Even when every hour of your job is dedicated to video games, it’s still impossible to be familiar with all of the releases that come out on any given day/week/month/year—and that was true for me with Sky Force Reloaded. I knew it was a top-down shooter (of the “shoot ‘em up” variety), and I knew some version of the game (or a predecessor) had recently received a limited-run physical release, but that was about it.
Delving into the game felt a bit like being tossed into a lake and being told to learn how to swim on my own, in part because I didn’t realize a non-repeatable intro segment was going to play out the moment I started the game (which I quickly failed because I was off getting something to drink). Still, with years of shooter experience under my belt, I was ready for the challenge.
What I wasn’t ready for—in part due to that exact experience—was how pathetic my ship felt as I descended into the game’s first stage. Sky Force Reloaded is built upon a complex upgrade system, and before you embark into exploring it, your ship only has a laughably weak single-shot main cannon, no additional weapons of any kind, and zero special attacks (such as bombs or whatnot). After not making it very far into that first stage, a “hanger” option begged for my attention back on the main menu, and I started to understand my first set of goals. By collecting stars that are dropped from defeated enemies, crates, or other destroyed background objects, you can beef up your main cannon and health, add secondary wing cannons and homing missiles, or unlock three manual-activation bonus tools: a focused laser, an energy shield, and a screen-clearing bomb.
Shooters have long been built around the idea of upgrading and adding new weaponry and options, and Sky Force Reloaded’s deep dive into those idea makes it feel like something legitimately different from most other entries in the genre out there. Instead of trying to go for the one-credit run, you take each of the game’s many stages (which play out more like Raiden or other slower-paced experiences and less like Japanese bullet hells) as something that you’ll be playing over and over more for the personal progress. Of course, score is definitely important, and stages provide specific goals—such as saving all of the hostages or beating the stage without taking any damage—to help boost your numbers, but there’s also that RPG-esque attitude to everything. As one example, dying before downing the stage boss doesn’t mean you’ve failed, because you’ve inevitable still earned stars to use to make your next run just a tad easier.
In fact, Sky Force Reloaded’s dedication to giving players a wide array of things to do when playing each stage is by far its best feature. In addition to gradually upgrading your ship, you can also find ship parts to unlock additional planes or complete overall missions (like downing X number of enemies throughout the game) to earn Technicians, selectable crew members that’ll give you bonuses (such as increasing the amount of stars in a stage or letting you take a bit of damage without losing the “no hit” bonus). Joining Technicians are cards, which randomly show up on stages that then give passive benefits, directly affect certain aspects of specific stages, or give a limited amount of “bonus time” that will give you some specific upgrade so long as the countdown is still active. All of these things come together to craft a game that really feels like it’s had a lot of thought put into it, and it gives players an experience that sits somewhere between the quarter-munching cabinets from the glory days of arcades, and far deeper, more strategic home console-focused releases.
Unfortunately, the thing that sets Sky Force Reloaded apart from its competition is also the element that ends up weakening it.
That realization began with a very simple action: my unlocking the Mega Bomb. Bombs are a staple of the shooter genre, so it seemed like the best bonus weapon to start with. When I began my next run, the game added a UI element showing which button bombs are attached to—but then, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how to use them. I played a handful of stages still confused, feeling like a bit of a moron for not understanding such a simple aspect of the game. Then, it finally dawned on me: if I wanted bombs, I had to spend stars to get them. All three extra weapons require stars in exchange for each charge of said weapon every time you enter a stage, and if you die before using up your stock, it’s gone. I found the notion of spending the precious credits I needed to upgrade my ship on those weapons ridiculous, so I simply didn’t—I focused instead on upgrading my main weaponry as much as possible. (As you progress, you’ll encounter additional ways to earn charges, making this system seem even more out of place.)
And, through that, another frustration began to grow. Each piece of your ship takes ten upgrades in order to reach one additional “level” to the power of that item, and I was quickly realizing that as I sunk more and more stars into powering up my ship, the benefits I was feeling from each upgrade felt absolutely miniscule. Most shooters have trained us to feel a real change in our capability from each power-up we grab, but here, I was just continually grinding out stages in order to inch along at a snail’s pace to see similar results. To compound that, the base set of weaponry was getting to be boring—I still only had the same straight-shot main cannon (which does finally started to spread after numerous level increases), the same kinda-sorta useful secondary wing cannons, and the same singular homing missile. I’ve also been going back to two classic shooters via my Switch in recent weeks—Strikers 1945 and Gunbird—and the variety that those games offer up compared to what Sky Force Reloaded was giving me seemed miles apart.
As I got deeper and deeper into Sky Force Reloaded, I was legitimately having fun, but was also increasingly seeing it as a game that had tried some interesting ideas that sadly ended up being misguided. And yet, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something deeper going on. So, I finally decided to do some research on the game—and that’s when I discovered that its origins were that of a mobile-based free-to-play title.
After downloading the iOS version of Sky Force Reloaded and spending a quick bit of time with it, things became a lot clearer. This is a game that was built with the purpose of being a time sink, where the frustration of how long it’s taking to get your ship upgraded to the level you’d like it to be at can easily be solved by spending money to buy stars. The lack of weapon variety that I was feeling? That’s answered by unlocking those additional ships. And yet, in the week that I’d been playing, I hadn’t even gotten close to getting all of the parts for even one new choice to be selectable. In an environment where you can just pay to beef up your default ship off the bat, and then farm the higher-difficulty stages hoping to snag those pieces, however, you could no doubt open up those new planes far quicker.
Sky Force Reloaded is disappointing—not because it’s a bad game, but because it’s a good game buried under some other-platform baggage that it shouldn’t be saddled with. Developer Infinite Dreams really needed to rebalance the game when putting it on console—and if they did, they didn’t go anywhere near far enough. As much as I’m not a fan of microtransactions, the Switch version (and I’m assuming other consoles) not having any option to pay for stars means an upgrade system once based around a free-to-play economy now feels even more out of balance, and most players are probably going to either give up or feel finished with Reloaded long before they’ve unlocked things that can genuinely make the game better.
Had the weapon upgrades taken less time per level, and we been given more ships unlocked at the start for a better sense of variety, Sky Force Reloaded would have been a more enjoyable console-focused experience. As it stands, there genuinely is a fun game here if you can put aside the frustration of the game’s heritage—but it’ll probably only be fully appreciated by those who are the type that love to sink hours and hours of efforts into the titles they play.
There’s a legitimately interesting and enjoyable top-down shooter experience present in Sky Force Reloaded, but it’s tainted by an overall package that still has far too many connections to its free-to-play origins. Those longing for a game that’ll last for a while will find the most enjoyment here, but most others may find progression to be a total slog.
E10+ – Everyone 10+
|Sky Force Reloaded is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC, iOS, and Android. Primary version played was for Nintendo Switch. Product was provided by Infinite Dreams for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI. Check her out on Twitter and Mastodon.