Most will remember Sky Force as a 2D pixelated retro shoot ‘em up that released on mobile platforms in 2004. Ten years later it was fully remastered for the PC platform as an Anniversary edition. Two years on from that and it finally lands on the Playstation platforms. Immediately it’s clear the team at Infinite Dreams have been working hard on fully realising the natural evolution to a contemporary 3D videogame. The music is the original chiptune score that has always been a good fit. If it’s not still blipping away pleasantly in the back of your mind for a week, I’d be surprised. The plot is the usual basic affair of shoot the bad guys and save the POWs.
When you start the game, you’re flying around in what’s described as an advanced plane, though it looks a lot like a starfighter. You only have one central cannon, though you can upgrade further by collecting stars from defeated enemies. You will die a lot until you increase in power, not to worry though, as whether you die or quit the level you will keep any stars collected. This allows you to upgrade to help you deal with the challenge that just beat you. However, it’s important to note that you will lose any collectables you’ve attained from the level you exited. The enemy types consist of planes flying in formation, tanks and attack helicopters along with a myriad of turrets with various firing patterns. Every level adds more enemies so there’s always a new challenge to contend with. If you shoot a glowing enemy you get can collect a fire rate upgrade. This shows a real understanding of the importance of rapid fire in shoot ‘em ups.
When you have enough stars collected you can add and upgrade components on your vessel. Beyond the main cannon you can purchase two side cannons that essentially gives you a triple shot. Adding extra armour to increase health is always a wise idea since you only have one life that consists of a single health bar. You can also equip auto firing homing missiles that are very handy for dealing with turrets and a magnet to attract stars from a greater distance. Additionally there are three super abilities, a front wide-beam laser, a timed energy shield and a Mega bomb for full screen damage. These powers are charged by either buying uses at the start of the level or collecting them from enemies. The buttons used for their activation are intuitive, square for shield, triangle for laser and circle for mega bomb, You might as well use them as much as possible as they reset to zero every level, win, lose or quit. For those playing two player co-op you will find that you share these supers which may be a point of frustration for some.
Bosses have a nice variety and scale, to a point that the initial levels boss battles become the mid-level bosses later on. Each is the usual retro design of shooting out the weaponry and then destroying it. All the while you’ll be dodging projectiles with extremely smooth and precise controls. That’s where this game really shines, it all feels so fluid and responsive you want to keep playing. Which is a good thing since you will be playing levels several times over. This is because you need to do more than just beat the level to progress. You need to also complete challenges to get a certain number of medals to unlock the next stage. The challenges consist of 70 and 100% of enemies destroyed, collect all humans and survive without taking a hit. I have mixed feelings about this as on one hand it looks like filler to extend a game only nine levels long. On the other, you will have to upgrade anyway as enemies get higher armour as the game progresses. Getting all humans and 70% of enemies challenges you’ll most likely achieve on your first run. The other two will take several runs and on later levels they’re almost impossible unless you have a second player. Outside of the couch co-op you can use the share-play feature to play this with friends online, even if they don’t own the game.
The only real glaring issues are that picking up humans can be tricky and level 5. When picking up the POWs you have to try to remain in position for about five seconds. However, you are constantly moving forward so you have to make micro adjustments to stay over the target. Deviate just a little too far or have your friend try to pick up the same human and the pick up timer resets. Also the humans aren’t very clear to see and some make no attempt to attract your attention. I’ve even hovered directly over one and not had it register at all. If I was to suggest an improvement of the mechanic, I’d ask for a trigger button activation. Level 5 is one of those levels that I really didn’t enjoy even though I’ve aced it. This is because at the very start you are hit by an EMP missile. This shuts down all your weapons and special abilities and so it becomes about ship control and dodging projectiles until to the end. As you can imagine it’s a fairly nerve wracking level that’s just not as much fun as the other levels. It’s that one level in a game most will never play again beyond completing it to progress.
Sky Force Anniversary looks and plays great and deserves to hold it head high among the ranks of the shoot ‘em up genre. Accurate and responsive gameplay is the most important element in a shoot em’ up and this game absolutely nails it. The update to the visuals is done with painstaking accuracy to remain faithful to the original. The music seemed to seal the deal and send my mind back to the Arcades, because that’s how good the whole package is. It’s obvious to me that this game really shines as a pick up and play two player thanks to simple but effective controls. As a single player it’s an extremely challenging ride that, even though you play levels repeatedly, it never gets boring.
Overall, it’s certainly not going to change the face of gaming, but then, it doesn’t have to. It’s authentic retro gaming at it’s finest, and yet, it stands as an equal contemporary contender with the likes of prestigious titles such as, Resogun and Super Stardust. A really impressive title that I’m happy to recommend to anyone with even a glancing interest in shooters.
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