. Announcer comments, such as "My God!" and "Oh No!," also lend a decent amount of refinement to the whole affair.
Sky Surfer represents a situation where a decent concept is marred by flawed execution. The merger of the two extreme sports is a great idea, but the gameplay fails miserably. The Dive to Air 1 mode is nothing more than lining up a crosshair and tapping out button combinations, while Dive to Air 2's balloon popping precludes amusement. Combine all of the above with borderline visuals and a lack of multiplayer support, and you have a game that's basically a $60 technology demo.