Vlambeer are well known for creating simple but addictive games, most famous for Super Crate Box and Ridiculous Fishing. Now they’re back with Luftrausers to constantly tempt you with just one more go of their airplane shoot ’em up, out this week on PC, Mac, Linux, PS3 and Vita after a comparatively lengthy development.
The sepia tones are instantly recognisable, playing off the loose WW2 themes behind the game and giving it such a distinctive look, with a militaristic soundtrack to suit. Behind the colours sits a simple pixel art style, with each aircraft a dark brown silhouette against the sky, but there’s also some pleasing touches, like the rotation of the silhouette as you turn and the clever visual feedback from taking damage. You will take a lot of damage as you play this meticulously crafted piece of arcade perfection.
Just controlling your little plane is a joy, thanks to the simple interplay between using your jet’s propulsion and letting gravity gently pull you to the ocean. It’s so easy to pick up and just flit around the screen, stop boosting for a second, turn and set off in a completely different direction. It’s as enemy planes and boats start to come after you, filling the screen with their oversized gunfire, that this precisely balanced control of your plane is what allows you to survive amid the chaos.
But offensively, you have a lot of capabilities too. You start off with a regular machine gun, with its own oversized ammunition, and though the enemy is just as, if not more nimble than you, it’s easy to start landing shots and taking out planes. Especially when you consider that you can stop boosting, pivot your plane, fire in a totally different direction to the one your momentum is carrying you and then fly off again.
It’s constantly in motion and always ramping up in difficulty, pushing you to adjust to what is coming your way at all times. The saving grace is that you can take several hits before dying, while crashing into your opponents will often kill them, and that you have recharging health. Except that it will only heal when you’re not firing, the simple circle indicator retreating back to the edges of the screen, so you can’t just blindly hold down the shoot button as you’re dodging, but have to make a run for it every once in a while.
Then there are the varied enemies that come your way, also forcing you to adjust. the basic planes can soon swarm you, though one of my favourite tactics is to run for a few moments, pivot and shoot several down in a quick burst, the jets will be gone from your screen within a second and Ace enemies will constantly hound you from planes which are much larger than yours, can pivot and shoot just as you can, and take one hell of a beating.
The battle for the skies is stacked even further against you by the ships on the water, constantly shooting upwards, ranging from fairly basic destroyers (I’m guessing) to missile-firing submarines and full sized battleships that send long streams of tracer fire high into the sky. These are particularly dangerous, and something I struggle to destroy.
Helping you in your mission is the variety of weapons, bodies and engines that you can choose from. The machine gun can be swapped for a continuous laser, wide-spread shotgun-like blasts, homing missiles and the like. You can get a heavily armoured body, or something more exotic like a melee body which takes no damage from collisions or the nuke, which explodes upon your death. Engines too, like one that lets you dip into the water without taking damage (you can dip in and out of the water anyway) or propels you forward by shooting backwards.
But in every case, there’s a trade off. You might be less manoeuvrable when firing the laser, take more damage with the melee body, not be able to go as fast when firing bullets backwards.
What keeps you changing things up is the sense of discovery, to try out new combinations and to see how they stack up. Additionally, each has a string of challenges to spur you on, ranging from getting 30 kills without letting go of the trigger to taking out a specific enemy at max bonus.
Building up the bonus is as simple as chaining together kills. You have a few seconds after one kill to get the next, or it will time out and you have to start again, up until you hit 20x. It’s only when you have a bonus that you’ll really be able to rack up a half decent score.
However, I find it tricky just to stay alive a lot of the time. Each play starts fairly simply, with standard planes, but once the Ace shows up or the Battleship starts to fill the air with bullets, the difficulty ramps up significantly thanks to these taking a lot of gunfire to defeat. It takes a lot for me to survive long enough for the Blimp to show up, a vast airship which throws even greater levels of gunfire your way, and then I tend to die.
It’s a huge challenge, and a slightly frustrating hurdle, but one that will keep me coming back for a while yet. I have, after all, unlocked all of the interchangeable parts, a host of colour schemes and completed all the available challenges after a few hours. It’s now purely my inability to beat the Blimp that’s preventing me from unlocking more.
At this stage, it is purely the joy of the game keeping me coming back and the desire to finally defeat that Blimp. After that, we’ll see, but Vlambeer have done it again, with a deviously simple concept, tuned to perfection to deliver a compulsively difficult game.
Good luck, Rausers.