Formats: PS3. PS Vita, Mac, PC (Reviewed)
Publisher: Devolver Digital
One of the benefits of the indie explosion in games over the last few years is a newfound respect for, and evolution of, classic arcade gaming. Games such as Castle Crashers, Geometry Wars and Resogun have achieved massive success by harking back to vintage hits such as Defender and Smash TV and putting a modern twist on them, practically forging new genres out of them.
Take Luftrausers, a game that takes a bit of Defender, a bit of Time Pilot and a jumbo dose of insane to create an experience that once feels reassuringly familiar and excitingly fresh. You control a ‘Rauser’, an experimental fighter plane that controls through a combination of rotation and boosting – think Asteroids only in full gravity, with the constant balance required between boosting and stalling making the handling more a case of controlled tumbling than anything else.
You’re initially pitted against small, agile fighters with boats peppering the skies with anti-aircraft fire. However, your enemies rapidly grow in size and toughness until the screen is practically filled to bursting with hot pellets of death with your name on it. Your plane slowly repairs itself when not firing, which establishes a clear risk/reward situation that has you constantly juggling with fighting back and holding fire – both leave you vulnerable in different ways, and your survival largely hinges on judging which type gives you the best chance of getting through each passing moment in one piece.
In most cases, this won’t happen. Death comes quickly and often in Luftrausers. Like all the best arcade shooters, it demands your total concentration and will gladly decimate you in seconds if you’re not paying attention. Success is about building a score multiplier, which is increased with each kill, and staying alive long enough to capitalize on it and beat your friends’ high scores. The addition of challenges, such as staying alive for prescribed period of time or killing a certain number of enemies, earns you upgrades to your weapons, engine and chassis that become selectable and interchangeable at the start of each game, introducing a wide range of new options and strategies for future sessions. The upgrade system is wonderfully thought out, with consistently interesting and enjoyable items and even an option to randomize your installed upgrades with each game, adding the need to continually adjust to unexpected loadouts to what is already a highly challenging game.
The game’s look is equally fun, with sepia-toned visuals that at once complement its old-timey aesthetic while being reminiscent of the original Game Boy. However, the game’s near-overwhelming speed and intensity, with gorgeously-animated bullets, explosions and enemy units flying in all directions and filling every last pixel of screen space, belie its retro visuals. More controversial is the game’s art direction, which has a very… let’s say teutonic feel. The game has attracted some heat for its cod-Nazi visual style, with characters wearing what look very much like Luftwaffe uniforms and a title logo that looks eerily similar to the Totenkopf skull and bones of the SS. In reality it’s all rather style-over-substance and clearly about cool visuals rather than to endorse anything, but readers who may be particularly sensitive to Nazi imagery can make their own decisions. Or you could just pretend you’re HYDRA (By far the cooler option).
Even in a modern indie scene inundated with rejiggered, re-interpreted and re-gussied-up arcade classics, Luftrausers stands out as a refreshing and original slice of unfettered shoot-em-up fun, especially if you have Steam/PSN friends to compete with. It should also be enjoyed with Iron Maiden’s Aces High blasting on a loop… But perhaps that’s just me.