Sky Force Anniversary and Reloaded are the definitive Shoot ‘Em Ups (review)

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Sky Force Anniversary and Sky Force Reloaded collect the legacy that the best Shoot ‘Em Up video games played on home screens and in the arcade have left us over the decades.

The Shoot ‘Em Up genre is still alive

2D shooters are a die-hard genre, a bit like Phoenix‘s final boss. We are among the players too, those who have inserted the (many) quarters in the cabinets of Space Invaders, Galaga and Gyruss. Once the emulation drunkenness with MAME has come and gone, someone wants a “new” experience. It is the desire for an evolution that keeps that umbilical cord intact with the atavistic fun of shooting those damned enemies/invaders/monsters without getting caught by their bullets.

This evolution of Shoot ‘Em Up is complicated because it is a genre that is based on its origins much more than many others. Developing a new one without distorting the basic mechanics is a difficult job even for the most creative developers, but those of Infinite Dreams have made it. This Polish studio has released Sky Force Anniversary and Sky Force Reloaded on Steam, PlayStation, Apple Store and Google Play. They are both of high playful and historical value because they are a amazing and full of iconic references to the most representative games of the genre.

Sky Force Anniversary and Reloaded

Old things and new things

Let’s clarify the main differences between the two titles. Reloaded you can also play it in local and online multiplayer, Anniversary no. In Reloaded you can face the enemy hordes by commanding nine different aircraft each with specific characteristics, in Anniversary there is only one although the equipable arsenal is quite versatile.

What is immediately understood is that the developers of these games are very smart. They reveal their pixels little by little, in a path that winds through strategic choices of unprecedented depth for a “spaceship” game. Raiden & C. have accustomed us to progress vertically level after level in faith to an arcade model that has appeared essential over the years.

With Sky Force it’s different, you have to think about a “horizontal” approach strategy to advance through the stages by progressively enhancing your arsenal. Each stage is unlockable by completing the previous one and achieving a certain total number of objectives. Each run consists of a single stage, each stage is playable at 3 unlockable difficulty levels by reaching the 4 objectives of the lower difficulty level. The higher the difficulty level chosen, the higher the multiplier of the score and of the stars that can be spent on upgrades.

The total high score is given by the sum of the high scores of the individual levels, so to improve it you can play short runs at the individual levels, ensuring the best results achieved forever. We see the legacy of the mobile version in this approach, and we believe it is a positive quality.

The controversial aspect of this game structure, which makes many raise their eyebrows, is the need to re-play the stages several times to access the next ones and/or to unlock the higher difficulty levels. It is a grinding mechanic borrowed from the RPG tradition, here adapted to an atypical and stimulating Shoot ‘Em Up project. On the other hand, in all arcades to achieve the best scores you need to play and replay, and in this the growth path makes the challenge more motivating in the long run.

The social aspect is relevant: there is a tournament every weekend where you can compete with your Steam friends. In Anniversary there is also traces of them along the stages, in the form of fallen in battle to be recovered in order to achieve the related achievement.

Graphics, sound, hardware

The HD graphics are excellent, with an attention to detail at times astounding. The 3D animations are rich and accurate, and at 60 fps they are worth the price of the ticket. 16:9 is an appreciated rarity in the world of classic vertical scrolling shooters, where side bands are often used in which unlikely fillers are placed.

The color combinations and shading work well, and even in the most hectic stages where there are a myriad of objects on the screen it is difficult to get lost in the confusion of explosions, bullets, and vehicles. This denotes considerable skills and commitment in the design and execution phase, as well as a particular attention to the accessibility factor.

The sound is of excellent quality both in the effects and in the music, and some are truly memorable. The hardware requirements for the PC version are surprisingly modest, you can find them on the respective Steam store pages (Anniversary, Reloaded).

Gameplay

The gameplay is rich and deep: the need to complete 4 different objectives in each single stage involves choices that go beyond shooting everything that moves without getting caught. It is true that each stage must be played several times, but things to do change almost every time: killing all enemies, saving all survivors, collecting all stars, not receiving any collision damage result in different approaches from time to time. Then, accumulated the necessary arsenal, there is the final apotheosis in which you try to do everything in the same time to aim for the high score better than that of the other players on the leaderboard.

The action takes place at “moderate” speed. This allows you to enjoy the show and appreciate the attention to detail given by the Polish developers. However, the frenetic phases are not lacking and there are also some moments in bullet-hell, especially in the more advanced stages. In short, there is something for all tastes and, as already mentioned, there is no shortage of references to the milestones of the genre, starting with 1943: The Battle of Midway.

In some phases, the precision in the maneuvers counts more than the sniper aim, for example phases of collecting objects and hostages, useful for enhancing the armament and achieving objectives. The achievements contribute to making the gameplay varied and well layered, and the cards scattered around randomly attribute particular power-ups.

The weapons available are the classic ones, and the destructive power is well-balanced. Some buffs are momentary, some are permanent. The variety of levels is good, within the obvious limits of what the genre can offer. Bosses offer a rewarding level of challenge, you can hardly beat one on the first try without studying their moves first.

Sky Force Anniversary Trailer

YouTube video

Sky Force Reloaded trailer

YouTube video

Controls

The control system deserves special consideration here. The handle over your vehicle is total: with an analog stick (for example that of the Xbox controller) you have 360 degree freedom of movement and adjustable speed based on the inclination of the same. This allows you to move with high precision not possible with the use of a D-Pad or an arcade stick which instead allow only 8 directions and a single speed of movement.

Even in this, it is clear that the Infinite Dreams have not tried to recreate the feeling of an arcade cabinet, instead aiming to offer a modern experience that satisfies beginners and experts.

Closing words

Sky Force Anniversary and Sky Force Reloaded are modern masterpieces of a classic genre. They amplify the original purity of Shoot ‘Em Up without distorting it, so you should play them and let us know if you like them too.

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