Platform: PC (Version Reviewed), Android, iOS
Developer: Infinite Dreams
Price: £6.99 / $9.99 (Free on Mobile)
Release Date: 30th April 2015 (Steam)
Given a choice, I’d say I prefer my shmups of the vertical-scrolling bullet hell persuasion. The symmetrical beauty in the chaos of projectiles and explosions as you guide your craft through pixel thin safe areas; there’s a real intoxicating panic behind your deadpan focus. When I pick up a non-bullet hell shooter, I tend to feel like I’m playing in slow motion which all too often leaves me craving something a little more high-octane. It’s not a universal law by any means, especially when I consider some of the earliest and greatest titles, but it’s always a concern on my mind when I fire one up.
Initially, Sky Force Anniversary does feel rather muted and uneventful. The enemies arrive in straightforward line formations and die quickly to short volleys of fire while the larger foes drift slowly across, occasionally firing a single bullet that’s easily avoided. The first level is best viewed as a lengthy tutorial of sorts and is probably not the best example from which to judge the entire game. Very soon it becomes apparent that this is not your average shmup, in any real sense of the word.
There’s a focus on upgrades in SFA that creates a unique feel, almost like an endless runner, but you aren’t fighting to see the end of the level necessarily so much as you are just trying to survive as long as possible. It’s entirely level-based which lends a superior sense of structure but borrows on the formula’s replayability and addictive draw. It also provides a purpose to the shiny trinkets commonly dropped by downed vehicles with a between-game shop selling permanent upgrades such as missiles, health increases and shield systems. It’s a subtle twist on an incredibly familiar genre that manages to turn an unpleasant grind into a curve that keeps the entertainment levels stable throughout.
Once you have a few levels completed and several improvements to your ship under your belt the pace quickens dramatically. The challenge that comes in both the level goals and the odds you face within always provide enough resistance that your steadily increasing arsenal doesn’t undermine the satisfaction. To progress through the campaign, you need to collect the stars awarded by meeting certain criteria. Generally, this involves taking no damage, destroying certain percentages of the enemy force and rescuing the MIA troops dotted throughout the terrain. At no point did completing these tasks seem trivial, more often I actually found them quite exhilarating, especially once you unlock the harder level variants.
It’s worth addressing that SFA is a mobile port, something I know many find abhorrent. Thankfully, shmups are a genre where the smartphone versions tend to be perfectly functional in comparison to their console and PC counterparts. Personally, I find the areas that ports tend to disappoint are the UI/GUI (where they are often over-sized and simplified) and the controls (that can translate poorly to M&K). The display is a clean and minimal design through necessity to the genre and while the menus are a little basic, they fit their purpose as well as any PC native shooter. As for controls, they’re adequate on keyboard though I’d absolutely suggest playing with a controller if you have the means; something I’d say of any shmup in all honesty.
Sky Force Anniversary is surprisingly pretty, opting for a realistic 3D style rather than the genre-typical pixels. The cloud effects and rippling of the waves and foliage beneath you look surprisingly stunning in motion. The enemy design can lack a little in personality and the projectiles occasionally camouflage into the visual effects, but it’s a minor complaint. All the while, you have a great soundtrack charting your flight with beating techno in a slight retro flavour. The tempo rises as the bosses emerge and it’s one of the cases where I’d happily buy the soundtrack to play outside of gameplay. What makes this even better is that the OST is actually a free DLC for owners of the game, so the reasonable entry charge is all the more palatable.
It’s a slow start but it quickly evolves into one of the more enjoyable shmups on Steam. As much as I always enjoy a well-made example of the genre, what impressed me most is how Sky Force does more than just replicate and regurgitate. Whether you want just one more addictive adrenaline-fueled shooter or a fresh-flavoured cocktail of innovation and classic mechanics, I feel perfectly comfortable lending my voice to the many recommending Sky Force Anniversary.