It's sometimes easy to forget how far mobile gaming has come in such a short time. Not even 10 years ago, people playing phone games were using ill-suited keypads to move sluggish characters around simple environments to fill the time while they waited for the bus. Almost none of the big game companies had their eye on the ball, and that left an opportunity for a bunch of smaller guys to get a lot more attention far more easily than they can today. As an example, just look at Sky Force. Originally released in 2004, developed by a four-person team in Poland, Sky Force's enjoyable mix of 1942 enemy patterns and Raiden-like visuals made it a big winner among early mobile gamers. It later enjoyed an enhanced port to other smartphones, with a choice of tilt or touch-based controls and a lot of features that were interesting at the time, like Open Feint. Like all too many games of that vintage, iOS updates eventually left Sky Force behind, sadly.

You can't keep a good ship grounded, however, so Sky Force has made its return in the surely-never-to-be-outdated Sky Force 2014 [Free]. Rather than just get the old game up and running again, developer Infinite Dreams has done a top-to-bottom remake/sequel that reflects that most wonderful year of 2014 in every possible way. You'll see a lot of familiar sights on this new adventure, but even the things you've seen before have a whole new look to them. The gameplay has also seen some changes, some of which could be described as contentious, though not nearly as bad as they seem. It's even got a hot 2014 price, available for the fantastic price of free. Hey, no, come back, it's okay, trust me.

Photo 2014-06-29, 20 38 44Just as it was before, Sky Force 2014 is a vertical shoot-em-up that puts you in control of a ship and sends you through several levels filled with all kinds of things to destroy. Each level is capped off with a fight against a big boss enemy, though one level's boss might be another level's mid-boss with the way things scale here. It's pretty standard fare, highly reminiscent of the Raiden games that ruled the shoot-em-up scene in the arcades in the 90s. The main deviation is that there are occasionally people you have to rescue by hovering near them for a set amount of time. Other than that, all you need is to kill, destroy, eliminate, and all of those other fun verbs. At the moment, there are eight stages to play through, which again is fairly standard for this genre.

Sky Force 2014 does a lot of unusual things, however, and the first one is immediately apparent. When you start the game, you'll be piloting a fully-powered ship, and by Odin's beard, it is mighty. Your bullets are flying in every direction, things are exploding like crazy, and you are ruling the skies. That is, until you face off against your nemesis. After a bit of sparring, he'll eventually destroy your ship, and it seems like your pilot was all out of extra guys, because that ship is totaled. Upon starting the proper first level, you'll notice right off the hop that your ship now sucks. It's horrible. It spits out a tiny bullet directly ahead of you. No spread shots. No missiles. Don't even ask about the lasers. Truly, this is a tragic story. The Rocky 5 of iOS shoot-em-ups. It's not the first game to use this kind of set-up to give you a feeling of disempowerment, but it really hits hard here.

If you want that awesome ship back again, and I'm quite sure you do, you're going to have to earn it, slowly, piece by piece. During gameplay, destroyed enemies and objects will leave stars behind. In the older games, these were just for points, but in this one, they are your currency. You're going to need a ton of them to get your ship back up to spec, and unless you're quite a skilled player, you're going to need your ship up to spec to get through all of the levels. That's right, everyone, it's grinding time. It's an interesting thing to do for a game in this genre. I feel like shmup players tend to replay a small set of levels more than players in most other genres do, but it's never quite as explicit as this since it's usually about improving your score. You'll be doing a lot of replaying here, and maybe, eventually, it will be about your score, but for the first while, you'll be doing it to improve your ship and earn medals.

Photo 2014-06-29, 20 39 09Each stage has four medals to earn per difficulty level, and to open up the next difficulty level, you have to get them all. Medals are also used to open up the next stage, and while the first half of the game unlocks almost automatically as long as you beat the stage, rescue all the people, and shoot most of the bad guys, opening up the last half of the stages requires you to clear stages without being hit, kill 100% of the enemies, and nab a few of the medals from higher difficulty levels while you're at it. Avoiding hits is pretty purely a skill-based challenge, but taking out all of the enemies pretty much requires you to have certain upgrades in place, so there's very little chance even an excellent player will get through the game in short order.

This is probably as good a time as any to discuss the game's pay model, because it's a little complicated. At first, the game seems like it's free with ad support, and that's apparently how it was originally planned. The game gives you a stock of 10 ships, and if you lose them all, you'll either have to wait for a timer to restock them or spend some of your stars to speed things along. Your upgrades also have timers on them, and in free-to-play tradition, they start off rather short and negligible and become quite lengthy before too long. You can also speed these along with stars. The upgrades themselves also follow this pattern, becoming more expensive the more you upgrade them, and to be honest, each individual increment on the upgrade meter feels nearly indistinguishable from the prior form. Well, it's free-to-play.

At the behest of the players, a few IAPs were added to the game, and they change things quite a bit. Mysteriously, the shop to buy them only appears after you've spent 1000 stars on things, so I guess the developers really wanted you to get a taste of that grind no matter what. Once you have it unlocked, you can spend your real money on four different items. First, you can remove the ads for $1.99, which means no more banners or pop-ups between play sessions. Second, you can get a star doubler for another $1.99, which goes a long way towards flattening out that upgrade grind. Third, you can spend $1.99 to have your stock of ships doubled and the timer on them sped up, effectively giving you unlimited ships unless you are the world's most terrible player. Finally, you can buy a bunch of stars for $0.99, which seems like a pretty poor use of money, but I bought Bubsy The Bobcat on the SNES for $115, so I can't really criticize you if you want to go that route.

Photo 2014-06-29, 20 38 37There is, unfortunately, nothing you can do about the timers on the upgrades, but apart from that, buying all three of the non-consumable IAPs basically gives you a premium game. There's still a bit of grinding, especially if you're not a high-level player, but it's tolerable enough, especially since the underlying game is so good. You'll basically earn enough for an upgrade or two every time you clear a level. It's not going to satisfy everyone, and it's definitely a different model from iOS's other big free-to-play shmup Phoenix HD [Free], but I think the developer was looking for a way to give a finite, stage-based game some longevity and a sense of progression, and they certainly found it.

The tilt controls have been shown the door, but in their place, you have two different kinds of touch controls, which is really the only way to please everyone in the mobile shoot-em-up camp these days. The game engages in far fewer behind-your-back shenanigans compared to the older games, so you don't have to worry about your finger traitorously hiding the enemy unless you venture too far up the screen. If you lift your finger off the screen, the game doesn't pause, but it slows down to a crawl, allowing you to hit the pause button if you need a legitimate break, or reposition your finger if that's all you need to do.

The presentation also joins the year 2014, with some genuinely gorgeous, colorful visuals, and a more modern soundtrack. The old game seemed to wear its technologically-limited roots with a bit of pride, but this game tosses all of that out, keeping the great, if not terribly creative, art design and buffing it all to a state-of-the-art shine. Everything runs a lot more smoothly as well, which definitely helps the bullet hell portions of the game look the way they should. There's also Game Center support, with leaderboards and achievements.

Sky Force 2014 wears two faces. If you simply play it for free without sinking any money into it, it's a beautiful, fun, very grindy shooter experience. If you buy the IAPs, you get a considerably more friendly experience that is easily among the top five original shoot-em-ups on iOS, yet still not without a couple of faults owed to its free-to-play design. It's not all the game it could be, but taking it for what it is, it's a terrific game, of such high quality that I could see even the hardest critic of free-to-play having a great time playing it. It's a welcome return for one of the classics of the mobile scene, and I await Sky Force 2024 with great interest.

TouchArcade Rating

  • bilboad

    Excellent review as usual Shaun.

    The only thing I'd add is that the cost to bypass the upgrade timers is much lower than the usual cost to bypass timers in other games. It's always a fraction of what the upgrade itself cost, though admittedly it becomes a larger fraction later in the upgrade cycle, so it's easy to just think of the cost of bypassing the upgrade timer as part of the upgrade cost.

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  • Loke1988

    This is one of my favorite releases so far this year. Then again I am pretty old school so most of the so called "nerdy" type games that are released left and right just don't appeal to me. Well done my Polish friends!

  • slamraman

    Yep - great review and a great game. Was very cynical of the pay model to start with but it really does work well with the 3 permanent IAPs all costing under a fiver. Well written review too.

  • coolpowers

    I didn't even realize the IAPs don't appear at first, but I think it's an excellent way to prove they are trying to adhere to the theoretical advantage of F2P for players; you only pay once you are already enjoying the game.

    Really enjoying this one.

  • the_rebel14

    Very good review. I agree completely. Personally, I have no problem giving these devs some money because the game is just so dang fun! The IAPs aren't in your face and the game can be played just fine without buying anything. Honestly, though, the game is beautiful, and a real treat to play on on device with retina display. I would easily recommend this game to anyone.

  • Rosso

    Excellent review!!!

  • Impe83

    A bit too long review lol, but good! you forgot to mention the use of incentived ads when you finish all your lives: you can watch a video ad to earn one more, just brilliant like the IAP integration and leveling system!

  • LarryWP

    This game reminds me of an Amiga game I played but I don't remember the name of it. Sure was fun though!

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  • Tonk Montana

    Finally a review! Thanks Shaun.

    One thing I think was brushed over was some of the social aspects of the game that make it even that more fun. Saving your friends is very satisfying and the levels are unlocked through group achievement. I was opposed to this at first but it is working and does give a sense of anticipation. You also get free stars when your friends play.

    The best addition I think is the weekly tournaments though. This will keep me coming back for a long time. Here, you can test your flying prowess against your friends, your country and the world. The tournaments reuse assets but who cares; they are gorgeous. Each week has different patterns and strategies to memorise.

    This is a great and with so much replay value. For some reason I have found it as addictive as the Infinity Blade series.

    Welcome to the skies Shaun and others. Feel free to add me as a friend. I look forward to challenging you (or saving you) soon!!

  • nzeltzer

    One hundred and fifteen dollars on _Bubsy_!?

  • Zazzy

    Awesome game my GC id is Zazzy1980 if anyone wants to add

  • Zenfar

    Looks great forgot how much I love this type or arcade game!

  • trazer

    I love this type of game, but after playing this for a week or more I gave up and uninstalled it. It was much to grindy for me much too fast. I can get clear through the levels and beat the bosses, but not enough stars without getting an iap.

    I played this on a palm pilot back in the day too, so I was really excited to try it out!

    It also tosses up notifications non stop if you let it, so I'd recommend disabling that. Overall it was fun, I opened up the first five worlds and made it past hard on more than half of what I unlocked, but in the end it was not enjoyable playing the same things over and over again just to be able to get more missiles and such. Plus, even though I put in a lot of hours I never even came close to that awesome ship you start the game with!

    My biggest gripe of all was the timer only letting you play like 9 times before having to spend your hard earned stars to play another round. I think that more than anything turned me off the game once that kicked in.

    • Tonk Montana

      Sounds like you didn't give it much of a chance. Insane difficulty is where the fun and challenge is. You really need to pay for the IAP ($6 is not much for a premium game) to support the game Devs and all of the concerns you listed disappear. No timers, no adds, plenty of stars for upgrades. The more time you invest in the game, the more fun it gets. And when fully upgraded, your ship is just the same as in the intro.

      Of course, this kind of game and repetition is not everyone's cup of tea. Saying that, this is the best in the genre IMO.

    • MartianLM

      It's a beautiful game, great to play and the IAPs are entirely acceptable and optional. That said I bought the star doubler early on and have played the game over and over but I'm making slow progress on upgrades. It's a grind, a real grind, and I don't know how long I want to stomach it for. That's the one place they've got the balance wrong for me.

  • nadav bar kama

    it began with a very big scare! the HANGER has 8 categories: health, main cannon, wing cannons, magnet, missiles, laser, energy shield, mega bomb. each of these can be upgraded 20 times! ( and maybe more, im still grinding ... ) with increasing cost differential as you advance ...thats a lot of grinding ... !!! luckily i agree to Shaun`s statement: "it's a beautiful, fun ... shooter experience" so SKY FORCE is my official world cup half time time burner!

    "ads removal" = 1,79€ ??? i dont get it! some ad types are just super ugly and generate very little income, if any at all, for the developers. so why put them in? ahhh ... because they are ugly!!! that is one sell trick that i really dont like and cant agree to.

    this game seams to be a classic fit for the good old freemium, give levels 1-3 for free (with interstitial ads), make a reasonable number of upgrades (not the evident grind or pay for 1000 upgrades) than ask for 2,79€ ... will it work? maybe, i want to believe that the "gamers" that like your game will pay, the "casuals" wont pay either way ... but that just my opinion ...

  • skoshu

    Sweet game. I'll be getting the doubler. Really like the decision to not feature IAP right from the start. It's a subtle thing, but very intelligent...the devs clearly care about not pushing the IAP in people's face.

    The ads are a different story...but owell, not that bad.

    Also shaun 4 prez!

  • detourne

    I just want to say that the lift finger to pause is brilliant. I use it as a strategy in really hairy situations.... Look for an opening, move there, raise my finger and repeat the process

    • bones boy

      Great observation!

  • Donny K76

    Excellent top down shoot 'em up and even better review. I was wondering when the IAPs were going to kick in. I like the Rocky V reference!

Sky Force 2014 Reviewed by Shaun Musgrave on . Rating: 4.5