Sky Force is a shoot 'em up that rocked mobile phones way back in 2004. Now Sky Force Anniversary has arrived on Xbox One, PlayStation, and PC. Can this shmup overcome its mobile origins and provide compelling gameplay? Surprisingly, yes!
The Sky Force awakens
Polish developer Infinite Dreams originally released Sky Force for defunct mobile operating systems Symbian and Windows Mobile 2003 back in 2004, the same year as films like Anchorman and Hellboy. The first ones. A revamped version called Sky Force Reloaded arrived on iOS in 2009 and Sony PSP in 2010.
Next, Infinite Dreams retooled the game once again for Android and iOS in 2014. This version switched from 2D graphics to 3D, while maintaining the same 2D gameplay as the original. The Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Steam versions of Sky Force Anniversary even add 2-player local co-op (as pictured above).
Sky Force is a vertically scrolling shoot 'em (shmup) up that uses the full 16:9 playing field, unlike the traditional thin vertical field with borders on the sides of the screen, favored by Japanese shmups like Raiden V. Also unlike that game, the story here is quite minimal. The first time you encounter a boss, he'll taunt you via a cartoonish portrait and brief dialog text, but that's about it. A proper intro and ending would've improved the presentation.
Still, Sky Force is more about the journey than the destination. The game consists of nine levels – not too unusual a length as shmups go. But more than most games in the genre, Sky Force has a well-developed metagame that will have players revisiting stages countless times, and not just to improve their scores.
Medals and upgrades
All nine levels have four total difficulties to progress through. Every level and difficulty has four optional goals, such as destroying all enemies, rescuing all prisoners (by hovering over them until they escape), and taking no damage. When you complete an objective for the first time, you earn a medal. Sky Force even helpfully displays your status for each medal in the top-right corner of the screen during gameplay, so you can tell if you've failed an objective at any given time.
By earning all four medals on one difficulty level of a stage, you'll unlock the next difficulty for that stage. Enemies do more damage and have more life on higher difficulties, but the basic layout and enemy formations remain the same. Still, killing them all and/or avoiding hits gets much harder. Each higher difficulty level offers four more medals to earn before you can reach the next difficulty, so you'll have plenty of reason to keep playing and improving your performance on a level.
Downed enemies leave behind stars to collect. These make a very satisfying sound when you scoop them up, and they also act as currency between levels. Numerous upgrades are available for purchase, including health, main cannon upgrades, wing cannons that add small auxiliary shots to your weapon, a star magnet, homing missiles, and three power ups. All of these have ten levels of upgrades to purchase, so it'll take quite a few hours to max out your ship's armaments.
Power-ups and cards
Power-ups won't appear during gameplay until you first purchase them from the store, so be sure to buy them early on. These include a laser, shield, and mega bomb. The single-use laser is the only special weapon available in the game; Sky Force really could use additional weapons like a spread shot, etc. Still, laser shots tear up bosses quite effectively.
The shield proves essential for avoiding damage on higher difficulties, and mega bombs excel at clearing the screen of hazards. Players can buy up to five of each power-up at the start of a stage using stars. That's an expensive proposition early on, but you'll generally want to bring at least one laser and shield along to increase your chance of completing medal goals.
Destructible crates appear in various spots throughout each level. These contain stars, power-ups, and occasionally, collectible cards. Sky Force has 22 cards to find. Cards bestow permanent bonuses, such as increased fire rate, missile damage, and cheaper upgrades. The two most important card effects give an increased chance of finding cards and double all stars collected. The chance of finding cards is generally low, but increases on higher difficulties. Level 6 seems to be the best level to grind for them.
Repetition in scenery and enemies
As well-thought-out as Sky Force's metagame elements are, its actual level design and enemy variety leave something be desired. The game takes place around a series of islands. As such, nearly all of the terrain consists of tropical islands and water. The time of day changes, but everything still looks rather samey .
The same applies to enemies – you'll fight the same handful of tanks, fighter craft, helicopters, and turrets throughout almost the entire game. Only in the last couple of levels do the environments switch up a bit (eventually descending into a subterranean area) and a few new enemies pop up. If the game ever gets a sequel (as opposed to more remakes), variety needs to be a priority.
Despite the generally uninspired level design, Sky Force's fifth level actually dares to be different. At the start of the level, a submarine fires a heat-seeking EMP at the player's ship. If it hits you, you'll lose the ability to fire all weapons and power-ups for the rest of the level. Lots of careful dodging will then be required to survive. Even if you manage to avoid the EMP throughout the level, you'll still have to play differently than on other levels.
The Xbox One version of Sky Force offers 26 Achievements worth a total of 1,000 Gamerscore. Only the first player can earn Achievements. Some are level-specific, such as collecting all of the stars on Level 5 and completing level 8 without the use of power-ups (fairly tough). Mercifully, players only need to collect 100 medals for an Achievement, out of a possible 144 medals. You can get by without fully mastering the hardest stages.
The two most annoying Achievements involve rescuing five VIPs and collecting 500,000 stars. VIP prisoners very rarely appear in levels. Their presence will be indicated on the map, but they're still annoyingly rare. The best way to get them is by closing the game whenever one doesn't spawn –repetitive! Still, getting 500,000 stars will take the longest by far. After about ten hours of playing, I only have about 180,000.
Initially, Sky Force Anniversary's relatively lackluster presentation put me off a bit. "This is fine for an indie shmup," I thought, "but I'd rather be playing Raiden V." Still, as I played more and came to understand the upgrade, power-up, and card systems, Sky Force really won me over.
The average shmup lasts about 30 minutes from beginning to end. Raiden V, designed with the home market in mind, clocks in around 60. Hardcore shoot 'em up fans don't mind those games' short lengths, as they don't play just to reach the end. They play over and over, memorizing the whole game and trying to get the best possible score.
Most gamers don't care so much about score, though. Today's gamer generally needs concrete objectives to work towards. Sky Force Anniversary hits the mark because it has a fun upgrade system and loads of objectives to complete on every level. You can still play for score, doing your best on the highest difficulty levels and/or participating in the weekly tournaments. Whatever the case, you won't find many shmups with more universal staying power than Sky Force.
- Excellent upgrade and objective systems
- A shmup that takes hours to finish rather than minutes
- 2-player local co-op is always good.
- Lack of variety in environments and enemies
- Needs more weapon types
- Sleep-inducing music (could be a plus if you're an insomniac!)
Xbox One review copy provided by the publisher.
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