There's a wonderful floaty momentum to the action in Luftrausers. Players pilot an aircraft through the skies above and below huge enemies, blasting away at fighter jets, rockets and other airborne nasties. It's fast, frantic, high score-chasing action.
The game's been on our radar (pun intentional) since we first got our hands on it at an event last year. What we played then, and what we've been playing now, is an enjoyable and challenging arcade shooter, set against a back drop of fighter planes and sepia-toned visuals.
Games last seconds more often than stretching into minutes. It's harsh, uncompromising action that tests the reflexes like the coin-munching arcade games of yesteryear. Finding the greatest rewards means flying in the face of danger. Huge battleships patrol the body of water that borders the bottom of the screen, and massive blimps swoop down from the clouds that mark the upper limits of the aerial war zone. Both these enemies - and the more rank and file opponents you'll face - spew deathly projectiles at you with unrelenting persistence.
Getting to the biggest scores involves stringing together chains of kills; blowing up enemies in quick succession, each time resuming your spree before a short timer runs down. There's a maximum chain of twenty sequential kills, but hitting that and maintaining a streak will see you quickly rack up a healthy score. Let the timer run down, however, and the combo bonus resets and with it the likelihood of beating that illusive personal best (or climbing up the online leaderboards).
Building up and maxing out your combo is easier said than done. The more enemies you kill, the more enemies come at you (or worse, sometimes enemies disappear and it's impossible to maintain momentum). Battleships draw in with daunting flurries of projectiles streaming upwards, filling the sky around you, while later on blimps will hover in the sky and do the same but from above. You can fly up into the clouds and down into water to briefly avoid an overwhelming attack, but doing so will weaken your shield and leave you vulnerable to any subsequent hits once you've emerged from momentary cover.
The PC version features controller support, but we much preferred the responsiveness of the keyboard. It'll be interesting to see how this one handles on the various PlayStation platforms, alas we weren't able to test them prior to this review. Controls are actually unbelievably simple. Pressing up propels your craft forward. Left and right changes the direction you're facing. X fires. It was similarly simple on the Xbox 360 controller we use on our PC. For all its simplicity, the easy momentum afforded to your ship means that these basic controls give you incredible freedom of movement. It takes some getting used to, and even after several hours we were still accidentally drifting into hulking enemies against our wishes, but the weighting of the controls has been measured to perfection; it handles like a dream, allowing you dart in and out of danger, pirouetting in tight spaces as you rain down fire on your enemies.
It needed to be tight and responsive, because there's sometimes a multitude of enemies on screen at any one time, with ships, aircraft, rockets, jets, blimps and more all taking a pop at you. Dodging their bullets, and hitting them with your own (they're also vulnerable to a ramming attack, although this also damages your own health), is easier said than done. Drifting in and out of waves of enemy bullets, trying to string together a lengthy sequence of enemy kills; it takes intense focus, and the slightest mistake will be your undoing.
As previously mentioned, each run at the game is relatively short, so another attempt at beating that personal best is always just a minute or two away, a redemptive restart always on hand to make up for the botched combo or stupid mistake. Sometimes you can glide through a glorious run where nearly every shot connects, while there's other times where you can't build up that combo and you're destroyed before you manage to push your score out of the hundreds. After each attempt there's a postmortem on-hand that examines how you performed.
Away from the combat, there's ten levels to work your way through, though it won't take more than a few hours to max out your rank. Each new score is added to your overall total, bringing you closer to the next level and the unlocks that come with it. As you progress and unlock in-game challenges you receive new ship parts that change the way you play. You can add new engines (faster, slower, shitting out bullets), better weapons (lasers, five bullet spreads, homing missiles), and an improved body (no damage underwater, explodes like a nuke upon death). It didn't take long to work out a preferred setup, but there's options, something that's always welcome. It'll be interesting to see what setups the best players end up using.
If there's any criticism that can be laid on Luftrausers it's that there's not enough distance between unlocks in the meta-game. There's only ten levels before you hit the ceiling, and you have unlocked most of the new equipment before you've got used to the last batch of new gear. It's easy to envisage gamers investing wholesome amounts of time into this one, and spreading out the unlocks would've given dedicated players more to look forward to over time. Though in reality, this is a very minor gripe.
Graphically it's basic, but there's charm to the simplistic aesthetic. There's a minimum of fuss here, but the visual language is clear as day, with a circle drawing in around your craft as you take additional damage and slip further into danger. Releasing fire allows your health to replenish, so you can't just go into all-out attack, some caution is required. The natural boundaries - water and cloud - that bookend the playing area are straightforward, and there's clear differentiation between the different enemies. It can seem chaotic at times, but we never lost sight of our craft in amongst the madness. Another of the game's selling points is the pounding soundtrack, perhaps it sits at odds with the retro visual stylings, but the music bounces along with ever raising pulse-rates, while Red Alert-esque marching tunes ramp up the atmosphere.
Vlambeer has done a cracking job with Luftrausers, and they're fast turning into one of our favourite indie studios (we've been playing Nuclear Throne as well this year, a roguelike shooter that's similarly decent). The challenge is steep. The action is fast and frantic. The controls are fantastic. It might look deceptively simple at first glance, but there's nuance and subtlety here that only emerges after time. If you're after a shooter with old-school sensibilities, you won't find one much better than this.