Thursday, December 1, 2016

Sky Force Anniversary Review (XONE)

Shoot-em-up fans take note; Sky Force Anniversary is pretty easily the best shmup available on Xbox One right now.  Take one part innovative upgrade system with fantastic replay value, toss in some Japanese-style bullet hell gameplay, and top off with fantastic presentation and you have the makings of a truly fantastic and innovative shmup.  Some genre purists might not like that it deviates from the standard progression and item usage mechanics most games in the genre use, but I love that it is a fresh and new and mostly unique experience.  Well, as fresh and new as an anniversary edition of a game originally released for mobile devices 2004 can be, but it is all new to me, and I’m sure many players, on Xbox One in 2016!  See all of the details in our full Xbox One Sky Force Anniversary review.    

Game Details

  • Publisher: Infinite Dreams
  • Developer: Infinite Dreams
  • ESRB Rating: “E10” for Everyone 10+
  • Genre: Shoot-em-up
  • Pros: Awesome progression system; solid gameplay; nice presentation; unlockable difficulty levels; co-op
  • Cons: Bombs and shields as consumables
  • MSRP: $10

Sky Force Anniversary is a more contemporary shoot-em-up closer in style and tone to Capcom’s 1942 than the craziness of most Japanese shooters.  While there are laser beams and shields here and there, you’re just a fairly normal plane fighting against other fairly normal planes, helicopters, and battleships.  There isn’t much of a story to speak of aside from a rival captain that pops up now and then to antagonize you by spouting nonsense, but nothing is explained.  Shmups don’t really need a story, though.  Just go shoot stuff.

And shooting stuff is something Sky Force Anniversary does extremely well.  It is a top-down vertical shooter but with a ton of unique mechanics.  In a scene more akin to a Metroidvania platformer than a shoot-em-up, you start the game with a fully powered plane with maxed out weapons only to die and lose it all.  You then start the real game where your plane has no upgrades or power-ups and you have to earn it all back again. 

The upgrade system uses stars that you collect by defeating enemies.  By earning enough stars you can buy permanent upgrades to your health and main gun but also buy and upgrade wing cannons, missiles, and a magnet that automatically collects stars for you, as well as shields, lasers, and bombs.  The only thing I’m not really a fan of is that the laser, shields, and bombs are actually consumables you have to buy with stars before you start a mission.  Considering that all of the other upgrades are much more vital to survival than these, the consumables aren’t really worth buying until fairly late in the game, so don’t count on having a mega bomb security blanket to clear the screen like you do in most games.

It can take a long, long time to buy many of the upgrades, but in a clever mechanic the game actually starts paying out faster the more you play it.  Each level has medals you can earn by completing specific tasks like saving stranded soldiers or killing 100% of the enemies.  By earning all of the medals on a mission, you unlock a harder difficulty level for that mission that has multiplier bonuses that help you earn stars faster.  To beat the harder difficulty levels, however, you’ll probably need to buy more upgrades, so it becomes a fun cycle of replaying levels, buying upgrades, playing new levels, buying upgrades, etc. until you’ve seen it all. 

Some folks might not like having to replay the same levels over and over again to slowly upgrade their ship, but I don’t have any issue with it.  The levels are generally fairly short – only a few minutes each – so replaying them isn’t a problem.  Plus, the gameplay is really, really, genuinely fun so replaying levels is fine.  I also have to say I really like the gentle step up in challenge when you move up to a new difficulty level.  Even on Insane difficulty Sky Force Anniversary’s levels are very manageable.  Sure, they throw more bullets at you and some boss encounters definitely have a bullet hell feel to them, but it never gets too crazy. 

The presentation is also noteworthy because it is nice and clean and fairly polished all around.  During gameplay it is easy to see what is going on at all times and it doesn’t suffer from the issue many shmups have where the bullets all just sort of blend together and you can’t see anything.  You can always tell your bullets apart from enemy bullets and enemies are always clearly visible and don’t get lost in the background.  The game also runs at a steady framerate and never, ever dips.  I also really like the sound overall even though it isn’t spectacular.  Just good solid sound effects and a decent soundtrack.

Put all of this together and you have a fairly unique and accessible shoot-em-up that is the best shmup on Xbox One right now.  It takes various bits and pieces from other titles in the genre and puts them into one polished package that can appeal to hardcore genre fans as well as newcomers, which is something that not every shmup can claim.  The best part is that it is priced at just $10 which makes it pretty much a no-brainer if you have any interest whatsoever in the genre.  The game also has co-op, which just sweetens the deal even more.  I highly recommend Sky Force Anniversary.  It’s awesome.
Disclosure:  Review code provided by publisher.