On paper everything about Sky Force Reloaded would suggest it’s not going to be great. It’s a shoot ’em up, a genre that has been generally stale for decades, it’s made by iDreams, the team behind Let’s Create Pottery on iOS, it’s a sequel to a game that’s over ten years old, and yes, it’s a conversion of a mobile game which had in-app purchase. Not looking good is it? And what if I tell you this is a shoot ’em up that makes you grind, repeating the same levels over and over? It really, really should be utterly awful, but it’s not, it’s bloody fantastic.
The game is a vertical scrolling shoot ’em up with enemies attacking you from land, air, and sea as you relentlessly scroll upwards to the end of level boss battle. Your ship is utterly pathetic to begin with and, to paraphrase the 1994 dance classic “Short D*ck Man” by 20 Fingers, “That has got to be the smallest laser I have ever seen in my whole life!” It’s barely a pixel wide and does about as much damage as being attacked with ping-pong balls. However, it’s just strong enough to get you part way through the level, during which destroyed enemies will release stars for you to collect. You can then pop back to your hangar and spend the stars to improve your ship. In the iOS game you could buy packs of stars to speed things up, but thankfully there are no microtransactions in the game and you wouldn’t need them anyway.
The stars can be used to boost your main weapon, add side cannons, homing missiles, shields, lasers, smart bombs, and so on. It’s all the usual stuff, and each addition to your ship can be powered up many times. This is where the grind comes in, but it’s superbly balanced. Every time you play a stage you will progress just a little, achieving more goals, and collecting just enough stars to power up your ship just a little more, allowing you to progress a little bit further. Completing the four challenges for each stage, which include destroying 100% of all enemies and collecting all the humans that are dotted around the landscape, will unlock a hard version of the stage with more bullets flying around the screen and double the amount of stars as your reward. Complete the challenges for the hard stage and you unlock the insane version of the stage which awards triple stars.
This means that when one of the higher numbered stages becomes too challenging you can fall back to an earlier level on a harder difficulty level, grind that and complete the challenges. By then your ship should be powerful enough to complete the stage that was previously too hard. It works brilliantly, as falling back to the lower stages with a powerful ship means you make mincemeat of the enemies and challenges that seemed difficult can be completed with ease.
You don’t have to complete the challenges all in one go, so you can play the stage and focus on killing enemies and then play it again to capture the humans, each completed challenge adding a score multiplier for when you finish the stage. Even better, if you fail at the last hurdle and die during the end of level boss it will still register the challenge, which is a really forgiving touch. When you do die it never feels like the game is being unfair or using a sneak attack, something many other shoot ’ems ups are guilty of.
Along with the weapons on ship, there are loads of extra power ups to be found. Glowing enemies in the stages release tokens that speed up your weapons for the stage and there are cards to be found. These grant temporary bonuses, such as increasing the length of the tether used to rescue the humans, giving you a shield when you about to die, or granting you a bonus weapon at the start of the stage. There are also challenges to be completed, and working your way through these unlock Technicians who grant you even further bonuses in game, such as filling crates with bonus stars. Then there are online leaderboards, weekly competitions to enter, new ships to unlock, in-game trophies, and local co-op if you have a friend. The amount of extra content impressive and there’s always a new challenge to tackle.
The boss battles are brilliant with some of the best designed enemies I have seen, they look superb and have great attack patterns. Each stage, of which there are fifteen, brings new enemy types and every now then the game mixes things up a little. For example, the game could remove all your weapons and make you navigate your way through a maze of bullets or drop you into a floating minefield. The origins of shoot ’em ups as arcade games means they are usually very brief affairs, but I would estimate that completing everything in Sky Force Reloaded will take you well over twenty hours.
The game runs smoothly and looks great with some nice effects and graphics that are just the right side of cartoony without coming off as being childish. The music is the usual chiptune-techno you get with shoot ’em ups and the sound design is also pretty standard with explosions and laser zaps. A little bit of voice work comes in the form of your commander commenting at the end of the levels and the big bad of the game making grumpy comments when you destroy the end of level boss. Voice overs also tell you when you successfully rescued a human, have low health, and also when you are scoring chains of enemies, all of which are nice little touches that mean you can concentrate on the shooting rather than having to glance at health bars to see how you are doing.
I’m really surprised just how much I enjoyed Sky Force Reloaded, the first time I loaded it up I was playing it for five hours non-stop and at no point was I bored. Adding grind to a shoot ’em up sounds terrible but it’s a genius idea to counter the shoot ’em up’s traditionally short playtime. By adding the challenges, the act of replaying a level twenty or more times never gets boring. I am now going to bestow on Sky Force the highest honour I can give it: It reminds me of SWIV.
Version tested: PS4