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Starting on mobile before turning up on Wii U, the first Sky Force game was a decent shmup and now the sequel arrives on Switch. As you would expect, the aim of the game in Sky Force Reloaded is to blow away waves of enemy forces and take down the tricky boss characters. Soon after you boot it up the camera sweeps down and puts you straight into the action, letting you get familiar with the controls before the game begins in earnest. Once it does start however, you’ll find your craft is not quite as capable as the tutorial ship.

The first level is unlikely to cause issue, but by the second one you’ll find some regular ships are a struggle to shoot down and there are hard-to-avoid attacks. The difficulty increases as the game progresses with ships firing lasers and missiles your way, bullets spiralling out from turrets and cannons unleashing powerful energy blasts. Your ship is laughably underpowered for this battle, but then you are not meant to tackle the whole game the way you started it.

With each enemy destroyed, stars are released and these should be collected as much as possible in order to beef up your ship. They can be exchanged for weapon upgrades (main cannon, wing cannons, missiles) and increased health. This makes things easier for you, but the challenge increases as the game progresses, so you may find yourself revisiting earlier, easier levels to collect more stars. There’s a magnet ability that can be added to help with this, drawing stars to you when you get close; you can also purchase upgrades to increase its range. The ability to use special items can also be added, allowing you to pick up temporary shields, a laser and bombs to be used when you wish (each is assigned its own button on the controller). These items can also be purchased prior to a stage in exchange for more stars, should you have any left.

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Cards occasionally pop up that, if collected, will provide (sometimes temporary) weapon upgrades and other useful functions. Machine parts can also be found and should you get a full set you’ll be rewarded with a new ship. There are nine in total, each with different abilities, such as the Iron Clad that is 10% slower than the standard ship, but can take 50% more damage, while others can be speedy but fragile constructions. Luckily the upgrades you purchase are applied to all of your ships, so you can switch to whichever you think is best-suited for the current level and not worry about losing any powerful weaponry.

There’s a good variety of enemy aircraft in the game as well as some ground-based trouble, such as tanks. Rockets and pulsing energy blasts also add to your troubles and there’s quite a range of different attacks you need to learn to deal with. In some instances (certainly early on) it’s easier to avoid getting into a firefight and just edge your way through the hail of bullets, although if you’re not careful this can quickly go wrong and you’ll find yourself trapped. Weaving through fire is a skill you’ll definitely call upon for one level however, as it sees your weapons disabled, forcing you to slide through gaps in steady lines of energy projectiles, while also avoiding shots from moving turrets.

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Backing up the onscreen action is an adventurous synth music soundtrack that fits well with the sound effects. As well as popping bullets, there are zinging lasers, streaking missiles and rockets are fired with suitable oomph. Other neat touches include the sound of whirring helicopter blades and speech which announces each “weapon upgrade” and gives a running judgement on your chain of kills, ranging from “good” to “godlike” or “chain lost” when one gets away.

The stages include a few locations, many of them rocky in nature. Some variety is provided by structures that are placed about the environment and there’s some different colouring used, too. The nighttime ones are bathed in a dark blue which makes the bright projectiles really pop from the screen. Other places you’ll be flying through include a desert and factory, but the most impressive stage is the one over an ocean, with boats bobbing about in the choppy waters. Some levels have clouds off to the side, obscuring the action if you head in there but on occasion being your best chance for survival. During one boss fight, your position is often identified only by the stream of bullets heading out from the clouds.

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Boss battles feature on eight of the thirteen stages and are enjoyable encounters that see you avoiding their different attacks while working out which piece of their weaponry you should disable first. Parts blow off as you blast away, with explosions rocking the metal menaces convincingly. These fights (and levels in general) can be tough at first, but once you learn where attacks are going to come from and have sufficiently upgraded your craft, you can clear the stage and move on to the next one. Maybe.

While clearing a level is necessary to access the next one, there is also a requirement for a certain number of medals. Should your medal haul be lacking you’ll have to revisit previous stages to earn however many you need. Medals are awarded for destroying 70 and 100 percent of the enemies, clearing the level without taking a hit and rescuing the people stranded about the level; you simply hover over them to collect. These are the same on each apart from the weaponless stage, where the enemy destruction goals are replaced with star-collecting ones.

Certain medals can be obtained with ease, such as the 70 percent one that you’ll usually get as a side-effect of clearing (or nearly clearing) a stage. In other instances it’ll take a few attempts to suss out the best way to achieve your goal and pick off that ship that keeps sneaking past or get out of the way of that rocket in time. Even when you have a plan, grinding for stars may be required to get your ship suitably equipped for the task at hand. You can of course go for the medals on your first attempt at a stage, but rather than face end after explosive end, it’s better to revisit after a few other stages have been cleared and your upgraded ship is better suited to the challenge.

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Replaying levels with the goal of achieving a medal makes for a different way of playing that, to begin with, helps alleviate the feeling of repetitiveness. Avoiding getting hit is not straightforward, but you can simply fly around some dangers. People-rescuing can be tricky with them perched close to all manner of dangers, but you can make it easier with liberal use of shields and bombs. Clearing the level is not required to get that particular medal so it doesn’t matter if the end-of-level boss makes short work of you.

You don’t need all of the medals to get through the game and initially if you do need more to proceed, it won’t be many. As the game progresses, however, the entry toll increases and you’ll be revisiting past stages more and more, replaying the same stages over and over rather than just moving on to the next one - something which can get irritating. Get all four medals on a stage and you’ll unlock a hard version (filled with tougher to kill enemies that deal more damage) with four more medals for you to collect; grab those to unlock “Insane” difficulty. If you’ve mastered a certain level, these additional difficulty levels can be a good way to quickly boost your medal tally.

Clearing the game is not easy, even with an upgraded ship. As you progress more and more dangers deal high-damage blows, quickly ending your attempt at glory. You do get to keep any stars you picked up though, so you can put them towards a new upgrade or purchase a useful special. You can also have a second player join you to help blast away the dangers. Once you do clear the game there is more for you to do, including two bonus levels – assuming you have enough medals, of course.

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Going back and collecting the medals you missed will keep you occupied (and there’s a fourth difficulty setting, too) or you could just replay your favourites, looking to improve your score. Scoring high is also the aim in the tournament, which is held each weekend. The game awards you some "Prestige Points" should you beat your friends one week, but does not appear to keep record of your best performance, so you'll have to screencap it, should you think you did rather well.

Conclusion

Sky Force Reloaded is a fun shmup with a good variety of dangers to deal with and one that gives you a number of options to deal with them. Stages can be tough, but when you nearly make it you'll want to dive back in and try again, certain you know how to do better this time around. Sometimes you'll be forced to replay them in order to proceed further in the game, whether that's grinding for stars or looking to achieve a medal, although that can still feel fresh due to tackling the stages a different way. The thrill of finally beating a tricky level can be dampened by the realisation you need to go pick up a handful of medals however, but it can be fun to return to a previously tricky stage and ease through thanks to an improved craft. Sky Force Reloaded may force you to spend time with it and feel like a grind as a result, but for the most part, the time invested is enjoyable.