Sky Force Anniversary Review

Having never played any of the Sky Force games over the years, I confess I came to the review for the latest installment, Sky Force Anniversary on the Switch, with a blank slate. At first glance, there’s certainly a lot that is familiar – it’s a vertical-scrolling airplane shoot em up in which you eliminate waves of enemies while trying to avoid getting hit yourself. And after playing it for a while, I would say that Sky Force Anniversary is a competent entry in the well-trodden genre, one that will offer some addictive fun in the short term, while ultimately growing a bit repetitive after a few hours.

I may not have played Sky Force games before (for example, I still don’t know what the “anniversary” is that we’re celebrating), but I have played this game before, and I’m pretty sure it was called 1942. You know, that ’80s arcade game where you’re in a WWII-era plane trying to shoot down other planes? Well, Sky Force Anniversary is basically that game. The graphics might be a bit sharper this time and it’s no longer WWII but it’s still got a top-down, sprite-based retro look and the setting still seems to be an air raid over a Pacific locale. You shoot enemies while avoiding counter-fire and collisions while collecting power-ups and upgrade points (stars) along the way.

A Smooth Lift Off

The good news is that the old gameplay formula is as immediately engaging as ever, and the first few hours with Sky Force Anniversary are a lot of fun. It deftly employs the tried-and-true formula of enticing you with extra bonuses laid out along your path in a great risk/reward dynamic, forcing you to constantly evaluate the prudence of diverging from the safe route. The endorphin-release of getting that extra star or power-up might be sweet, but is it worth exposing yourself to danger? Sky Force Anniversary, like all the great titles of the genre, pummels your brain with a steady rush of constant, real-time decision-making all while your hands frantically navigate an increasingly perilous bullet-hell environment.

If you die, you have to start over, but at least you can use your collected stars to upgrade your health meter, guns, and other skills so that each time you retry a level you are a bit stronger. It’s a nice feature and a welcome change from the cruel Rogue-lite trend of wiping out players’ progress on each do-over. Upgrades begin to cost a lot of stars after a while, which only provides more incentive to try and vacuum as many of them up as you can. In all, it’s a well-balanced feedback loop that gave me the feeling that I was progressing as I played, even when I failed at a level.

Sky Force Anniversary Featured

But for me, the problem with Sky Force Anniversary starts to show itself in the way levels are unlocked. You unlock new levels (there’s nine in total) by earning Medals – killing 70% of the enemies in a stage gets you one, as does rescuing all the stranded humans you come across. But the other two medals in each stage are very, very difficult to get; one requires you to kill 100% of the enemies, and the other is obtained by taking zero damage. So in other words, all it takes is for one little plane to slip by you or one little bullet to hit you in an entire stage, and you might as well start over, and all your upgrades are of little use for these two challenges.

Not the Vertical Loop I Hoped For

Your only choice then is to go back and simply re-play previous levels, over and over and over, until to you finally get the medal you need to unlock a new stage. I think most will agree with me that this is the worst kind of grinding and becomes very repetitive and tedious after a while. I began to feel like the game was trying to make up for its relatively-paltry nine levels with this repetition, trying to give the illusion of content when in reality, I was really just flying the same air-raids ad nauseam.

And once you do unlock new levels, they aren’t really all that new or varied to make all the grinding worth it. Despite some superficial changes they are all the same experience you see right from the beginning. Put it all together and that fun I experienced at the beginning of my playtime hit a pretty big wall around the mid-point, and the experience just didn’t sustain itself in the long run. Sky Force Anniversary is a slick-looking game that is easy to pick up, play and enjoy for a while, but just be prepared to put in some serious time repeating levels if you want to make it to the end of this air raid with all your wings intact.

** A Nintendo Switch game code was provided by the publisher **

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