Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platform: PSN (PS3, PS Vita),
PC, Mac, Linux,
Release Date: March 18, 2014
ESRB: E for Everyone
This review is based on the PS3 version of the game
It starts out unassuming enough—your small, pixelated air craft is launched into the sky to take on an army of enemy naval ships, airplanes, submarines and more. A squadron of enemy aircraft approach from behind, but you're able to shake them off and take them down. While that's happening, a few small gunships start firing on you from the waters below. Dodging their fire, you swoop down, opening fire and blowing both to smithereens before realizing that an even larger fleet of enemy planes has descended upon your position.
The sky is darkened and filled with endless amounts of machine gun firing every which way. A few guided missiles scream past in all of the confusion and narrowly miss grazing your aircraft by inches. And to add to all that, you face a barrage of incoming cannon fire from a massive battleship below. But despite everything, you avoid almost every shot... that is, until an ace pilot comes out of nowhere and blows you right out of the sky—your plane erupting in a blaze of glory amidst explosions everywhere. Welcome to Luftrausers.
What was just described is what you can expect out of an average session of the game, if you can expect to survive even that long. If you're a seasoned pilot, you may get to see multiple battleships, submarines, and even a blimp or two in addition to all of that, making for some truly chaotic gameplay. At the heart of Luftrausers lies an aerial arcade shoot 'em up that, like many similar action-oriented titles, revels in its willful destruction. There's a certain similarity to Geometry Wars where, in that game, skill is rewarded in part with brilliant displays of beautiful fireworks-like explosions.
And yet the thrill of explosions and chaotic action that results is only one aspect of Luftrausers. The central mechanic lies in building up your score by use of chained combos which result from shooting down other air- and naval-craft. Shooting down five planes quickly and consecutively, for example, will give you a 5x multiplier (which will eventually max out once you reach 20x). You'll then have just a few seconds to keep that combo going by shooting down or destroying something else, otherwise the combo breaks. But if you manage to keep it going? You'll be rewarded with potentially thousands and, if you're good enough, tens of thousands of points that will possibly land you at the top of the worldwide leaderboards.
One of the best things about Luftrausers is how it exceeds at being easy to get into, yet being difficult to master; just about anyone could pick it up and start playing and know exactly what to do in just a few short seconds thanks to the simple controls and mechanics. In fact, when you first start the game, you simple press the up button and you're taken immediately into the gameplay. There's no drawn out narrative or exposition either; all you're given are a series of three short missions (of which there are 100 in all) each time you launch your craft, and they range from taking down certain enemy craft to score-based challenges and even ones with special conditions (i.e. taking down 10 enemy fighters while on fire).
Completing these missions yield additional vehicle bodies, engines, and weapons that provide different bonuses or effects. For example, one body type is so sharp that it can cut through other ships with ease when you run into them and yet another type will drop bombs automatically as you fly. One weapon turns your gun into a single, deadly cannon shot while another gives you a wide spread shot of five bullets. Being able to mix and match different combinations is crucial to completing certain types of missions and it's a lot of fun to find out which combo works best for you.
The game's 8-bit pixelated aesthetic lends to its charm and would look right at home on something like the NES, though the pixel art of the different military personnel on the option screens have already caused some controversy. They are intentionally designed to appear as fascist so as to evoke a feeling of the era from the 1900s to 1980s where military intelligence were able to ascertain that the opposing forces were studying and designing "secret weapons" though not quite knowing what they were.
In light of this, Luftrausers' character designs have garnered much criticism for their supposed similarity to Nazi symbolism; Vlambleer claims in an apology on their site that they did not design the pilot (or anyone else) with that in mind, however. For what it's worth, I do agree that it's an unfortunate oversight on Vlambeer's part, but the designs are generic enough (perhaps except for the style of uniform; no swastikas, though, thankfully) that I didn't have any particular problem with it.
That minor controversy aside, Luftrausers is quite the experience. Its fast, aerial dogfighting and increasingly complex naval battlefield during gameplay make for one of the most thrilling experiences I've played through this year. It might not make a huge splash for the first few minutes, but once you really start to get into racking up points through combos and attempting to take down some of the harder enemy crafts and such, the real fun starts and it becomes incredibly addicting. Too many times I would have a play session that would be extended by another 5-, 10-, 15-, 30-minutes or even an hour just because I had to give it one more try to finish the mission or reach x amount of points. If you love arcade-style gameplay and acquiring high scores and such, you owe it to yourself to play this game; its a complete blast. Now if you excuse me, I have a blimp to take down.
+ Fast, addictive, aerial dogfighting action
+ Simple to learn, control, but difficulty steadily increases in-game the longer you survive
+ Music is pretty catchy, especially after long sessions of play
+ Leaderboards and plenty of missions offer lots of replay value
- Fascist art-style might be offputting to some
- May only appeal to fans of arcade shmups and score attacks
Overall Score: 9 (out of 10)
Luftrausers is one of the best aerial arcade shoot 'em ups to arrive in recent history. If arcade games and going after high scores is your thing, grab your helmet and get ready to take off, because this game is a blast.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable code provided by the publisher