Review by Harvard L.
The Switch has its fair share of top-down shoot-em-ups, but most take heavy influence from the arcade philosophy of design: three lives, high scores and punishing difficulty. Sky Force Reloaded takes a different approach – it uses RPG progression systems to create a smoother difficulty curve, allowing players to see each of the game’s levels and bosses regardless of their personal skill. Developed by Polish studio, Infinite Dreams, and boasting a surprisingly long pedigree (the first Sky Force was released in 2004!), Reloaded feels comfortably playable and offers enough content to keep all players satisfied.
The gameplay is as standard as they come, with cookie-cutter weapon, enemy and level design. Veterans of the genre will be able to recognise a more “classic” influence: Sky Force is neither a twitch shooter like DonDonPachi nor a bullet hell like Touhou: it’s got more in common with earlier games like Xevious or 1942. The player’s main offensive options are forward facing machine guns and heavy lasers – aside from a very intermittent homing missile, the only way to defeat enemies is to be flying directly in front of them. Every enemy becomes a risk-vs-reward decision when the only meaningful way to focus damage onto them is to stay still, but the longer you remain stationary the more vulnerable you are to taking damage. Remember this, because we’ll come back to it when it comes to scoring.
The upgrades complement this design philosophy very well: weapon upgrades allow you to dispatch enemies faster so you can get to moving and dodging the next pattern, while health upgrades allow you to soak some of the more punishing attacks. Enemies drop stars upon defeat which can be spent on death, and thus we have one of the most tried and true feedback loops in gaming. Infinite Dreams isn’t interested in reinventing the wheel – this is a game which wears its intent on its sleeve and sets out to execute it.
The game doesn’t indulge much in a story, instead deciding to piece together a few character driven jokes at the beginning and ends of levels. It’s a shame that Infinite Dreams don’t make much in the way of environmental storytelling either: players will be fighting a mixture of WWII era biplanes mixed with laser spraying spider-tanks. Regardless, the production values are kept high, with particular commendation reserved for the soundtrack which never fails to set a frantic pace.
If there’s any fault here, it’s that the later levels start to take inspiration from the aforementioned twitch and bullet hell games. Actually, it tries to be both; fast moving targeted missiles force you to always be on the move, while bright, screen filling waves of laser fire partition off which areas of the map are safe. The action is so bombastic that the game’s engine struggles to keep up – the player’s sprite is large enough that accidental collisions are commonplace, and the movement speed is slow enough that some bullets are tough to dodge (and speed is one of the few things which isn’t upgradable). Whereas other shmups give the player multiple lives to use as extra chances, Sky Force gives you just the one: for Infinite Dreams, death is an opportunity to regrow – to use the stars you collected along your failed attempt to make yourself a little stronger and more likely to succeed next time.
As awesome as the slow growth from small fry to harbinger of death might feel for players, I imagine more hardcore fans of the genre might get rubbed the wrong way by the abundance of RPG elements. The game itself is not completable without upgrades, since enemies gain health with each additional level until your weapons at base level barely leave a scratch. While some elements – weekly challenges, harder difficulties and unlockable ships – might pique interest, the overall skill ceiling remains low and there’s nothing a skilled player can achieve which a casual one can’t with a few more upgrades under their belt. Sky Force is not one for the showoffs or the elite, but at least it’s something that everyone can enjoy.
If you’re a fan of classic shooters who’s made it this far into the review, you’ve probably scoffed once or twice at all the modernised concessions Infinite Dreams have made to the shmup formula. What makes Sky Force work so well, though, is the thought and care which went into keeping the gameplay balanced – and it’s hard to appreciate just how narrowly the game’s design teeters. Had the developers made the upgrades too impactful, it would have trivialised the game’s challenges, while weakening the upgrades would make them feel needless and tacked-on. It’s a testament to the development team that the game feels fresh and exciting after hours of play, where every subsequent upgrade still feels like a milestone achievement and each victory still feels like a demonstration of skill rather than avatar strength.
– Harvard L.