STAFF REVIEW of Sky Force Reloaded (Xbox One)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018.
by Adam Dileva

Sky Force Reloaded Box art Infinite Dreams and Crunching Koalas know what they do best: shmups (shoot-em-ups). We enjoyed Sky Force Anniversary when we reviewed it last year, and this year they are back with Sky Force Reloaded, a completely re-imagined and vastly improved version of their previous game. Like any shmup, this is a vertically scrolling shooter that will challenge your skills, reflexes and patience to grind your way to the best upgrades.

It’s no secret that I’m very fond of the genre, especially classics like the brutally hard Ikargua or classic Raiden, so I wasn’t sure where Sky Force Reloaded would fit in amongst this crowd, especially being from a smaller indie studio, but man, was I blown away. Like any good shmup, you’re going to have to learn the levels, the enemies and the shooting patterns, hoping to reach the final boss before you die and start again. Sky Force Reloaded is all about fluidity and coming back stronger than ever each time you replay a level. It’s very easy to pick up, but the true challenge is there for those that seek it. Reloaded becomes incredibly difficult, but only for a matter of time, depending on how much you want to put into it, not only improving your skills and memorization of each level, but improving your ships as well.

Reloaded begins right away, as you pilot a fully upgraded ship, destroying anything in your path. You battle against a boss and inevitably lose, almost as if you woke up from a dream. This clever introduction to the game is a sneak peek at what the endgame can be like, if you’re willing to put in the time and effort into the game. It’s quite a shock going from a flying death machine to only having a peashooter, but that’s part of its charm to entice you, and I know it worked for me.

Normally, this is where I could delve into the story, and while there technically is one, it’s basically a throw away. Typically this would be a knock against a title, but let’s be honest, we play shmups for their addictive gameplay. I know I’m shooting the endless waves of bad guys, so adding fluff to a story I won’t care about is unneeded.

When I played my first few levels, I initially thought it was going to be yet another generic shmup, navigating the screen to avoid bullets, shooting anything that gets in your way, and picking up any power ups left floating around. While yes, it has all of these checklist items for a great shmup, it’s when you start to spend more time with the game and work on the included objectives that you realize how much more is under the hood for the gameplay and progression.

Destroyed enemies drop stars that you collect and use as currency to purchase specific upgrades. You'll find them amongst a wide selection of choices to suit your play style. Surprisingly, the difficulty curve is nearly perfect, with the first level or two being no problem to complete, but then it starts to ramp up as you unlock more levels. Each level begins on normal difficulty, and if you can beat all four challenges, which I’ll delve into shortly, you then unlock hard. Complete the objectives on hard and Insane unlocks, and so on. This is a clever way to add replayability without having to spend a fortune on level design. While some might scoff at having to replay the 15 levels repeatedly, and I thought this would be a huge negative, they’ve done it in such a way that it feels fair, and more importantly, fun, even when I’ve completed level 3 for the 100th time.

While collecting stars and beating the level is always your main goal, the four specific objectives is how you’re going to unlock the higher difficulties, which in turn allows you to earn more stars and upgrades. For example, a full clear on normal may net you 100 stars or so, and on hard maybe 300, and on insane over 1000, so the risk versus reward is finely balanced and you feel great being able to master those insane difficulty levels.

The four objectives across all levels and difficulties may not change, but completing them on Hard and Insane will surely test your skill. They are: 70% of enemies destroyed, 100% destroyed, 100% humans rescued and clear the stage without getting hit. Luckily you don’t need to complete them all at once, but the higher difficulties won’t unlock until all four are complete. This makes you replay the levels many times over, forcing you to memorize enemies and patterns, figuring out if you’re strong enough to attempt it now, or if you’ll need to go back to grind some more stars for upgrades to become tougher before attempting again.

I initially thought that I was going to hate the grind, having to reply levels over and over again to earn stars for upgrades, but Reloaded does something very smart, as each upgrade actually feels like it makes a difference. Every time I upgraded my weapons, or health, I seemed to make it further and further every attempt, becoming more powerful with each improvement. Normally most shmups are a one and done kind of affair, but after a week straight of playing, I still find myself going back to earn more stars and climb the leaderboards.

Each level varies in size with most ending with a massive boss that has numerous waves of attacks, though there is a level where your weapon is disabled, forcing you to do a pacify run, which is an interesting, and terrifying, change of pace. Each level becomes progressively harder, forcing you to spend the time to grind and craft a stronger ship. Once you’ve completed a level a handful of times, it becomes easier to memorize, but sometimes you’re simply just not able to shoot fast or hard enough to make it through easily.

Each upgrade adds more firepower, but there are a few other bonuses you can work towards if you want, like having a stronger magnet to pull in stars from afar, or boosting your health bar to take some more hits if needed. I highly suggest focusing on your offensive powers, as that’s what’s going to make your life much easier in the long run. There are many levels of upgrades to complete, with each subsequent installment becoming slightly more expensive. You can even boost how many slots of bombs, lasers or shields you want to employ if you prefer to play that way. The upgrades are very addictive, as being able to see your power increase only makes you want to grind more to become even more powerful than before, thus the cycle continues. As you become stronger, runs become easier, so the grind isn’t that bad once you’re used to it.

If the hook of constant upgrading wasn’t enough, there’s also a leaderboard for you to compete in and see how you hold up versus the competition. There’s a weekly tournament that takes place every weekend, adding an endless stage to see how long you can last, and even extra ship parts to collect, creating new ships with specific uses in mind if all pieces are collected. Play long enough and you’ll start earning tokens that will unlock technicians, whom add special bonuses to your gameplay.

Cards will also randomly appear throughout stages, and should you complete the stage alive, you then earn that card. There are blue cards that give you a specific bonus for 15 minutes of gameplay, and gold cards that are permanent bonuses. Even after dozens of hours of gameplay I’ve yet to collect every card, but it sure is exciting when I have a new permanent bonus, like starting every level with a bomb, etc. The blue cards are an interesting way to keep you continuing to play. For example, I got one in what was to be my last match of the night, then of course had to stay for the 15 minute duration to get the maximum bonuses.

Local co-op allows for 2-players to pilot separate ships, and while it’s fun, the lack of online multiplayer is really the only negative I can say about Reloaded. I get that couch co-op is fun, but it’s not really feasible for me these days, yet my friends who also have the game aren’t able to play with me online. The game allows you to see where your friends died in specific levels, and if you’re able to cover over their icon for a few moments, you’ll earn some bonus points. This is the same way you save the stranded humans, but as you hover over them for a short period of time, you'll just hope you don’t get shot down before their transfer to your ship is complete. The lack of online multiplayer doesn’t drag down the experience at all, it's just a disappointment.

I love shmups, they’re one of my favorite genres, but outside of a few of the greats, none really have longevity when it comes to replayability. This isn’t the case with Sky Force Reloaded at all. While it’s a grind to get the best upgrades, and the ship parts and cards are attained seemingly at random, I can’t put this game down. Even if I’ve only got 5 minutes, I’ll get a few runs in for some more stars, then realize two hours just went by.

Presentation wise, the visuals are great, with only some minor slowdown on the massive boss battles. The screen can also seem a little cluttered at times, when you have dozens of stars on the screen to gather, trying to discern the small enemy bullets, but the memorization comes in time. The audio is fitting as well, but there’s only so many times you can listen to the same down tempo beat before muting it and putting your own tunes on, since you’ll be replaying levels dozens of times.

Sky Force Reloaded never feels unfair, because when you die, you know it was your fault, prompting you to go back and grind some more stars for upgrades. While the grind is real and might turn some off, the reward for doing so is great. Prepare to sink many hours into this game if you want the pay off, but once you get there, it’s amazing. For a title that’s under $10 CAD, the amount of value within is outstanding. While it doesn’t surpass Ikaruga as my favorite shmup of all time, the fact that I had to think about it and compare it should speak volumes. I haven’t been this hooked and excited about a shmup in many years, and Sky Force Reloaded completely blew me away. If you’re a shmup fan at all, casual or hardcore, you need to have this one in your library without question.

Overall: 9.5 / 10
Gameplay: 10.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.5 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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