Luftrausers (PC) Review

By Jordan Hurst 23.04.2015

Review for Luftrausers on PC

Visual gimmicks and retro sensibilities seem to be the fastest way to acclaim on the indie circuit, but that pattern may be less cynical than it sounds. For starters, a unique visual style makes a strong first impression where soulless attempts at realism do not. Secondly, quality retro games aim to recapture the immediacy and focus of their inspirations, rather than just their production values. Luftrausers is an excellent example of this - a smash hit by indie standards, its sepia-toned pixel art is sharply realised and instantly recognisable, and its simple, action-oriented gameplay could have jumped right out of an arcade cabinet.

Colour scheme aside, Luftrausers (which doesn't actually mean anything other than "invoked Luftwaffe parallel") presents a vision of WWII-era combat so outlandish that it would make Mecha-Hitler roll his eyes. The fact that the protagonists make up the faction that sports a pastiche of Nazi imagery has already raised a few eyebrows, but honestly, this was probably only done in order to utilise pulp Nazi tropes like mad scientists and experimental weapons. The protagonist's inevitable death (it's an "endless until failure" kind of arcade game) and the complete lack of story make it pretty clear that players are not intended to care about their avatars as anything other than avenues of destructive entertainment.

Screenshot for Luftrausers on PC

To that end, the task is to pilot a "Rauser," a customisable, self-repairing, semi-aquatic fighter plane with handling capabilities that would explain a large number of UFO sightings. With five components each for weapon, body, and engine slots, the game's advertising proudly states that it contains 125 possible Rauser combinations, and for once, that number actually means something. Unlike, say, Borderlands, where the touted weapon total just translates to a handful of different weapons and 1000 slight variations in damage output, each Rauser loadout offers a noticeably different play style. Some of them are bizarrely entertaining and unexpectedly useful, too. One of the engines negates the effects of gravity, while another is a gun that propels the plane with rear-firing bullets. Even the initially underwhelming "nuke" body, which obliterates onscreen enemies upon destruction, makes for a great last resort for taking down powerful mission-specific targets.

Missions provide the only sense of structure the endless gameplay has. While high scores are certainly a central goal, point pursuit becomes a pretty shallow objective when it's the only one there is. In Luftrausers, missions are attached to the components of the Rauser, forcing players to experience every ability at their disposal if they want to unlock more parts (or, less likely, a selection of hideously fluorescent colour palettes). Mercifully, while missions can only be undertaken with specific parts equipped, how they are completed is entirely flexible. Thus, if a mission that requires destroying a specific enemy type is attached to a weapon that is ineffective against that enemy, it's possible to tailor the rest of the Rauser for the purpose of bringing down that one target.

Screenshot for Luftrausers on PC

Apart from that stroke of leniency, however, the game is ruthlessly difficult. Straightforward challenge is not a problem in and of itself, but the total lack of gameplay balance that spawned it in this case is the game's greatest flaw. Although each Rauser part has at least one situation where it is most useful, the near-bullet hell levels of enemy firepower make the armoured body significantly more suited for general gameplay than anything else.

In addition, the inclusion of a combo multiplier dramatically skews the scoring system's priorities toward clusters of small enemies, turning larger enemies into lethal risks with little reward. It could be argued that challenge is the only source of longevity for Luftrausers, but that merely highlights how insubstantial the game is. With only a handful of enemy types and worthwhile unlockables, getting better quickly becomes the only motivation to continue.

Screenshot for Luftrausers on PC

The game is definitely a one-trick pony, but it's a trick that's executed exceptionally well. The Rausers are a delight to fly thanks to their simplicity and responsiveness. The forward-only movement and shooting of Asteroids-style controls usually feel restrictive in games that aren't named Asteroids, but it works here, because new components can offer alternative movement and weapon trajectories. It also helps that health regenerates when the fire button is released, and that collisions are not immediately fatal. In fact, kamikaze tactics can actually be a viable play style with the right equipment. Strangely, the menu interface isn't nearly as refined. It feels as though it was ported from a mobile device, even though it wasn't.

While the action alone makes the gameplay enjoyable, it's the presentation that makes it unforgettable. The visual design is brilliant; despite the hectic monochrome graphics, it's astonishingly easy to keep track of the Rauser's position at all times. Much of the credit for that accomplishment belongs to the damage indicator - a shrinking spotlight that focuses on the player's craft and keeps their eyes where they're most needed at all times. Little touches like water rippling when approached and explosions that shake the entire screen create a cinematic feeling that simply can't be found in other 2D games. The soundtrack is basically the pounding synth of Hotline Miami spliced into a military march, which is as awesome as it sounds, and, in a mind-blowing musical trick, it completely alters its instrumentation and composition based on the current Rauser equipment.

Screenshot for Luftrausers on PC

Cubed3 Rating

7/10
Rated 7 out of 10

Very Good - Bronze Award

Rated 7 out of 10

Luftrausers is a perfect case study for the benefits and limitations of a game concerned solely with fun. On the plus side, it takes all of four seconds to get into the game and start enjoying it. On the other hand, anything that detracts from the fun (in this case, balance issues) damages the overall experience more than it normally would. As a result, all but the most dedicated fans will give up on Luftrausers after a short time - not because the game itself is short, but because it's not fine-tuned enough to maintain interest. However, it must be stressed that before that drop-off point, the game's sharp controls, dynamic presentation, and unique combat options make it irresistibly addictive. Two days' worth of constant entertainment is time well spent, and if that doesn't deserve a recommendation, nothing does.

Developer

Vlambeer

Publisher

Devolver Digital

Genre

Action

Players

1

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  7/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date None   Australian release date Out now   

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