There are as many types of shooters as there are game developers, but in broad terms they tend to fall into a couple of categories. Bullet hell is all about geometric explosions of pure pattern, challenging the player to wind their way through the insanity. Twin-stick leans towards only a little bit of firepower directed against the player but hordes of enemies constantly crowding the screen, horizontal shooters tend to fill the screen with environmental obstacles, and more classic-styled vertical shooters are more methodical. Sky Force Anniversary is from that last category, and while its enemy patterns aren’t as flashy as a bullet hell shooter, there’s something to be said for enemies smart enough to aim at you rather than shoot like they’re suffering from diarrhea of the bullet emitter.
Sky Force Anniversary opens up with a prelude level, where you start off powerful but quickly get drained by General Madness. Just ignore the name, plot isn’t relevant here. There’s a bad guy with an army of planes, tanks, and other assorted bits of war machinery and all of it is turned against you. Seeing as the only weapon your formerly highly-advanced fighter has left is a pea shooter, it’s kind of a lopsided encounter. Fortunately, each enemy drops a star or two, and whether you survive the level or not, any collected stars are added to the amount you can spend on upgrades. It may take some saving but you can be powerful again.
The ship will eventually support six different weapons plus a couple other abilities. The passive abilities are health, of course, but also a magnet to pull in the stars and other power-ups from a distance. The main single-shot gun gets supplemented by wing cannons and a slow-firing homing missile; no need to do anything fancy to activate them once they’ve been purchased, just hold down the fire button and off they go. Finally, you can buy three special weapons in the form of a super-powerful laser, short-duration shield, and area-effect mega bomb. The special weapons can be either found during the level or bought with stars in a section before the level starts. Each ability can be powered up to level 8, but maxing everything out is a very long road so it’s best to focus on a few favorites to begin with.
The basic set of levels can mostly be cleared by powering up the laser, wing cannons, and homing missile, but the special weapons are necessary for the harder versions. Clearing a level is actually a little different in Sky Force than a normal shooter, in that just destroying the giant boss at the end isn’t enough. There are four main goals to chase after, although you don’t need to get all of them in a single attempt. Destroying 70% of all enemies and 100% of all enemies might as well just be the one goal, seeing as you’ll want both eventually. Kill all enemies, get through without taking any damage, and rescue all the people scattered throughout the level and that finishes it off. When all four goals are reached that opens up a harder difficulty better tuned to the more powerful weaponry you’ve been buying, and most likely requiring careful use of the special weapons to advance. Chasing after the goals involves a heavy amount of replaying each level, learning where the enemy formations are going to be and buying enough firepower to handle them. That would be a problem if Sky Force Anniversary wasn’t such a great little shooter, but instead the levels become welcome tests of precision and slowly-growing expertise.
A well-designed level only lets you buy so much of an advantage, and the rest is learning. Knowing that there’s a field of lasers cutting the screen to temporarily-impassable quadrants if you don’t preemptively take one or two out before they get a chance to fire, or figuring out that the main guns are nice but using the laser on a giant wave of smaller enemies is the only way to take them all out at once. There’s plenty of reflex and careful dodging, especially on both the later levels and hardest versions of the earlier areas, and having four separate goals per level to shoot for means the repetition necessary for learning doesn’t get boring. Even if you blow all four goals, you’ll still need the stars to buy more powerful weapons for another attempt. Try again, learn better, shoot more effectively, and the reward is more of the same but harder. It’s a classic and effective gaming treadmill.
It’s also a far better one than Sky Force had before. It’s worth noting that Sky Force Anniversary is a remade version of a mobile game, and while it was excellent on its home platform it was also free-to-play in the standard obnoxious way. The stars that drive the game’s economy could either be earned in-game or bought as microtransactions, and there’s not a bit of that to be seen here. Stars would buy upgrades, upgrades would take a long time to activate, you eliminated the waiting period with more stars, wouldn’t it be nice to get those stars immediately with actual money? This is a full game with none of that silliness involved. Shoot enemies, earn stars, spend stars, get upgrades. All is as it should be and Sky Force is so much better for it. Plus it plays infinitely better with a gamepad than it ever did by dragging a finger across the screen, so that’s great to see too.
Sky Force Anniversary is a fantastic little shooter that leans more towards the Raiden style of shooting than Dodonpachi. Firepower gets thick and deadly later on but very little of it is just there to take up space, and instead tends to track your ship while closing off avenues of escape. As is evident from the screenshots the game is bright and looks fantastic, with little in the way of dull greys and browns to interfere with the inundation of bright colors. There are secret bonus levels to unlock, a weekly tournament to compete in, hidden cards to find that grant permanent bonusesand an increasing challenge to keep you playing once the initial levels have gotten easy due to purchased upgrades. Sky Force Anniversary does a fantastic job of bringing what had already been a good shooter to the PC, and it’s great to see it become the fully-featured game it always had the potential to be.