My pile of shame grows longer by the day. Assassin’s Creed: Origins: uncompleted. Shadow of War: about 5 hours in. Wolfenstein 2: not even started. And it doesn’t help when games like Sky Force Reloaded come along and steal your entire game playing weekend. And steal it did. I installed on Friday night and the only other thing that got started on the Xbox was Netflix; and that wasn’t by me!
For those not in the know, Sky Force Reloaded is a sequel of a port of a classic. I first played the original on Android when it’s anniversary edition launched a few years back. Placed in command of an aircraft of sorts, Sky Force has you scrolling slowly up the screen with enemy ships, helicopters and giant airships coming back down in the opposite direction. It’s a classic concept that began with Space Invaders and has evolved through various iterations via series such as R-Type and Raiden in the decades since. To my mind, Sky Force Reloaded is the best of the bunch.
I’ll tell you why. Developer Infinite Dreams have added a progression system. Your basic ship starts as a real weakling. Your piddly starting cannon can barely bring down the game’s earliest enemy planes in one shot and, depending on your own flying ability, you might even find the first level just a tad out of reach in terms of completion. But, that soon changes. Every single thing that explodes in game drops a star or two. Grab a few of these in the course of a run and you’ll soon have enough to boost your health, improve your main cannon or add one of several more powerful upgrades such a bombs.
Stars are plentiful, but upgrades cost more the further down the path you go, meaning improvements are fed to you at a steady rate. And here is the real genius of Sky Force Reloaded. The pacing is as good in a game as I’ve ever come across. Almost every run, whether it resulted in success or failure, gives you enough stars for an upgrade. Failing that, you might have picked up a card that offers you a small bonus if you complete a level with it in your possession. These can be temporary improvements to your circumstances, such as a increased star drop rate. Alternatively, you could receive a permanent upgrade to the rate at which you receive aircraft parts.
Did I mention there are a whole host of other craft to unlock? They differ from your staring ship in various small but significant ways. You might find one that moves around the battlefield (or screen to you and me) a little more swiftly but at a cost of some of your normal ship’s hardiness for example. Beyond that, Sky Force sets you “Objectives” that, when passed, offer you a new pilot; one that means you start a run with a small advantage. A large crate of extra gold stars? Yes, please. An extra chance at preserving a perfect, no damage run? Oh, God yes!
Actually, those perfect runs are the smart way that Infinite Dreams keep the difficulty manageable. Each stage (of which there are 13 and two bonuses) has both a Hard and Insane difficulty. These don’t unlock until you’ve completed a perfect run on the level below and it’s exactly the same when trying to progress to the next stage. Generally I’ve found that by the time you’ve completed a stage to perfection, your ship is at the level required to compete on the next stage. It’s a simple system but it made me feel like I was never out of my depth.
That’s key for me when playing a “bullet hell” style game. Progression is at a pace of your choosing. Health is on a bar, rather than relying on the genre’s traditional “one hit, dead, start again” system. No death felt unfair. I’m not ashamed to admit, I don’t have the reflexes of a teenager anymore. If I couldn’t dodge a tank’s round in time, I felt like it was my fault, not because the game was throwing too much at me.
If you hadn’t gathered, I’m a big fan of Sky Force Reloaded. The fact that it looks pretty stunning on my 4K TV doesn’t hurt either. Colours are bright and distinct enough from each other that you can always tell what’s going on. Explosions are suitably fiery and I love the shimmer of the collectable cards when they burst of your most recent victim. Likewise, the sound effects are terrific. The game isn’t let down by the music per se; it just isn’t as memorable as the rest of the game.
For those still playing the game in 6 months, there are tournaments every weekend. I would avoid these as a new player unless you want to be mauled in the first few seconds. They certainly require a heavily upgraded aircraft. And, if you’re reading this as an achievement hunter, be prepared to pour the hours in. As I said earlier, I have played nothing else all weekend (and last night!) and I’ve unlocked one solitary achievement!