Release Date: March 18, 2014
Reviewed Platform: PS Vita
Version Price: $9.99 USD
Ja, Das Ist Ein Shmup
Shmups with funky control schemes are a bit of a gamble. You either get traditional shmups, shooters with great ideas like any twin stick shmup, or you get some that get a bit experimental with their approach but sacrifice fun or variety in order to get it. Flash game Luftrauser suggested taking an overly simplified 2D flight model with gravity, giving you forward-facing weapons, and letting you go at it. Then they created Luftrausers, its upgraded premium version, to cash in on this formula they'd come up with after the web was enthralled by it.
How well did it do? Well, the fact that I keep having to tear myself away from it in order to write this review should be ample foreshadowing for the rest of my feelings.
In Luftrausers, you are a Luftrauser.
Whatever the hell that's supposed to be.
When I ran "Luftrauser" through a translator it gave me "Air out," so I can only assume you are a flying machine with the sole purpose of getting punted out of your starting point like a missile, which you in fact do every time you start a game. You and your vaguely-Teutonic-looking crew in your...I can only assume it's a U-boat thanks to the general Germanic overtones of your chums, are in the ocean and set upon by what hilariously looks like a very lonely blip on the radar, which turns out to be an endless stream of boats, planes, blimps and other threats which seem keen on taking you out. So you go out and fight against this enemy.
Whoever the hell they're supposed to be.
It's a totally threadbare premise and one that the game is keen on you not paying much attention to anyway, but it's delivered near-instantly and you don't spend any time faffing about before getting to the good stuff. You are going to be thrust into battle, and you are going to immediately learn how to play the game and get fighting.
For whatever the hell reason we're supposed to be.
Summary: 10/10. The game knows exactly what it wants to be and doesn't waste your time with anything. Most importantly of all, everything is delivered clearly and with a straight face.
The graphics for Luftrausers are 8-bit with a palette of what I've heard is 7 normally sepia-tone colors. Everything in it is distinctive despite being just big, chunky pixels, and your customizable Luftrauser will look totally different depending on what you've loaded on it, which is a nice touch. Explosions will pepper the sky and more and more things will appear in the background as you survive longer and cause more chaos. At all times you'll know where you're pointed, where you're shooting and what everything looks like. There are great touches like subtle color changes so you know where you are as opposed to your targets, the roostertail you throw up over the water's surface when you fly over it and even your reflection, and that every weapon has shots that look entirely different, and they all add up to show how a simple shmup can be made incredibly polished and beautiful. You can tell Vlambeer cares.
There is one issue, and it's a technical one: slowdown. If you take damage or ram something and you're stuck in it, or if you're using the Nuke body and taking yourself out, you will experience slowdown as the camera shake and damage effects all trigger all at once. It won't be the difference between life and death, but it will feel like the game is slamming on the brakes when you want to forge forward.
Also, a warning: if you play for long enough, the game will unlock alternate color palettes for you. Get used to them, since the first time you use them after playing Luftrausers with the stock palette long enough, the alternates will take some getting used to, and some of them WILL be eye-searing to you after the sober sepia tones you'd learned on.
Summary: 9/10. Slowdown aside, Luftrauser's graphical presentation is bang-on and perfect for the high-speed, twitchy, blink-and-die world it puts you in.
The sound direction in Luftrausers is similarly retro and all the sound effects work fine, but it's not those I'm invested in, oh, no: it's the music.
The song that plays during stages is great, and as you play it and unlock more parts, you'll notice the theme is created of three parts, which all change depending on the combination of Luftrauser components you're using. It's a mixture of marching feet that set the beat, chiptune notes and downtempo electronic bass that's all been made "lo-fi" to sound retro and coherent, with one awesome bridge. And there are hundreds of versions you could come up with. If nothing else, you'll want to survive longer in order to listen to this theme and its many variations all the way through.
Summary: 10/10. Functional, sleek and sublime. There are no other words.
Here's the main attraction, kiddies: what is Luftrausers like to play?
What'd I already go over before...ah, right. You get launched vertically from a U-boat every time you start play. From here you have only two controls: a stick or D-pad for throttle and steering, and a fire button. On the PS Vita, you can also use the shoulder buttons as a throttle, which I find more comfortable for playing so I can just use the D-pad to turn. You have one forward-facing weapon that you aim by turning, and you shoot wherever you point. When you get hit you lose health, represented by your plane smoking and the background irising out around you, until you die. You can recover health by not shooting and obviously not taking damage, but in the heat of battle you won't want to stop firing for that long. The good part about the health regeneration mechanic is that there is no lag between getting hit and recovering, so you jump back into combat when you think it's appropriate.
What complicates things is that you also have gravity to contend with. Point upwards and throttle up to gain altitude, and if you fly for long enough sideways you'll notice you're not so much flying with wings as you are a projectile flying fast enough to miss the water below. To skim the water to attack boats or just for the fun of it, you have to add some angle of attack as you go. That, enemy fire and being bordered by the ocean under you and really thick clouds above you keep you from just flying wherever you please. You thankfully don't die instantly if you hit either, but you will take damage and be forcibly turned back into the battlefield-and can use either to your advantage to help you do maneuvers.
If this sounds tricky to get used to at first, it really isn't: it's very simple to learn and intuitive to play, and as soon as you learn it for a couple minutes you'll be dogfighting your enemies, who all have the same things to contend with, and soon you'll be racking up kills. Maneuvers like skidding through the air and firing backwards to destroy all the targets chasing you, performing crisscrossing dive attacks on battleships, and timing bursts from your thrusters while spinning around to take insanely tight turns will become second nature. Your job while you're doing all this is simple: kill as many enemies as you can before you eventually get shot down.
Scoring is simple: everything not only has a point value, but that point value is also connected to a score multiplier. If you kill something, it goes up by 1 until it reaches a max multiplier of 20. This multiplier is also tied to a pretty strict clock, so you have to rack up kills really fast and be good about chaining everything together to keep the multiplier going. That requires being a pretty good pilot atop of having an itchy trigger finger.
To keep things from getting repetitive, there are also little mini-missions you can undertake during each run. These are challenges that either require you to accumulate a certain amount of kills or points during the game, or to do it overall, or in certain combos, and so on. These are great challenges to help you continue to learn the game, and they also tie into Luftrausers' biggest new feature over the Flash game: the customization.
Your Luftrauser is split into three parts: the weapons, represented by the wings, the body, which is your fuselage, and the engine, your tail. As you play and complete challenges, you unlock parts to change how you fly and fight. The best part? The parts all feel like they make distinct combinations that can play very differently from one another. In fact, my least favorite item in the game is a heavy body whose only gameplay alterations are that you get more health but don't fly as fast since that's all that body does. The best way to collect them all quickly is to complete the challenges, which is probably also the best way to learn the game: you will have to get used to every single weapon, body and engine, and you'll learn how valid all of the combinations are even if they're out of your normal shooter comfort zone. The spread shot not only gives you impressive close-range punch but lets you hop through the air with its considerable recoil. The homing missiles are pretty tricky to use but they're great for sniping things that zip offscreen, which they will if you're going fast enough. The engine that lets you dive underwater undamaged will turn plunging into the ocean into a first move rather than a desperate escape.
You will hit on combinations that are downright evil, and they will all be hilarious to unleash. My personal favorites are combining a body that makes you immune to collision damage, the underwater engine, and any close-range weapon which turns you into a waterproof close-quarters crash monkey, or anything with the Nuke body, which makes you a bit squishier than normal but lets you self-destruct when you die and take out EVERYTHING that was active at the time of your death, and even add it to your final score and combo. The game knows you're going to die often, and wants you to raise a giant skull-shaped middle finger in defiance.
If I had one complaint, it's that there are other parts and combinations that Luftrausers could have added along with the ones we have, especially ones that could have played with acceleration and steering mechanics and things that rewarded you for flying up higher. The game really wants you to fight down at the deck, which I suppose is a balance decision.
See, since every kill you make in rapid succession as part of a combo raises your multiplier by one, I could see the idea that fighting too many fighters at once could immediately inflate your counter and therefore your score, and also would make you more likely to avoid the naval targets rather than wanting to tackle them to add to your score and multiplier. That brings me to another minor gripe: you can't scale difficulty up or down, which is a bit of a problem since as you play, you level up, which cranks up the difficulty and doesn't turn it back down again. While you can learn fast enough and get your groove back, you will still probably get yourself killed a lot after not playing for a while.
Summary: 10/10, with a caveat. Luftrausers is for hardcore action gamers, and the game knows it. It will reward you for sticking with it and punish you for every mistake, but the payoff is a fun, precise shooter that will make you feel like a flying ace.
Unique controls or not, Luftrausers, I believe, is a shmup in the purest sense: it's you and a wide array of weapons and tactics against an unending horde of enemies with a score counter ticking up and constant scrapes with death, your finger on the trigger the whole way and bullets dodged every moment. What is more shmuppy than that, right? I know only one thing after playing Luftrausers, and that's that I want more games like it.
Final Verdict (not an average): 10/10. What's next, Vlambeer? Your fans want to know.
"Enjoy a nice Brown Betty with DEATH! But, but mostly eat death." ~Crow T. Robot~