Luftrausers review

Vlambeer delivers bullet-hell shmup action with a twist in its sepia-toned Steampunk wargame, Luftrausers.
Vlambeer delivers bullet-hell shmup action with a twist in its sepia-toned Steampunk wargame, Luftrausers.
Vlambeer delivers bullet-hell shmup action with a twist in its sepia-toned Steampunk wargame, Luftrausers.

Highs

  • Uniquely enjoyable rhythm a product of unusual controls
  • Unlocks create opportunities to master different styles of play
  • Beautiful overall presentation

Lows

  • Scoring and challenge systems could use more explanation

Luftrausers feels like it fell out of a 1990s arcade parlor. Your little German warplane slices through the sky, weaving an erratic pattern while swarms of enemy fighters, jets, battleships, attack blimps, and chunky bullets criss-cross the spaces in front of and behind you. This is developer Vlambeer’s lo-fi charm at its best. All that’s missing is a High Score list populated by “ASS” and “POO” initials.

The play is pure shoot ‘em up, though there’s a twist. Instead of a constantly scrolling background that always pushes you toward the next set of enemies and the next screen full of bullets, you’ve got an agile, little plane with free run of the open skies between the ocean and the heavens. There’s both sideways scrolling and vertical scrolling, but the path of travel is always under your control. It’s deadly to spend too much time in the water or the highest layer of cloud cover, but fly left or right as far as you’d like; the 2D world always seamlessly loops back on itself.

It’s not so much where you move that defines Luftrausers, but the way you move.

It’s not so much where you move that defines Luftrausers, but the way you move. Pressing left and right on a standard game controller’s analog stick rotates your plane’s nose in the chosen direction. Nudge the stick up to propel yourself forward and press any of the face buttons to fire your weapons. It’s a bit like that arcade classic Asteroids, though swap out the earlier game’s weightlessness here with the ever-present pull of gravity.

Your plane is always falling down toward the ocean, so you’ve got to keep firing those jets to stay aloft… but not too much, lest you fly into the damaging cloud cover. Luftrausers thus becomes a game of slow lazy arcs cut across the bullet-hellish skies. Like the best games of this sort, you’re acting on reflex and instinct. By relegating manual control of both speed and direction to one finger, Vlambeer created an experience that is much more about rhythm than precision. It’s highly challenging, but also downright exhilarating once you figure out the sweet spot for managing your plane’s momentum.

The payoff for mastering these mechanics is getting to watch this beautiful dance play out across Luftrausers’ alt-World War skies. Minimalist graphics envision the battleground in dueling sepia tones, an old-timey color palette that immediately puts you in the mind of classic war epics. Presentational flourishes help tie together those broad strokes, such as the way your low-flowing plane kicks up columns of water or the animated skull that briefly forms in the smoke following a nuclear blast.

The music complements the visuals well, a stirring, dynamic chiptune soundtrack that changes every time you take flight in a newly customized plane. Different musical cues also cut in as you progress further into a single game, with each change signaling the arrival of a new combatant to the aerial battlefield. Most bullet-hell shooters are content to challenge your reflexes, but Luftrausers is more an assault on the senses.

Enhancing everything is Vlambeer’s trademark knack for building long-term play hooks. There’s an experience level-dictated series of unlocks that allow you to outfit your plane with different combinations of weapons, body styles, and engines (five per category). These are functional enhancements that significantly change the way you play. It could be something as simple as spread-fire for your machine gun, but it could also be something more out of this world, like a laser beam or a plane body that doubles as a nuke when it’s destroyed.

Most bullet-hell shooters are content to challenge your reflexes, but Luftrausers is more an assault on the senses.

These unlocks come as you level up, which happens naturally as you reach higher and higher total score milestones. Combo multipliers and part-specific challenges help to speed this process along, but even a crummy round inches you closer to whatever’s next. These hooks help to keep you playing, but they never become an intrusive dangling carrot that consumes your entire focus. The stock plane parts that you start with don’t initially seem as effective as what comes later, but more than anything it’s learning to use your particular plane build correctly that sets the flow for Luftrausers. You don’t need all the unlocks to do well; you just need to get good at using what you have.

If there’s anything that’s lacking, it’s specific explanations of how various systems work. The game teaches you the basics of control and offense/defense at the outset, but the rest is left to be puzzled through on busy, stat-filled screens that all but the most observant eyes will skim over. It’s not that the information you need isn’t there; it’s just not presented as well as it could have been.

Of course, that’s a small gripe in the grand scheme of things. There’s a unique rhythm to Luftrausers that’s a product of the unusual control scheme, but the end result is an original take on one of gaming’s oldest genres. It’s also surprisingly accessible for a bullet-hell shooter, with a progression system that rewards patience just as much as it rewards skill. You might not be able to tell the world that “POO” has the score to beat, but you’ll constantly try to one-up yourself as you succumb to Luftrausers’ charms.

This game was reviewed on a first-gen Alienware X51 gaming PC using a Steam code provided by Devolver Digital.

Highs

  • Uniquely enjoyable rhythm a product of unusual controls
  • Unlocks create opportunities to master different styles of play
  • Beautiful overall presentation

Lows

  • Scoring and challenge systems could use more explanation
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