Saturday, July 13, 2019

Sky Force Anniversary (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
9 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Infinite Dreams
Published by Limited Run Games in 2018

It was a long and perhaps not so bumpy road but Sky Force, originally born and released in 2004 for mobile phones, finally hit a proper console with Sky Force Anniversary. Bridged by a couple of intermediary iterations that improved on the original concept (Reloaded and 2014), Anniversary was supposed to be either the definitive version of the game or the definitive chapter of the "franchise". Not only on gameplay terms, actually. By definitive I also mean the fact that Sky Force Anniversary relinquished the microtransaction scheme of previous versions and also received a proper disc version a couple of years after the digital release.

Flashy without being overwhelming and designed with quite a bit of care around a limited set of graphical assets, the game preserves the legacy of the mobile format while going full widescreen. Even though it looks - and to a certain extent plays - like an arcade shmup, Sky Force Anniversary offers an experience that's quite different from your regular shmup lore. The game implements an unlocking system for stages/weapons that forces players to replay levels in order to advance, building upon the concept of incremental challenge with very strict resource management and stage-based performance meters. In short, it's a grindfest. That doesn't bode well at all for shmup addicts, but I'm sure casual players won't see anything wrong with that.

I have to be honest here and say I always abhorred any sort of grinding in a video game. Nevertheless I decided to give Sky Force Anniversary a chance. Firstly because I had some free time in a foreign environment, and secondly because, well, I was kinda in the mood for a different sort of challenge.

Official trailer for Sky Force Anniversary
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer idreamsgames)

When the disc is booted for the first time you're thrown directly into a short preamble where you'll inevitably die facing the big bad villain of the game. Then you'll start the adventure for real with a measly pea shooter. In order to at least match that initial taste of what your powered-up ship looks like you'll need a humongous amount of golden stars collected during the levels. They're the currency used to acquire upgrades in the "hangar". The basic ones consist of health, main cannon, wing cannons, missiles and magnet (the ability to automatically attract items). All primary weapons therein are fired by pressing ×. The other face buttons in the controller are reserved for extra upgrades that work with limited stock: □ turns on the energy shield, △ fires the laser and ○ triggers a mega bomb. Non-default items are activated by a first purchase and are marginally improved by further upgrades that get more and more expensive.

In every level the player is entitled to win four medals according to the following performance indicators: 70% enemies destroyed, 100% enemies destroyed, 100% people rescued and no damage taken. Rescuing people at ground level is just a matter of hovering above them for a few seconds until the pick-up cycle is complete. Grinding begins when you notice it's impossible to unlock the following levels unless you replay old ones in order to obtain missing medals and to collect more stars to equip the ship. If you succeed in collecting all four medals for a particular stage you'll also unlock a higher difficulty for that same stage with a new set of four medals to conquer. At first that happens twice, so from Normal you go to Hard and then Insane. I say "at first" because as soon as you beat stage 8 you also unlock a fourth stage difficulty called Nightmare. In each additional difficulty you get higher multipliers for points and stars (on Insane and Nightmare, for example, all collected stars get multiplied by 3).

Harder stage difficulties come with more bullets and more resilient enemies, with no change whatsoever in enemy formations, attack patterns or bullet speed. Scrolling speed is always kept at the same pace from start to finish, it never picks up. In the world of Sky Force Anniversary, whose main influence is the 19XX series from Capcom, pressure is solely conveyed by the increase in the amount of bullets and the natural step-up from one stage to the next. The final levels are much more dangerous due to a couple of different turrets that fire fast cannons, as well as shield generators that must be destroyed before anything else they protect. A glaring exception from the norm is stage 5, where an EMP flare follows you around and disables your weapons for the rest of the stage upon hitting you. You either rescue all humans or decide to take down all turrets for the 100% destruction ratio, you can't do both at the same time.

Welcome to the Hangar!

A few notes on items: the purpose of the "weapon upgrade" icon that appears within the level is just to increase the firing rate; the red heart refills lost health; big stars are worth 5 regular stars; with the exception of stage 5, once you choose a stage to play move right if you want to purchase shields, lasers or mega bombs before the action starts (tip: lasers are devastating against bosses). And then there's that tiny silver card that starts appearing at random after a while. These are special items that grant you permanent little improvements such as disposable side drones, extra free special attacks, extra star value multipliers, better missile reloading times and a marginal increase in speed, firing rate and range of the rope for human rescues, among others. What that means is that even when the game is beaten you might be attached to it like a little bunny to the carrot on a stick.

On all accounts, the progressive difficulty and no-penalty structure of Sky Force Anniversary are tailored for casual play. Lost your life? No problem, start again as many times as you like with no loss in score or star count. Feel like chickening out because you're about to bite the dust? Just pause and choose "retire", it won't even count as a life lost! Sure you can decide to apply your own rules like I did: no deaths and no retiring at all until beating the game, which of course meant lots of replaying to unlock medals and upgrade the ship. Afterwards I kinda felt like an idiot for not accepting the game's rules as they are, so once I reached the ending I whored out lives, stages and stars as far as I could before getting tired of the whole thing. The end comes after stage 8, with stage 9 serving as a glorified bonus of sorts.

Aside from the 19XX influence mentioned above, graphically the game owes a lot to other titles like Flying Shark and Under Defeat. Lots of clouds, smoke, rain and water effects are used to add a little more flair to the pretty (but repetitive) scenery. The same can be said of the music, which is decent but never takes that further step you'd expect from important confrontations with bosses or final levels. Artistically it's a nicely crafted game that also screams average all over. As for the grinding mechanics, they're still not my cup of tea. It was a mild diversion, at least. The medal system is a natural beacon for the scoring system since scores are maximized as long as you're able to get all of them in a single level (destroy everything, rescue all people, don't get hit) while collecting all items that come your way.

Below is the final result I got after a few days of grinding in Sky Force Anniversary. Only the highest score in each level is accounted for this final result, which means you can always go back to the game and see if you can improve on those stages that still have medals left to conquer. The game keeps track of all the stats from your save slot, from special cards to how many humans you rescued or failed to rescue, among others. Local co-op and online leaderboards are available, as well as the option to play global/local seasonal tournaments. Note: the game was followed by a sequel called Sky Force Reloaded, which is confusing because it bears the same title used more than 10 years ago.