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Luftrausers (Vita) artwork

Luftrausers (Vita) review

"There's so much to master here."

Luftrausers (Vita) image

If I may be frank with you, and I know that I may, I kind of hated my first few rounds of Luftrausers. It's an arena shmup that combines Asteroids-style pivot-and-propel controls with gravity, and if any game has done that prior to this one, I've not played it. As you move your plane about, you're constantly being pulled toward the Earth with such overwhelming force that actually combating your opponents takes second fiddle to keeping yourself from plummeting into the sea. It's a cool idea, but the immediate problem with Luftrausers is that it's also a bullet hell shooter, one that, at a glance, requires Ikaruga levels of swift needle-threading. And that level of precision is something that this game's unique but unwieldy control scheme just can't offer you.

So you'll die. Quickly. You'll play many rounds of Luftrausers that last under a minute, and for quite some time, that frustrated me to no end. It's impossible enemy planes whiz around at damn near the speed of the bullets they're shooting, and if you last long enough for the battleships to start sailing in, no altitude will keep you safe from the almost-literal walls of cannon fire that they generate. You're looping, dipping, stalling, fighting gravity and smoke-trailing a spectacle. All of this, and you're supposed to be attacking back? How? That's up to you, I guess, but my solution was to strap a screen-clearing nuclear bomb to my plane that only detonated once I died. Because you can do that.

This was when I came to the realization that Luftrauser is one of the very few games in which staying alive is kind of beside the point. The game itself, from what I gauge, is only a few minutes long, culminating in a climactic boss fight against a giant blimp. And if you happen to have a nuclear bomb strapped to your plane, as I have established that you're allowed to do, you can defeat the blimp posthumously by just crashing right into it. That's not really "beating" Luftrausers, though. You "beat" it by chipping away at your constantly-changing list of objectives, and you do that by accumulating kills, test-piloting different plane types and dying as many times as you damn well please.

See, by far the coolest draw of Luftrausers is the fact that every unlockable upgrade drastically changes the handling of your plane, and since gravitational force is your biggest enemy here, handling is a big deal. Tougher armor is also heavier armor, and thus being able to sustain more damage means you drop like a rock every time you're not accelerating upward. A more powerful engine can help with that, but it can also affect your turn radius. Then there are the weirder variables, like a spread shot weapon with such fierce kickback that you can practically hover in place by simply pointing downward and firing. One of the engines is actually propelled by bullets it's weaker than most, but it also helps clear away any enemies that happen to be on your tail, obviously. It's called the "Gungine." I love this game.

Every build gives your plane a unique look, a unique name and this is the coolest bit a unique audio mix. The music in Luftrausers always follows the same basic beat, but the individual stems of the track are determined by the components of your plane. It's one of the many things that makes Luftrausers feel like a thematically consistent but wholly new game every time you launch.

As you'd imagine, then, succeeding in Luftrausers involves quite a bit of taste-testing, which is easy since, as I've said, a typical round will last you no more than a minute or two. Many of your mission objectives are cumulative, and those that aren't like, say, destroying two ace fighters in a single combo will be completed with patience since there's so much to master here, given both the equipment combinations and the bizarre-yet-intuitive controls. Once you accept the game's grueling difficulty, the pairing of multidirectonal controls and gravity makes for some of the weightiest and most satisfying shmup combat I've experienced in ages. It's not merely shooting; it's dogfighting, movement-oriented and almost playing out like a fencing match with jets.

It's a lovely little game, and it's got a visual style to match, too. The action is portrayed almost entirely in stark silhouettes, but the sepia color scheme makes it easy to picture this all unraveling in some steampunk alternate reality WWII. The Vita version of Luftrausers does admittedly suffer some framerate drops upon death, but it thankfully never affects the gameplay itself, and it's all supplemented by a delightfully underplayed sense of humor (like how the pause menu is labeled "Tea Time.") Luftrausers' presentation is simple but singular, a fitting match for a game of the same description.

Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (May 08, 2014)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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Suskie posted May 09, 2014:

Thanks for reading! I know a few other people who didn't like it, so hey, you're not alone.

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