Dutch developer Vlambeer is known for creating deceptively simple arcade titles that have a worrying tendency to burrow deep under your skin and take hold of your every waking thought. Its latest venture, Luftrausers, sees you seated in the cockpit of a World War II fighter plane, attempting to take out a boundless barrage of enemy pilots. But is the celebrated studio’s newest exercise in addiction an aerial ace, or does it crash and burn?
At its core, the game is an arcade shooter that comes fitted with a remarkably robust customisation system. You control a fighter plane that must fight off a horde of enemy ships bombarding you from both the air and sea, with the ultimate goal being to maintain your multiplier and set an impossibly high score.
Interestingly, your pitch and acceleration are controlled separately, meaning that you have to think in terms of delicate dives and turns. If you imagine the game Asteroids, but with much more weight and movement that's about ten times faster, you’ll be in the right ballpark. These controls can feel a tiny bit finicky to begin with, but you’ll quickly come to grips with the game’s distinct sense of inertia, and will be pulling off some incredibly precise manoeuvres without batting an eyelid.
Make no mistake, Vlambeer’s latest masterclass in addictive arcade-style action definitely upholds the developer’s pedigree for painful and preposterous difficulty. The sepia skies quickly fill up with hostile aircrafts, and before long you’ll be dodging the quantity of enemy fire usually reserved for bullet hell. What's more, one of the game's core quirks is that your ship can only regenerate health when it's not firing. This means that you're forced to strike a perfect balance between offensive and defensive play if you plan to climb the leaderboards. Luckily, you’re afforded a staggering sundry of strategic options to help subdue your foes.
Do you dive and dispatch the deadly boats down below, or do you keep to the skies and attempt to rack up your score by taking out smaller aircrafts? Do you sacrifice stability by charging straight through enemy planes, or do you quickly dart away and hope that you’ll have enough time to maintain your multiplier? These are the questions that the game will constantly ask you, and it’ll expect you to come up with answers almost immediately.
The options for ship customisation are similarly diverse, offering up a huge range of mechanical matters to consider. Your ship is comprised of three different parts: a weapon, a body, and an engine. The engine dictates your speed and manoeuvrability, the body your defensive capabilities, and the weapon your offensive power. Each separate part provides you with some sort of aerial advantage, while also handicapping you in some other way. For instance, the 'Armour' body will let your plane take a few extra bullets before exploding, but at the same time will compromise your movement speed.
Impressively, all of the potential combinations feel perfectly balanced, meaning that the customisation is more about finding the right selection of parts for your particular playstyle, and less about grinding for game breaking upgrades. What’s more, every possible mix of components has an adorable nickname attached to it, which only adds to the title’s already considerable charm.
While high scores are definitely the name of the game here, there’s also a series of missions tied to each separate ship part that you acquire. These challenges initially act as a means of earning skulls, which in turn unlock new ship parts. The objectives are typically straightforward: destroy a set number of battleships or reach a certain score, for instance.
However, you’ll quickly unlock all of the available parts, and at that point the missions become little more than a neat distraction. A levelling system that aggregates all of your scores is also used as a means of doling out rewards, but again, you’ll reach the highest level with relative ease.
The title’s soundtrack is characteristically charming, mainly consisting of bold militaristic arrangements that prove particularly stirring and appropriate when engaged in a dastardly dogfight. Similarly, the clean retro art style lends the title a surprisingly epic atmosphere, as well as serving up a heaped spoonful of nostalgic charm. With that said, the relatively stark visuals mean that things can sometimes feel a touch cluttered and confused to begin with. However, you’ll quickly acclimatise and be shooting up the skies with the best of them.
For all of its high-flying finesse, though, there are a few bizarre design choices that stop the experience from being pure arcade perfection. Most glaringly, the only way to exit a round once you’ve taken flight is for your plane to explode. This can become especially tiresome when you’re attempting to tweak your selection of parts, as it means that you’re sometimes forced to awkwardly play out an entire dogfight with an unsuitable plane as penance for your experimentation.
Moreover, you’re able to unlock several different colour palettes, which can change up the game’s visual style quite significantly. While they act as a nice reward upon completion of the challenges, it would have been handy to have had the option to access these modifications earlier on, especially in a game that initially appears so busy.
As this is a cross-buy release, you’ll be automatically eligible for the PlayStation Vita version if you pick the game up on the PlayStation 3. We’re happy to report that this handheld edition absolutely holds up to its console counterpart. Understandably, the graphics and music aren’t quite as striking, but the simple controls feel intuitive, and the addictive gameplay lends itself remarkably well to portable play sessions.
Luftrausers is a tremendously well polished action arcade package. It combines simple but strategically diverse gameplay with an incredibly robust customisation system, resulting in an aerial experience that is likely to devour your free time for weeks. The few minor design quibbles ultimately don't stop the experience from serving as a brilliant example of its genre. This is a high score hound's dream come true.