Review: Luftrausers

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Plugging it into my handy German to English Google translator here tells me that the word Luftrausers means absolutely nothing. Luft is the German word for air, but no official language I can find recognizes the term rauser. However, in we-just-made-this-up Vlambeer speak a rauser is a badass fighter jet equipped with interchangeable components. It still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but that description should be enough to let any player know what to expect from Luftrausers. Plus, even if it isn’t a real thing, having the chance to be an elite rauser pilot just sounds cool.

Simple as it may appear, there are a lot of nuances to Luftrausers that make it somewhat difficult to describe with words alone. In basic terms, this is an arcade flight combat game with the objective being to survive the treacherous skies as long as possible and string together long kill streaks to post sky-high mission scores. I sort of want to call it a bullet hell rogue-like, but that doesn’t even quite do the game justice. It’s from a different developer and rests in a completely different genre, but in a strange way the game reminds me of another Devolver Digital published title, Hotline Miami, for its relentless difficulty, retro style, finessed controls, and combo killing spree mentality–only without the intense graphical violence as the enemies in this game are machines of war (planes, battleships, blimps, submarines, etc) rather than Russian mobsters ready to splatter the screen with gore.

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Instead of Halloween costume animal masks, each flight in Luftrausers begins by choosing a loadout of three ship components, including a weapon, a body type, and a propulsion system. These loadouts form the engine that powers the entire experience. Each component not only alters the attack capabilities and flight performance of your rauser, but also puts a new beat or track line on the thumping technoy music playing behind the chaotic dogfighting action. So each time you change your loadout, your play style is forced to change just as the soundtrack does. Hopping into the cockpit of a rauser outfitted with a spread shot blaster, a body that has high armor but slow movement, and an engine system that causes the plane to zip through the air with almost no gravity, is a very different experience from piloting a rauser armed with a laser beam, a propulsion system that spits out bullets in its wake, and an onboard nuke that detonates and kills everything on the screen upon death as a kind of last-ditch kamikaze score boost.

Mixing and matching plane parts is only one of the subtle strategies at work here. The recharging health system for example adds an element of risk versus reward. As damage is taken a circle indicator begins closing in around your plane, the smaller it gets equating to lower health. However, at any time you can stop firing and allow the automatic shield regeneration to kick in. A skilled pilot will be able to risk going without recharging health to build a long combo or save a multiplier from dropping, while someone who just wants to keep on keeping on might sacrifice a steady combo in order to maintain a safe health capacity.

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The environment can also be used to advantage. High clouds at the top of the airborne battlefield and the ocean at the bottom act as barriers to keep you exposed to the bullet hell madness taking place in between. Entering these areas does not cause instant death, but does inflict gradual damage to your rauser for however long you stay out of view. Knowing that sometimes the minimal damage incurred by taking a quick dip into the ocean to avoid a barrage of gunfire and then popping back into the air when the coast is clear can prove to be a real lifesaver in certain scenarios. This allows you to use the rauser itself, not projectiles, as a weapon as you can divebomb into attack boats to take them out close quarters style, which sometimes is easier than weaving through gunfire to line up a downward facing shot.

Getting a feel for the rauser controls may be a bit awkward at first. Maybe it was just my immediate instinct to want to pilot the jet like a twin-stick shooter, but initially I had trouble grasping that pressing up on the analog stick, D-pad or arrow key provides forward propulsion while the left, right and down directions rotate the body, rather than having true analog flight control where pushing left would cause the plane to thrust left, pressing down would send the plane down, and so on. Getting past that natural inclination, the controls actually prove to be one of the game’s strongest attributes–and one of the most difficult aspects to truly understand without hands-on flight time. There is something indescribably satisfying that triggers deep down whenever you push full thrusters ahead, pull off the gas and let the forward momentum carry your jet unscathed through a barrage of gunfire while at the same time you are rotating to line up a shot on pursuing enemies and then slamming back on the thrusters at just the right moment to soar away from the next spray of projectiles. The precise, turn-on-a-dime control combined with the tactile sense of momentum just makes you feel like a badass fighter pilot.

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In complement to its high score hunting arcade gameplay, Luftrausers has an appealing pixelated aesthetic that never puts more than a few different colors on the screen at the same time. By default the color scheme presents reddish brown models on a cream or off-white backdrop, but over time new color palettes become available so that you can turn the screen into a battlefield of pink and white hues, purple, green and yellow, or red, black and green. This is a nice touch, but unfortunately the lacking variety of colors used at any given time sometimes causes a lack of viewing clarity. As the screen fills with bullets, enemies, explosions, smoke trails and clouds, it can be difficult to distinguish where your plane is amongst the mayhem since the colors for these objects aren’t different enough. Once the camera starts shaking and the health circle indicator begins creeping across the screen, the clutter becomes that much more difficult to see through. If the frame rate drops on top of all that, which it will do from time to time, you’re pretty much raused.

As a no-frills high score shoot-’em-up, Luftrausers really doesn’t have much sense of progression. There is no story or structured sequence of levels to follow. The idea here is simply to get in and get out of each randomly generated sortie with a killer score to post to the leaderboards, and then change up your loadout and try again. Unless you’re a master pilot, you’ll be lucky if each flight run lasts longer than a couple minutes at a time, which makes this game great for burning off steam without a long time commitment from your PC or PS3, or sneaking in a few quick on-the-go dogfights from your PS Vita. Each plane component has a series of challenges to complete, such as killing X number of enemies in a single combo or while your jet is on fire, or destroying a specific enemy type while you have a maximum combo multiplier. As cumulative point totals are reached your pilot status also ranks up a level at a time, to a level cap of 10. Early on you will have to unlock the different plane loadouts, and as you progress further additional color schemes and more challenging missions will become available and eventually you will unlock a brutal SFMT difficulty option, but none of these rewards are especially satisfying. Fortunately, the thrill and glory of pulling off a skillful flight is reward enough to keep you rausering with obsessive enthusiasm.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Quick hitting high score arcade gameplay
+ Empowering precision controls make you feel like an elite pilot
+ Play style and music constantly adapt to your loadout

Cons:
– Indistinct colors and screen clutter can be difficult to see through
– No real sense of progression

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Steam (PC/Mac/Linux), also available for PS3 and Vita
Publisher: Vlambeer
Developer: Devolver Digital
Release Date: 3/18/2014
Genre: Flight combat
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!