Spitfire Heroes: Tales of the Royal Air Force is a 3D air-combat game based on a series of books by the same name. As a lone fighter pilot, you engage in a series of offensive and defensive missions to single-handedly protect Europe from German advances during World War II. The game simulates air combat with some success, but shoddy production values ultimately prevent Spitfire Heroes from standing out among other mediocre combat games on the DS.
The mission-based structure includes such objectives as destroying ground targets, defending your base, and taking out waves of attack forces. These are presented as dossier files before each mission, giving you a good idea of what to watch out for on your next outing. Combat is relegated to the top screen, and the D-pad controls pitch and direction. The bottom screen displays an informative instrument panel, though it doesn't feature any touch sensitivity. The A and B buttons adjust your throttle, while the R trigger fires a limitless stream of bullets. Pressing X allows you to do a barrel roll and avoid enemy fire, although it's rarely effective. The game generally handles well, which is fortunate because success often demands pixel-perfect accuracy.
Although Spitfire Heroes offers a sufficient variety of mission objectives, the same cannot be said of the gameplay mechanics. Typically, success boils down to shooting everything you see on your radar, and completing the objectives doesn't necessarily mean you've beaten the level. Mission performance is based on a variety of factors, including the number of lives lost, completion time, and the number of enemies you've destroyed. You have three tries to finish each level, but even on the easiest difficulty setting, you might find yourself repeating missions two or three times before succeeding. It's frustrating to complete a lengthy stage only to find out afterward that you need to replay it for a better score to continue to the next mission.
Initially, the game's presentation is impressive. Realistic sound effects, appropriate music, and grainy cutscenes lend authentic style to an otherwise tired genre. There's also a gallery where you can view realistic models of planes that appear throughout the game. However, once you enter a mission, the stark contrast between presentation and gameplay becomes apparent. Environments are dull and nondescript, making it difficult to gauge altitude, enemy distance, or weapons fire. This is particularly frustrating when you're forced to fly close to the ground to destroy enemy tanks, only to explode without warning and find that you were much closer to the ground than you thought. Your enemies also seem to have much better aim than you, meaning you'll have to attack from extreme distances to remain safe. Terrible draw distances force you to shoot at clusters of three or four pixels, making successful hits seem random at best. It's also difficult to judge your speed because everything on the screen moves at a snail's pace. You'll often come upon an enemy plane much faster than you expected and then crash. Half of the time, this head-on collision results in your plane exploding; the other half of the time, you simply bounce off each other and continue on your way.
Up to four people can compete in the game's Battle mode, provided you have four copies of Spitfire Heroes. Considering the lackluster visuals and how limited the multiplayer options are, it's a shame that single-cart download play wasn't implemented. A cooperative mode might also have expanded the appeal and made the game's punishing difficulty more palatable. Unfortunately, the developers would have you believe that the entire Royal Air Force consists of a single plane because even the single-player campaign makes no attempt to render any RAF fighters besides your own.
Ultimately, it's difficult to discern exactly why Spitfire Heroes would be worth a purchase. If you're a glutton for punishment, you may get some added replay value by completing each of the three difficulty levels, though there's little motivation to do so. There are plenty of middling combat sims on the DS, and Spitfire Heroes does not offer enough in the way of realism or fantasy to appeal to fans of either persuasion.