|Min OS X: 10.6|
Mac OS X: 10.8 | CPU: 1.2 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo | RAM: 1 GB | HD Space: 200 MB | Graphics: 256 MB VRAM
Her lithe form looks like a demented cross between a raven and a TV aerial, with spindly forms jutting out from her wings at odd orthogonal angles. It doesn't look like she should be able to fight, let alone fly. How can people slap together such an odd assemblage of parts and expect it to stay aloft? However, the way she rockets out of the U-Boat's launch tube, with bullets improbably powering my flight, reminds me of the reason why I'm here. It isn't to ask such useless questions. It isn't to debate the finer points of aerodynamic theory. It's to kill. To kill, and kill, and kill.
Devolver Digital and Vlambeer are no strangers to death and destruction. The past few years saw the former publishing Hotline Miami, and the Megaton Edition of the hallowed classic FPS Duke Nukem 3D, in addition to the lauded remake of Shadow Warrior. The latter gained notoriety for Ridiculous Fishing, a mobile title that had you becoming Greenpeace's worst nightmare. For fun and profit, Vlambeer's hit had you waging a one-man campaign to deplete the world's fisheries through a combination of skill, guile, and high-powered firearms.
It isn't surprising then, that this combination has given us Luftrausers. It is a game that can superficially be described as a sidescrolling 2D retro-themed arcade shooter, but more accurately said to be an elegantly orchestrated, sepia-drenched bullet-hell ballet of death.
Her bulbous form reminds me of a cross between a watermelon and a porcupine. Guns jut at improbable angles out of her gaping frame, and her wings look like a bad joke written by a physics professor and a structural engineer. When the flight scientist in the hangar tells me her name, he taps firmly on her bloated fuselage, the sound resonating through her inches and inches of solid armor plating with a rich baritone voice. I think--no, I know, that I've fallen in love with her.
Luftrausers doesn't waste any time in making its presence, meaning, and ultimate purpose felt. After a quick publisher/developer title screen, you're launched right into a tutorial level that's less of a tutorial, and more of an in-your-face firefight for survival. You're put into a little plane with a machine gun and set free to shoot anything and everything that's in your sight. It's here that the game introduces you to its key mechanic: stall-based flight controls.
The side-scrolling 2D style of Luftrauser's gameplay is immediately reminiscent of Asteroids’ myriad derivatives. However, unlike the weightlessness of space, you are constantly bound by gravity, and you do not have the benefit of inertia keeping you in motion. Letting up on your thrust stalls your plane, but it also significantly increases your turning speed. Because the controls let you almost stop and turn on a dime in mid-air, you’re allowed to deftly dodge and weave your way through swarms of incoming enemy projectiles with incredible ease. This is important once later units like the Battleship and Blimp appear, and it adds an Ikaruga-esque bullet-hell element to the action.
Judicious use of your engines and quick turns can make one-on-one battles seem like cat-and-mouse dances of action and reaction, as you attempt to get the edge on your opponent. In dogfights with swarms of enemy fighters or fast-moving jets, it makes battles feel like precision-timed movements of dancers pirouetting in delicately-tuned sequences, while you are engaged in a desperate bullet-spewing frenzy. You know you're going to die. At this point, you just pray that you can take as many opponents down with you as possible.
Like an old favorite game of mine, the PPC multiplayer shooter Steel Fighters, the in-game perspective and flight model (specifically with respect to thrust and controlling direction) may require a little adjustment on the part of new players. Thankfully, the learning curve is relatively easy to overcome, and with practice pulling cartwheels to avoid incoming bullet swarms will soon feel like second nature…after the 10th or 15th time that you’ve died, we hope. Like any addictive game designed to maximize player addiction, the penalty to failure is low, and the incentive to get right back into the action is high; just press up arrow to respawn, and the only penalty you really feel will be the bitter sting of defeat. Thankfully such sensations quickly give way to a hunger for vengeance...and unlocking another item.
In addition to immediate gratification, specific mission objectives task you with completing certain requirements. These usually entail the killing of enemy planes in a specific fashion, or the elimination of challenging units like battleships or ace fighters. Completing them gets you ever more challenging or interesting objectives to complete. Racking up kills also earns you points towards leveling up your airplane. Seeing those progress bars inching ever closer to the sweet release of completion is an exceptional motivator that will keep you coming back for more.
I'm not sure why they gave her this name. I don't know if it's supposed to be either a subtle allegory to some obscure piece of youth slang once uttered by the youth of America, or their manifested desire to strike fear into the hearts of our enemies by hurling pieces of plumbing at them. All of my questions are blinded by the monochromatic yellow beam that lances out of my craft from between its two forward-swept wings, spread open as if to give a loving embrace. The swarm of enemy planes before me vanishes in a cluster of explosions, and the gunboat looking up at me from the ocean's surface is vaporized in an instant. A word suddenly comes to my mind; as those puzzling American youth once said in face of all things wonderful and splendid, "That was totally tubular."
The relentless action, however, is only part of the equation of Luftrausers' appeal. The in-game hangar allows you to customize your aircraft, giving you the option to change your gun, your fuselage, and engine. Parts are unlocked as you level up and complete objectives, and the parts that are available to you each have their own unique abilities; you can swap out your standard machine gun for a beam laser, your standard body for a razor thin fuselage designed for ramming opponents, and you can equip an engine that uses bullets as propulsion. They all have their own weaknesses too, and their many combinations of unique strengths and weaknesses (over 125 in total, according to Vlambeer and Devolver) create a myriad of possible aircraft whose ability to wreak havoc and carnage can be more than the sum of their parts. It also means that would-be aces will need to be ready to adapt their tactics and play-styles to suit the qualities of their craft. It's actually very reminiscent of the quirky permutations of weapon and ability combinations in Jason Rorher's Under a Star-Filled Sky.
The gameplay variety doesn't end there, however. Mixing parts in your plane gives you a unique set of mission objectives for each combination, which can vary wildly in difficulty and variety depending on the parts you pick. Mixing and matching parts also mixes and matches elements of the game's fantastic electro-chiptune-militaristic soundtrack, giving you a unique song for every plane you create.
The trigger for the 100 megatons of borderline-critical enriched plutonium surrounding me is lying in a metallic sausage between my legs. It's a comforting certainty, knowing how and when it's all going to happen. No room for doubt. No having to worry about what's going to happen when I bail out and ruin my nice new leather jacket in the drink. Did you know that the trigger for a hydrogen bomb is actually a nuclear bomb? Well, that's what the egghead scientist in the hangar told me. I asked him what it all meant and he told me not to worry. As long as I'd leave all of the science to him, he'd leave all of the flying to me.
On top of all of that is the game's uniquely stark aesthetic. The in-game graphics are presented in a minimalist pseudo-8-bit style, with 16-bit-ish cut-scenes and characters presented in the menus. There is no ammo counter. There is no life counter. Even your health meter is nowhere to be seen, replaced by a very clever wide circular indicator (easily visible through a color swap with your background) that contracts further and faster into your plane as you take more critical damage. A tiny klaxon sounds when you are dangerously close to oblivion, and your plane starts spewing random pixels of debris and smoke as it soaks up more and more damage.
The game is first presented in harsh sepia tones harking back to the LCD-equipped Game Boys of old, but more color schemes are unlocked as you progress. It can be a bit hard on the eyes, but it oddly complements the WWII German-esque trappings of the game's characters. It's at first glance very reminiscent of Nazi Germany, but the styling of the character designs in places like the Stats and Hangar screen owe themselves more to Nazi caricatures in games like Return to Castle Wolfenstein. It's hardly offensive, but it does make the game truly stand out among a market crowded by retro-styled 8-bit/16-bit arcade shooters.
In spite of Luftrauser's myriad virtues, it isn't by any means a perfect game. Most damning are its resolution options: being designed for 4:3 displays, there's no option to play it at fullscreen on widescreen displays, something which I still find bewildering in games being produced and released in 2014 (thankfully it does have rebindable keys and full gamepad support). The preference to play it at full screen doesn't stick between launches, and the window it generates when it first launches is almost painfully small. Launching by default in windowed mode is perfectly fine, but surely it's not asking too much to have the game not launch in a window that's only slightly larger than a Lilliputian postage stamp. A game like this also begs for multiplayer, and I hope to see this in a future version of the game (or potentially a sequel), alongside a fully-fleshed single-player campaign. Additionally, your in-game deaths are accompanied by an unexpected plummeting of the game's framerate, suggesting issues with the game's use of your CPU or graphics hardware. Vlambeer has stated outright that it was a deliberate design decision intended to harken back to the chugging and lagging 8-bit and 16-bit shmups of old. I can appreciate that, but I'd still like an option to disable it.
We live in an age where perpetual Steam sales, and minisculely-priced mobile games have conditioned us to expect to pay a pittance for games. $9.99 may seem steep for a game like Luftrausers, but its deceptively shallow gameplay easily reveals a shooter with immense amounts of replay value. At just barely under 100 MB, its relatively light system requirements also mean that even people on older Macs can take to the bullet-laden friendly skies.
We also live in an age where more and more games seem to be charging more money for less gameplay. In that vein, Luftrausers seemingly is the 2014 Indie market's answer to such titles, a game where simply dropping bombs or shooting bullets at enemies isn't enough. Why not do it in a plane that can go underwater, fret and frolic around gun-laden enemies like ballerinas at an NRA convention, or detonate an atomic blast on death?
In conclusion, Luftrausers is a frantic, frenetic, and fresh take on a classic genre, with a truly distinct visual style. The huge amount of randomization and variation in the game’s core elements gives the game a huge amount of replayability, and the sheer speed of play means that players can easily either tackle the game in break-sized chunks, or go all-out in a binge-play quest to get to that next level, or beat that next achievement.
Luftrausers is a definite must-have for arcade shooter fans, or anyone looking for an engaging and distinctive arcade gaming experience. The addition of some more graphical options, especially with respect to fullscreen mode, would be welcome, and the game’s unnecessarily lagging effect when you die gets irritating very quickly. Despite that, Luftrausers fits the bill for anyone looking for a truly intense arcade shooter that doesn’t wear out its welcome.
• Really high replay value
• Flight mechanics are easy to learn, but hard to master
• Ship randomization adds extra depth to gameplay
• Addictive, Intense Action
• No 16:9/16:10 widescreen modes
• No option to turn off the retro “graphical lagging effect”