Euroshmups Episode 4
A New Hope
It is a period of civil war. A Rebel spaceship, striking from a hidden base in Poland, has won a major victory against the evil Galactic Empire...…….
If you were to list all the features from the game design document of Sky Force Reloaded to me before I had actually played it, then it is highly likely I would describe it as a unmitigated disaster in the making. If you had asked me to play the first level only once, I would have been intrigued, but ultimately disinterested. A European developed shmup, that's a port of a mobile game, saddled with a 20+ hour grind to earn currency to fully upgrade your weapons? A lifebar? A vertical playfield, stretched to fit widescreen? Based on that alone I'd be inclined to scepticism, as I'm already getting fucking nasty flashbacks to Aces of the Luftwaffe Squadron. Fortunately that isn't the whole story. Sky Force Reloaded gets most of the important things right, and in actuality offers a very compelling gameplay loop, that isn't deserving of a derogatory slur like "Euroshmup".
To sum up my thoughts in a digestible form, Sky Force Reloaded reveals its brilliance slowly over time. It's strengths progressively layered, almost like a Tootsie Pop surrounded by an onion. As you eat it you first may want to cry, then you experience a bitter slog through the mealy layers, until suddenly you taste a sweet candy shell. As much as you want to reach that chocolate center, the candy shell lasts a long time, is pleasant, and seems like paradise compared with the onion you were chewing on hours ago. Now since I have already eaten that chocolate center, I will wholeheartedly recommend you go ahead and chew on the onion for awhile. Lets break this down categorically.
Sky Force Reloaded succeeds not on the fidelity of it's graphics alone, certainly at a quick glance it attains a level of competency that would be considered better than good enough for the average id@xbox game, in fact graphically It could be considered exceptional at times. Where it succeeds, and take note indie shmup developers, is in it's level design. Although one half of level design is actually enemy placement, and we'll get to that, the other half is the way the stage looks... the variety, the signposting, the little details that act as visual landmarks to help you learn the stage better. Sky Force Reloaded achieves this brilliantly, and the success of design extends further to the ship, enemy and boss models, even the UI. Overall graphics are one of this games greatest strengths.
In short, very easy on the ears. In the first 3 reviews of this series, every game I covered was an audio disaster. Sky Force Reloaded sticks to a tried and true, yet distinctly European, formula for success though. Leaning on a heavy C64 or Amiga synth based sound with modern flair, the soundtrack favors a mid to up tempo electronic sound that stays enjoyable for hours. That said, although it never wears out its welcome, the soundtrack fails to remain compelling for the extreme playtime expected of players who are aiming for a completion. You can let it play or listen to a podcast or some Iron Maiden instead after 20 hours, it's a decent soundtrack but not an essential piece of the puzzle like in Raiden 4 for instance.
Sky Force Reloaded is all about getting better as a player slowly. Collecting stars to purchase incremental ship upgrades, like better guns and armor, or collecting cards to unlock permanent abilities. Although there is only a scant 13 stages in the main campaign, in order to unlock them you will need to slowly improve and complete stages on 4 difficulties ranging from Normal to Nightmare, all the while completing 4 objectives; Killing 75% and 100% of all enemies, rescue all survivors, and not getting hit. The difficulty curve is always relatively steady, though it is possible to stop and collect stars on completed stages to power up further when you're having trouble. Again this is a long grind, but it somehow mostly stays enjoyable, and in fact gets better as you near the end game achievements. Stages and enemy placement make achieving a perfect run on a stage the right mix of difficult yet possible to still be rewarding. You can tell this was properly play tested as it is never impossible or unfair. Also loading times are almost nonexistent, you have a reasonable sized hitbox and you don't crowd the screen. You can tell the developers took inspiration from the right places.
In this genre, less is more when it comes to story. So I'll touch on this quick. Sometimes a boss will show up and say something to the effect of "I'll get you, you little rascal" then when you destroy them they might say "Drats, I'll have my revenge". Honestly it isn't enough to be annoying, but I think I'd prefer no story at all. It's fine really.
Although not outstanding, when Sky Force Reloaded is hitting on all notes, it is a force to be reckoned with. Although its slow curve to mastery is a strength overall, it may be too slow to reveal the most fun stuff it has to offer. If I were to rate this game based on the first five hours of play I would probably give it a very low score, but based on the last five hours it would certainly be a very different story. What we have is a very above average game, that borders on the spectacular. If you put the time in, you are guaranteed a great experience.
Basically try and imagine Aces of the Luftwaffe Squadron, only not hilariously inept in every single way. Now imagine something 10 times better than that. You're almost there....