You’ve probably had a look at the screenshots in this review and wondered why we’re covering something that looks like a crude Flash game. You wouldn’t be far from the truth; Luftrausers is a sequel to a Flash game called Luftrauser, a meaningless word that roughly translates as “air emptier”, and whilst looks are far from its greatest asset the gameplay on offer more than makes up for the lack of aesthetic.
As you take control of a formidable fighter plane, your mission is simple: destroy everything and stay alive for as long as possible. Your enemies are numerous and vicious with gnat-sized planes and hulking fighter aces sitting comfortably alongside gunboats and battleships, all hurling bullet-shaped death at you. You’ll need only the cursor keys and X to play the game, a minimalist mechanic which sits comfortably within Luftrausers’ framework where each attempt at survival can be counted in ten-second increments. This is a game which is meant for dipping into, its repetition and stubborn refusal to play nice are counterbalanced perfectly by the brevity of its playing time, not giving you long enough to get annoyed and ensuring that you’ll always have the urge to squeeze in one more go.
You’ll start off with a standard aircraft - normal engine, body and gun. As you rack up the kills, variations on each of these three components will unlock, allowing you to mix and match combinations in order to find the ideal killing machine to suit your play style. Do you opt for a body that lets you dip into the water without damage, alongside a laser and supersonic engine? Or would you prefer a slow but insanely powerful cannon attached to a thruster that fires bullets behind you, and a body that goes nuclear when you bite the dust? The possible line-ups - one hundred and twenty-five of them - are impressive, and whilst there are a couple of dud combinations to sift through you’ll still enjoy experimenting to find out what they all do.
Score attack is the key aim, and you are ably assisted in this regard by a combo meter which increases for each kill you register, up to a maximum of x20. There’s a big difference between taking out small planes for fifteen points compared to three hundred, especially if you want to work your way up the online leaderboard and leapfrog your friends. The trade-off is standard risk/reward, tempting you to try and take out that battleship in order to beef up your score, whilst desperately avoiding the rectangular carnage it spews your way. Take too long to keep the momentum up and it’ll reset, although only for a lack of kills - not for taking damage, thankfully. Because you will take damage, every game throwing you into a rapidly escalating sepia airspace filled with jets, missiles and death. Remove your finger from the trigger and your craft will recover its health, making each round a perilous game of air-chicken and forcing you to back off as the ever-tightening circle which indicates your current health closes inexorably in and the warning klaxons start wailing.
Unlocks are mainly obtained by a level increase, which in turn is determined by your accumulated score as you play. This has the benefit of always giving you something to aim for - a welcome goal, considering the slightly repetitive nature of the gameplay. Luftrausers is arcade shooting at its purest, but Vlambeer have thrown in a few other tricks to keep things interesting. Foremost amongst these are achievements which are presented before each level and remain until completion, such as killing sixty enemies in one round, or taking out two fighter aces without letting your combo drop. Furthermore, the pumping electro soundtrack will vary depending on the combination of plane parts you decide upon, a neat twist which keeps the tunes feeling fresh - although the soaring chorus kicks in each time, usually at the most appropriate moment, and never fails to elicit a grin. There’s nothing quite like narrowly avoiding a barrage of anti-aircraft gunfire with six birds on your tail, before spinning on a sixpence and wiping out half a fleet and a submarine with a well-placed cannon blast. That Luftrausers allows you to do this is worthy of praise alone, but that it does so with such panache and bravado, letting you feel like you own the sky whilst the electro-equivalent of Dambusters blasts out of your speakers? Well, that’s something else entirely.
There is also a surprising amount of depth and strategy to what could simply have been a standard bullet-hell shooter. Aside from the obvious decisions around the type of plane you’re going to assemble, the battles themselves can be approached in different ways. The melee body, for instance, lets you hurl your craft into ships and boats without fear of damage, but at the cost of more vulnerability to bullets. Combine this with a waterproof engine and you have a battering ram which relies less on your firepower and more on your ability to weave through the flak and smash into the enemy. The physics are sublimely pitched with gravity forcing you to stay focused at all times, but the controls are never anything less than responsive and your failures will never feel cheap.
There are caveats, of course. The frantic action can get a bit much on-screen at times, causing you to lose track of your fighter amongst the swathes of kamikaze jets and buzzing bombers. You will be able to unlock pretty much everything and hit the maximum level within about three hours of play. The game is almost too generous in its progression curve, spilling its secrets for just modest amounts of effort and reducing its longevity as a consequence. Even with such inspired gameplay it was clearly a tough ask to keep players engaged and coming back for more of an essentially straightforward shooter, and the content just isn’t there. The missions offer various challenging goals to complete as well as some other rewards such as different colour palettes to play with, but there isn’t a way to see the missions you’ve already finished - an odd omission, especially since they have a tendency to repeat.
Despite its flaws though, Luftrausers is an entertaining blast. Its two- to three-minute forays into the skies provide some of the most enjoyable arcade fun we’ve had outside of… well, an arcade, for some time. There’s an online leaderboard which will keep tempting you back and the glorious bombast of the soundtrack never seems to get old. You’ll live for those moments of adrenaline-pumping madness as you wipe out a host of pursuing planes with barely any health left, making you feel invincible as you cut and loop between your foes. A crudely drawn cipher of Richthofen you may be, but there’s no denying the majesty those basic pixels bestow upon the player, your inner Red Baron leaping for the chance to prove your worthiness amongst the clouds.