It used to be that the only thing that mattered in a game aside from fun was getting a high score. The premise and genre of the game didn't matter. Whether you were inflating underground monsters, eliminating invaders from space, or collecting floating hearts, players obeyed the arcade mentality of obtaining as many points as possible before the "Game Over" screen appeared. Vlambeer, the two-man indie studio known for games like Super Crate Box and Ridiculous Fishing, aims to bring back that type of game with its latest release, Luftrausers. Based on the final product, it's easy to say this mission was successful.
In Luftrausers, you pilot a plane called a Rauser, and your job is to eliminate as many enemies as possible before you take on enough hits to explode. You only have one weapon, but it has unlimited ammunition and doesn't need to be reloaded or cooled down. Everything — including bullets, enemy planes, the upper atmosphere, and the water — can hurt you, but your plane can heal itself as long as you aren't shooting. On the flipside, killing enemies builds up a score multiplier, which resets if you don't kill enemies in a timely manner. The key to getting a high score is recognizing when you need to attack and when you need to retreat to heal so you can return to the fight.
To obtain high scores, you must come to grips with three things. First, though the game only has one open stage, enemy generation is randomized. There's no order for when enemies decide to appear and in which locations. On the one hand, this means you can immediately encounter flocks of enemies and get a great head start on building up your multiplier. On the other hand, you can have stretches where enemies are absent and you'll start to panic in trying to find anyone to shoot down. The dry spells aren't very long, but when it happens in the middle of a good combo run, you'll notice.
The second thing you'll have to deal with is the difficulty. Though the formula isn't crystal clear, most people believe the gradual increase in difficulty is determined by your survival time in the match and the number of enemies you've eliminated. Simple fighters are soon joined by boats. Jets, larger planes, battleships, and submarines are followed by a massive blimp, which is the final enemy type. Though the first two enemy types are easy to deal with, the others arrive with a barrage of bullets, deadly accuracy, increased strength, or all of the above. While it doesn't necessarily reach bullet hell levels, the game does everything else in its power to kill you. Rounds that last only a few minutes are quite commonplace for players of average skill.
The last thing you have to contend with are the controls, which aren't exactly conventional. Though the game is presented in a side view, hitting the up key gives your plane thrust instead of taking your plane higher. Pressing left or right turns the plane in that direction, and taking out the thrust causes your plane to drop. It doesn't take long to get used to the controls, but it provides an extra challenge. Deftly avoiding obstacles and gunfire is initially tricky, but it's exhilarating to manipulate thrust and freefall to get the drop on the enemy or deftly weave through gunfire. At least there's only one fire button, so there is some simplicity thrown in.
The quest for high scores might be fine for a number of people, but for others who require something more goal-oriented, Luftrausers delivers in several different ways. There's a general leveling system where the points you gain in each match let you level up to 10 different ranks. Challenges cover a wide range of activities, from trying to get a number of kills without releasing the fire button to destroying a specific enemy type. Completing any number of these challenges unlocks plane parts in one of three categories: body, engine, and gun. Equipping your plane with these new parts opens up new challenges, and the large number of combinations gives you a very long list of possible challenges.
Those elements help feed the need to play just one more game, and the little touches really build on that idea. Beating more challenges unlocks more filters. Destroying any of the major craft for the first time gives you a brief scene of it blowing up in more detail, and viewing them all unlocks a much more difficult version. All of this is wrapped around an engine that highly encourages replayability. Load screens are nowhere to be found, save for the initial one when the game first boots up. With so few things standing in your way, the temptation to keep playing is great.
There are very few things Luftrausers doesn't do very well, but in the grand scheme of the game, they're pretty minor. Unless you really dig around the files to see what triggers what, you have no concrete idea of how to make certain enemy types appear. This is especially important for the blimp, whose appearance and destruction unlocks the challenges in the latter half of the game. Unless you get lucky, you'll fly around rather blindly, trying to make the blimp appear. Also, unless you're in the middle of the game and look up the pause menu, there's no way to quit the game via standard menu options. Again, these are minor things, but they're worth noting nonetheless.
The game is pretty simple graphically, more so than what people have come to expect from either an indie game or Vlambeer titles. While the pixel art is expected and rather charming, it is the limited color scheme that is most striking. It really reinforces the sense that this title could've been made in an older era, even though it boats advancements in animation. Once you get past the initial shock, it looks pretty great and becomes the preferred graphical filter.
The sound is similarly simple but contains more nuances once you focus on it. The sound effects go for a more retro sound than a modern one, so explosions and gunfire sound like they commonly did in the 8- and 16-bit eras. The musical score is more modernized, and the few tracks go for a very heavy military march vibe. What's interesting is that the base theme during combat is always the same, but the instruments used to construct the theme change according to the plane being used. If you're only changing out one part at a time, the difference between tracks is very subtle, but multiple changes reveal how different each track sounds. It is a very nice effect that reveals how deep this simple game can be.
Luftrausers is a nice little getaway from the story-focused games that populate the landscape nowadays. It's a great game that is both fun and challenging for those who appreciate simpler experiences. Those not interested in chasing high scores will still get some mileage out of the challenge and unlock system, but the game is really made for those who adore points. The short playtimes for each round ensure that you can sneak in a round or two between other things, but the addictive nature proves alluring enough that hours can fly by before you notice. For anyone who enjoys a fun, solid game, Luftrausers comes highly recommended.
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