Collect the stars, shoot the planes.
After having spent nearly 30 hours with the 2D shoot-’em-up Sky Force Reloaded (post-review), I was delighted and intrigued when I was provided the chance to check out its successor in the series, Sky Force Anniversary. I wasn’t sure what “anniversary” was being celebrated and wondered if it could mean this was a bigger version of Reloaded (which I had found to already be pretty heavy in the campaign content). So I did some digging. To my absolute horror, I soon discovered that this series reuses its namesake over and over, despite remakes, and sequels. What’s worse is that versions can differ between consoles and mobile. To my knowledge, Sky Force Anniversary is a variation on Sky Force 2014, a remake of the oldest Sky Force game, with all-new graphics. Discrepancy in the title’s lineage aside, Sky Force Anniversary appears to borrow from the remake of Sky Force Reloaded. The UI, 3D polygonal assets, and effects are all shared. Having loved Reloaded, I found the familiarity here to be handy in getting back into the groove of the gameplay, which has not changed in the slightest. That said, there wasn’t much in the way of new content, and there was a lot missing that had been in Reloaded. This was the biggest disappointment for me.
Sky Force Anniversary lacks the number of levels, the different ships, the temporary boosts, and the level of upgrades that Sky Force Reloaded has. It’s simply inferior. But at the same time, it stands on its own (one wouldn’t know what they are missing) as an excellent entry into what Reloaded offers. I would also even argue that Sky Force Anniversary does a basic amount of streamlining. There is definitely a certain level of grinding, make no mistake. But you can reach maximum level in your various weapons much more quickly. Sky Force Anniversary doesn’t have the power-ups that came with the previous titles (i.e. increasing collectibles in levels, or making you temporarily stronger, etc.). Oddly, there appear to be cards that can be collected, but their purpose remains unknown to me. There aren’t different ships to be unlocked, which is another bummer. Honestly, the experience as a whole was great, but it is constantly haunted by the game that came before it. It simply didn’t have as much content.
Sky Force Anniversary comes equipped with nine stages, each with three levels of difficulty. You have to start on the easy mode, where you are at your weakest.To unlock the harder options, you have to complete the four medal challenges (kill 70% and 100% of all enemies, save all pilots stranded in the level, and complete the level without taking damage). I didn’t find not being able to choose a difficulty from the get-go to be a huge deal, because as you play, you collect stars, which you can trade in for upgrades to your ship. And as you upgrade, that difficulty level will naturally become easier. To progress to new levels, you have to beat the level before it, and you need to have collected a certain number of medals. So, rather than expecting to get through all nine levels right away, you’re probably going to be replaying old levels over and over to grind for upgrades. On paper, this sounds incredibly boring to me. But I will admit that Sky Force Anniversary does a stellar job of making the player feel rewarded. Every upgrade to your weapons immediately makes you feel more powerful. Moving to the next layer of difficulty shows the progression by showering the player in stars. Killing a chain of enemies becomes much quicker. It’s a dopamine-drip that you can easily get hooked on while listening to music or a podcast.
The visuals are beautiful, even if they aren’t really that “new”. I was disappointed to find that most of the levels share the same theme on a level environment. You are more or less flying over the battlefield in a forest, near a bunch of factories, and then over the cloudy-painted ocean. It’s beautiful to look at, and I admire the details that were put in, such as the tire tracks from other battles, small boats with people on them, and machinery attached to the factories. However, a little more variety would have been nice, even if it was just some dynamic lighting. I didn’t really care for the music after awhile. It was serviceable “shump” music that did the job. But I eventually opted to turn down the in-game music and listen to the much more satisfying sound effects with my own music on. Sky Force Anniversary played well in docked and handheld mode; the latter is where I spent more time because it works well on-the-go. There is a tournament mode as well, which runs every few days. The only one I played was a special tournament akin to a level from the main game, in which it is more survival focused and you can’t shoot. It was fun, and a welcome change of pace. Though, with this being a shorter experience, I would hope that there could be a notification system implemented into the Switch news feed to share when tournaments would be. There is also a leaderboard for your Switch friends.
And that’s Sky Force Anniversary. Unfortunately, it’s just “less” of what came before it. It shares so much with Sky Force Reloaded that I didn't mind going back into it. In some ways, it was fine to come back to and relive, albeit as a much shorter experience. But why pay the same price when there is a game identical to it in gameplay with more content?