Video games are becoming incredibly complex with twisting plots, Hollywood-worthy set pieces, and imperious graphical fidelity. Sometimes in this complexity, the media form becomes less of a game; and it’s with simple classics like Sky Force Anniversary that we’re reminded of how addictively entertaining and accessible games can be.
Sky Force Anniversary is a celebration of the past — a look back to the original 2004 web game, re-crafted and packaged to suit the modern gaming market. It is a top-down, vertically scrolling shoot-em-up, where you control an aircraft with incredible strafing abilities.
Loading up the game for the first time puts you instantly into the action against your nemesis: the stereotypically square-jawed, evil protagonist, General Mantis. It’s an introductory sequence purpose built to tease you. To show you the best weapons and the wonderfully colourful action before snatching it back, destroying your ship and making you upgrade your own from the ground up.
To upgrade your ship you must collect stars by destroying an array of machine based foes; from automated turrets and tanks, to streams of suicidal planes. These upgrades you’ll soon find are integral to your progression, as I myself quickly realised. There are 9 levels in the campaign, each taking around 10 minutes to complete, with a big boss battle to round off most of them. Do the math and that equals 90 minutes — compare it to my play time of around 6 hours, and I bet you’re wondering what the hell I was doing!
Sky Force Anniversary has a number of quite brutal difficulty jumps which can only really be approached in the classic RPG way, strangely enough: by grinding stars and leveling up your plane. Alarm bells start to ring when the word grind is ever mentioned, but you must remember, the basis of arcade shooters was built on a foundation of trial and error. Reaching high scores by approaching the same level over and over was once the norm, and in Sky Force Anniversary this has been approached in an interesting way.
Points and multipliers are an ever-present phenomenon, but the introduction of challenges focused me into achieving difficult goals within a level I’d already played half a dozen times. Each of the 4 goals is identical on each level: kill 70% of enemies, kill 100% of enemies, save all humans, and don’t take any damage. I thought it a shame there was no variation between levels, but I still found the challenges to be an interactive element which stopped me getting bored. Also levels require you to complete ‘X’ number of challenges before progressing, so don’t think you can avoid the grind! However after completing all 4, the next difficulty level is unlocked for that specific stage, which makes enemies tankier and more lethal.
The gameplay is smooth and responsive, and the controls couldn’t be simpler. Left stick to move the craft in any direction, right trigger to fire, and X to apply shield if unlocked. Enemies get progressively harder throughout the campaign, though it quickly becomes obvious which you should destroy first to make life easier. Also different enemy types drop different advantageous powerups: planes drop weapon boosts whilst turrets drop health. Dodging and weaving between lazers and projectiles flying at varying speeds is daunting and a little hypnotic. I frequently died because the screen was covered in bright neon lights and I lost track of my plane’s whereabouts.
This was the biggest issue when playing co-operatively. Not only did having a second set of constantly firing lazers put me off, but the colour Infinite Dreams chose for player 2’s canons was the same colour as the projectiles of most of the adversaries! Having said that, and despite having to share health pickups: playing co-op did make the game a lot easier, especially when approaching challenges, since the game difficulty wasn’t altered by having a plus-1.
As a narrative, I’m glad they kept it to a minimum. There is very little decipherable story. You’re just told to fight General Mantis who we’re to assume is the ‘baddie’, despite the mass genocide you’re encouraged to commit before facing him. I did enjoy his little one liners when you attempt the same level on a higher difficulty though — seems like he has as many lives as we do!
Graphically it is very neat and attractive. The colours are vibrant and bright and the background is impressively detailed with glistening aqua-marine waters and lush green vegetation becoming visible through thinly layered clouds. The frame-rate is faultless, and the display is always clear and crisp. Explosions are satisfying and brief so as not to affect the vision of the player, also all bullets and projectiles are specific colours which are usually clear against the detailed background. However a few times I got confused between pickups (stars and weapon upgrades) and the enemy fire, since everything looks so enticing. Note to all: don’t collect the purple orbs…
The sound effects are reminiscent of old arcade games. Obviously there has been an up-scaling in quality, but all the cannon sounds and explosions are quite tinny and understated. This is a good thing though, especially in later levels when there are so many convoluted sounds things could easily get overwhelming. The computerised announcers informing you about powerups and score multipliers is a nice touch; they remind me of Halo multi-kill announcements.
The soundtrack is very minimalist, retro-electro type music which is quite catchy at first. Whilst you’re playing you don’t notice the music so much, but navigating through the menus and upgrading weapons in the hangar makes you realise the same tune gets old pretty quickly. This is possibly because during a level the music alters, especially when you’re facing the boss, to ramp up the pressure. The retro music and sound effects add a nostalgic feeling to the game, but the updated gameplay and graphics make it an attractive choice.
Tournament mode is offered as a competitive online challenge, one which I’ve topped the leaderboard on — pre-release perks… Weekly challenge stages will be released upon launch as a replayability incentive. Having challenges within campaign stages as well as multiple difficulty levels will keep completionists happy for days; and the fact everything is score-based means competition among friends will likely negate any need for a campaign. Number crunching and high score seeking has always been and will always be gaming’s biggest replayability draw.