Sky Force Anniversary is a classic shmup. It’s a vertical shooter with dozens of enemies to blast, bullets flying liberally around the screen, and your skills tested thoroughly. It’s a good one too, with a smart difficulty curve that compliments its comprehensive upgrade system splendidly.
When you first play Sky Force Anniversary you’re treated to a Symphony of the Night style playable demonstration of what a fully upgraded ship can do. And much like the aforementioned Castlevania title, it proves to be an effective tease that helps encourage you to push through the difficult task ahead.
And indeed, the task ahead is a tricky one. Enemy planes and helicopters fly through the sky meaning to shoot you down, as well as a whole host of ground based armour and attack towers. Moreover, hulking great mechanical monstrosities await you at the end of each level, some tamer than others, each equipped with enough fire power to knock you out of the sky with relative ease. And that’s the trick: dodging the incoming fire, dealing damage back with your own arsenal, and trying to complete the objectives of each level to progress to the next.
Eight primary levels await you, each are short but you won’t be powering through them with any haste, partly because of the challenge but mostly because of the medals required to unlock later levels. Indeed, it’s not just about reaching the end of a level to progress, you must complete objectives along the way as well. These usually involve destroying 70% of enemies, destroying 100%, saving all stranded survivors, and not taking any damage. And whilst the first objective is straight forward, for the most part, the others pose quite the challenge.
This is Sky Force Anniversary’s main loop: repeatedly playing levels to earn medals through objectives to progress. If you earn all medals on a level then an increased difficulty becomes available for it, increasing the damage your foes can dish out as well as take. Here’s where the upgrade system kicks in. When you destroy enemies, they will drop stars, these in turn can be spent to upgrade your weapons and abilities. It’s a simple system but one vast enough to give you some tactical considerations to begin with. Do you concentrate on your main cannon so you can fell enemies quicker, or increase the magnet strength for collecting stars quicker and easier? Eventually the tactical choices narrow, as you unlock more and have less to purchase, but what’s particularly good about it is how much of a difference just one upgrade can make.
Each difficulty within a level, and each new level, increases the health of your enemies, and just one upgrade on your weapons can really make a difference in whether you can destroy them before they disappear off screen or become too great a threat to deal with head on. Moreover, as you unlock special abilities – the laser, energy shield and mega bomb – you can buy charges in order to use these abilities rather than rely on pick-ups in-level, adding another consideration to how you spend your hard-earned stars.
It does, however, mean that Sky Force Anniversary is a bit of a grind. The first couple of levels unlock with only a few medals but the later ones require you to master at least some of the previous levels on multiple difficulties. Fortunately, it’s fun and compelling to play through the levels repeatedly. The beautiful visuals are quite the spectacle, with some gorgeous water standing out. Meanwhile, bright and colourful particle effects for weapon’s fire and explosions bring each location to life, along with some great physics when something explodes or crashes into the ground or ocean. The locations lack variety however, with the majority taking place amongst a collection of small islands in the ocean, or a tropical rain forest. However, completing the objectives is hugely satisfying, thanks to a stiff challenge that still feels fair and a great UI that keeps you apprised of your progress on each.
There are a few additional surprises and features unlocked as you’re working through the campaign. You soon unlock the ability to find cards, which add small stat boosts to your ship, such as a increased star yield. Furthermore, weekly tournaments on a randomly generated map challenge you to post a dominating score on a global leaderboard. There’s also friend, region and global leaderboards for your overall score, to help compel you to replay levels and earn the highest score you can.
Sky Force Anniversary is a great shmup, one that feels and look like a modern take on Capcom’s 1942. It’s made for those who enjoy high scores and grinding, but its well-designed upgrade system, difficulty curve and enemy placement within levels makes it highly enjoyable to play time and time again. You can even bring a friend along in local coop, although it’s a bit of a shame there’s no online option.
Thanks to Xbox and Infinite Dreams for supporting TiX