Sky Force fizzes onto the PS4 for the first time in this sequel (think v1.5 rather than v2). It starts with a pop and a bang and a few oohs and ahs, like a back garden firework show, but quickly descends into all out vertical scrolling shooter mayhem which feels like the team at iDreams has squeezed all action sequences from Apocalypse Now and Star Wars, mashed them together and delivered them back to you in one minute flat! I really enjoyed Sky Force Reloaded. In fact I enjoyed it so much on the PS4 that I downloaded it for my iPhone and then my iPad. However upon doing this I discovered there are some key differences between the platforms that I believe make the PS4 experience more engaging and satisfying than the mobile versions of the game.
I’ll start with the commonalities across all platforms. Sky Force Reloaded is the sequel to Sky Force 2014 and it’s very much more of the same. Thirteen levels (each playable at standard, hard and insane difficulty), each with a boss and I think there might be a story in here as well but trust me, you won’t care and it doesn’t matter. It never gets bogged down in narrative, you just get on with the main job in hand and that’s trying to kill all the bad guys before they kill you. Sky Force Reloaded is a good vertical scrolling shooter, it’s fun without ever being sensational, frantic without ever becoming unplayable and good looking without ever being really special. The scrolling 3D landscapes pop out from the screen and really invite you in. You want to explore and you want to find out where the journey is going to take you. Of course exploring is fundamentally just moving your little plane around the screen whilst the landscape, with associated bad guys, slowly scrolls towards you.
On the face of it, that may sound pretty dull. However, like all scrolling shooters the game is far more about learning the patterns of enemies and predicting where they will come from so you can achieve the nirvana of the perfect round than it is about complex game mechanics. In Sky Force Reloaded there are four key targets - take out 70% and then 100% of enemies, rescue every human, and complete it all without sustaining damage. Achieve all four goals and you can then attempt the same level on hard and then repeat to get to the insane difficulty setting.
On the mobile platforms this simply requires you to keep one finger on the screen and slide it around to dodge the hail of bullets, rockets and plasma oddities the bad guys launch at you. On the PS4 this is a little more refined as you control with the left stick whilst firing with the R2 trigger. This does allow you to actually stop shooting at times, although I could find no logical reason for that.
Interestingly, the screen shape and size has a significant effect on the difficulty and enjoyment of the game. On the iPhone I often lost my way as my finger obscured a homing rocket or tiny plasma bolt, annoyingly losing a 100% perfect run simply because my man fingers are just too large. You can set the ship to follow just in front of your finger to alleviate the fat finger effect but that just felt strange and meant I was pushing the plane too far left and right all the time. This is solved on the PS4 - no fingers on the TV please! - but replaced by a new problem. The switch from a portrait to a landscape screen means less time to react as enemies scroll in, and a bigger distance to travel across the screen. It’s not a massive difference but getting from left to right was noticeably harder at times.
In truth, though, that is really the only aspect of the port across to the PS4 which the mobile games excel at. In every other aspect I found the PS4 game to be better. Better looking, more responsive, more engaging and most importantly of all; more fun. The main reason for that is the addition of a two-player mode. Here, your flatmate - or in my case my ten-year-old son - can join you on any level and help you achieve those perfect scores. You work together as a team and as long as one of you gets to the end then you keep everything you have earnt together - a nice touch that made it feel like a real team effort. He would often go off and rescue the stranded humans whilst I fought off the onslaught from above, keeping those score multipliers coming.
The game mechanics are very simple. Shoot a huge variety of planes, tanks, buildings, crates, mechanoid spiders, helicopters... (you get the idea), collect stars and then cash them in at the end of the level to upgrade your ship. In addition you can collect weapon power-ups from glowing planes (these speed up your fire rate) and, if you have them equipped, you can also pick up the odd laser, shield and bomb as a bonus. This in turn allows you to complete more of the levels, score higher and on you go.
There is a grind element, a complaint levelled at Sky Force 2014 by several reviewers but I really didn’t feel it as much on the PS4 as I did on the mobile. This came down to there being no annoying time delay for your upgrades to become active. You do eat through your stars but fear not, your ship is fitted with a magnet which drags the stars and power ups to you. The more you upgrade it the greater its field of influence. When you buy better missiles, lasers, shields or upgrade your magnet, it’s active straight away, instantly improving the chance of getting past that boss by increasing your firepower. If you need to, you can buy additional shields, lasers and bombs just before you start a level to give you an even better chance of getting through.
There are also items to collect. These come in the form of cards (mostly time activated upgrades like increased stars or fully upgraded main weapon from start, alongside a few rare cards that have a permanent effect on your plane) and parts for new planes. All of these have a different feel, strength or firepower. I’m not sure they had a major effect on the longevity of the game as you quickly find the one that worked for the way you like to play and stick with it.
Upgrades can be discovered using a radar, which tells you on which levels cards are most likely to appear. This neat device gets you to revisit old levels in the hope of uncovering that missing card or part, which certainly gave the game some longevity as the obsessive in me hunted for the last piece of a ship I just had to have.
There are trophies to be earned and rewards (in the form of technicians who give you a selectable bonus at the start of each level) for sticking with the game and going back to levels you nearly got all of the medals on, but couldn’t quite be bothered to finish.
It’s not a big game, but I reckon with some dedication, a willing friend and a solid supply of pizza you could finish it in a few days and you’ll enjoy every minute of it. However, there’s not much to keep you coming back once you have completed it. The gameplay just isn’t varied enough, the mania not manic enough and the whole experience not quite … wild enough for me, to make it a slam dunk classic. However, if this is a genre you haven’t experienced before Sky Force Reloaded is a great way to get started. It's almost like a gateway game; one which is fun to play, but will lead you to looking for something bigger, faster and louder to sink your teeth into - and ideally one with co-op gameplay to keep those of you with kids happy too.