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EGM Review: Luftrausers

Posted on March 18, 2014 AT 12:01am

The Reddish-Brown Baron

Luftrausers started life as many indie titles do: as a free-to-play Flash-based game uploaded to some random corner of the Internet. While that original game, Luftrauser, was far smaller in scope and concept, it still offered a sense of fun and challenge that paid homage to the early days of arcade gaming.

That sentiment remains here in its sequel. After a quick, retro-inspired cutscene, Luftrausers is no-nonsense, handing you a default plane and taking you straight to your introductory flight. As you take off into the sky and get a handle on the controls (your plane doesn’t automatically stay level, so you’re constantly working against the natural pull of gravity), the game’s sepia-toned world scrolls endlessly behind you in either direction. (Vertical scrolling also comes into play, but fly too low or too high and you’ll take damage as you hit either the ocean or the upper atmosphere.)

At first, strategies are simple. The initial batch of opposing planes and ships are easily dispatched with a handful of bullets and some common sense, and your plane’s health quickly regained by not firing for a few moments. Soon, the challenge ramps up. Stronger, faster jets start hunting you down; battleships fill the sky with cannon fire. Those quieter moments become fewer and fewer, to a point where the balance between fixing damage and downing imminent threats becomes a delicate dance.

In fact, Luftrausers’ steep difficulty curve is one of my favorite parts of the game. I love arcade-style “score attack” titles, but I’ve encountered too many of them that just drag on for far too long. If I have to play for 15 minutes—or more—in order to begin to get to the point where I can start competing for a high score, that’s not fun. Fun, I realized after playing it, is something like Pac-Man Championship Edition, where I’m given five minutes and told to do my best.

Luftrausers isn’t quite the same, since there’s no set time limit, but you’ve got seconds, not minutes, before all hell begins to break loose. (And once you unlock “SFMT,” the higher difficulty mode, that countdown is in the single digits.) Vlambeer’s throwback shooter makes you work for every point you earn, and when you finally do beat your old high score (or that of a close friend or rival), it truly feels like an accomplishment.

While the core gameplay and overall idea of Luftrausers sticks to that straightforward “shoot things and earn points” mentality, there’s one big twist. A basic set of challenges are first offered up—earn X many points, kill Y amount of planes, things like that—and by completing them and raising your overall rank, you’ll unlock new plane parts. Three main components can be swapped: your primary weapon, your body type, and your means of propulsion. Ideas like this are prevalent in plenty of shooters, but I was legitimately surprised by just how different and important each option felt here. Using one choice over another can immensely affect how you come at the game, and while you’ll no doubt find your own personal combination preference—Laser/Armor/Hover for me—Luftrausers is a game where you’ll actually enjoy stepping outside your norm on a regular basis.

Luftrausers is what it is—and nothing more. It’s a project styled after classic arcade games like Konami’s Time Pilot, where you’d drop a quarter in, see how long you could survive, and hopefully have a new high score as your reward as you walked away from the cabinet. Its simple (yet excellent) interface exists for little more than either getting you into a new game, or quickly getting done whatever it is you need to get done so you can get back into the game. There aren’t any deep storyline arcs, no wide variety of differing stages, nothing to pad length or make you feel like you’re getting more than you are.

If that doesn’t sound like enough, then Luftrausers probably isn’t for you. If, however, you’re looking for a game that can be just as fun the 158th time you play it as it was the first, and that will have you wanting to play “just one more time” so you can hopefully bump your leaderboard placement up a peg, you’ll find plenty of excitement and adventure in Luftrausers’ unfriendly skies.

Developer: Vlambeer • Publisher: Devolver Digital • ESRB: NR • Release Date: 03.18.2014

Hearkening back to a bygone era of simple-yet-deep arcade games where you played for score, not story, Luftrausers takes basic ideas in concept and execution and turns them into hours of challenging, chaotic fun.

The Good An enjoyable, challenging game built around a pure, simple concept, and slick, stylish visuals. The “DISTINY” color palette.
The Bad The slowdown that crops up in SFMT mode can be jarring, and no PS4 version makes me sad. The “CAINE” color palette.
The Ugly The horror that is the “DENNISWEDIN” color palette. I want proof a human being—Wedin or otherwise—can actually play using that option.
Luftrausers is available on PS3, PS Vita, PC, Mac, and Linux. Primary version reviewed was for PS3. Review code was provided by Devolver Digital for the benefit of this review.
Eric L. Patterson, Executive Editor
Eric L. Patterson got started via self-publishing game-related fanzines in junior high, and now has one goal in life: making sure EGM has as much coverage of niche Japanese games as can realistically be crammed in. Eric’s also active in the gaming community on a personal level, being an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming and consumer rights. Stalk Eric on Twitter: @Eric_EGM. Meet the rest of the crew.

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