Developer  Vlambeer
Publisher  Devolver Digital
Platform  Windows PC (reviewed), PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, Linux, OS X
Genre  Shoot-em-up
Release Date  18th March, 2014

Death. So many have written about it without truly knowing what it is. How can you? It is, by definition, the end of life. You can’t write from the afterlife, if there is one at all. Maybe that’s why so many people are fascinated with it. We’ll never be able to express how it feels to die, so we try to imagine it, and share that with others. Sometimes it’s poignant and meaningful. Sometimes, like in most video games, it’s just par for the course. In LUFTRAUSERS, death is the only thing you can be certain of.

I’m not sure this was supposed to be the point of LUFTRAUSERS - that we’re all going to die someday – but it’s what I’ve extracted from it. Perhaps that’s due to there being no real story of any kind. You simply fly up from your ship at the behest of some dialogue-less general, destroy as many enemies as you can, and then go down in a blaze of glory. And then do it again. And again. No rhyme, no reason. Just fly and die. Take from that what you will, story fans.

It doesn’t especially need a story, however, because what it lacks in narrative, it makes up for in sheer, unadulterated fun. Things start off easy enough, with only a few small planes attacking you and maybe a boat or two shooting at you from below. But survive a couple of minutes and your screen fills up with bullets so quickly that it would make some bullet-hell games wince at the difficulty. This is largely down to the randomness of the AI; you never quite know how they’ll react, where they’ll come from, or how many of them there’ll be. And there’s such a mix of enemies on screen at any given time that what patterns they do have will suddenly appear like pure random behaviour.

For example, the initial fighters you encounter will follow you from behind, occasionally firing a single bullet. The first boats you find fire three bullets and then pause. There are jets that fly into you but don’t fire, and “aces” which hover near you and fire a constant stream of bullets. Battleships have two turrets that line up to your current position, fire a stream, and then realign during their pause. Submarines fire missiles and sink back below the surface. Simple enough patterns to remember, but when all of these are attacking you at once, it becomes a hectic fight for survival, and all knowledge of these patterns is instantly lost. It’s frantic and tense, and a whole heap of fun.

Staying alive long enough to rack up a decent score or complete one of the many missions opens up new pieces of equipment to customise your plane with. The basic plane does well enough, but within an hour you’ll be unlocking weapons such as lasers and heat-seeking missiles, armour that gives you more health or nukes the screen after you die, and engines that decrease gravity or allow you to fly underwater. Each of these new parts have their own advantages and disadvantages, and you can try out different combinations to see what works best for you. Do you like to survive for longer at the cost of movement, or are you interested in flying into enemies more than shooting them, so long as you can dodge their bullets well enough? There’s enough variation in there that you can find a build that completely suits your needs, but not so much that it becomes overwhelming.

It’s also very simple to play – you thrust with the up key, turn left or right with the appropriate key, and press X to rain hell on everyone. That’s it. You can let go of the thrust and go tumbling into the ocean, spinning round and firing a giant laser at people until you splash into the water, then fly out and do it all over again. Or you can just fly around the stage, dodging endless bullets and praying you survive. It’s also surprisingly forgiving, forgoing the usual one-hit-kill nature of most shmups in place of regenerative health, which allows you to try out daring feats of piloting in order to take down pesky battleships or the hordes of fighters chasing you down. Once you have the controls mastered, you can build up to your maximum of a 20x multiplier pretty easily and start racking up serious scores in a matter of minutes. It’s great, yet without being too easy or tough.

Until you encounter the blimps. There’s still much discussion as to how you cause a blimp to spawn, but when it does, suddenly LUFTRAUSERS becomes one of the most infuriating games out there. Blimps are behemoths, firing endless bullets and missiles that fill the screen in moments, with almost no room for escape. You will play the game again and again just hoping one will spawn, and then die almost as soon as one does. They are the Moby Dicks of the sky, and you’ll become Captain Ahab, chasing them down only to meet your end, then repeating the process until your fingers are numb. I have yet to kill a single blimp, despite my best efforts and hours of attempts to even get one to spawn.

What makes this even more annoying is that the game prevents you from unlocking some missions until after you’ve destroyed a blimp. You can unlock most of the plane parts in ninety minutes of play, with an extra thirty minutes to an hour to max out your level at ten, but until you destroy a blimp you can’t uncover the final missions and the last few unlockables that the game teases you with. It’s infuriating not only because of the difficulty of the task ahead, but also the random nature of the blimp spawns. If there were some way to assure their arrival, then it’d be less annoying each time you failed to kill one. As it stands however, you can go half an hour or more between blimp spawns, with no guarantee you’ll see one at all. It’s annoying, because it means that those who can’t hack the game won’t get to see all there is to offer, meaning there’s whole pieces of kit that some folks just won’t see.

Graphically speaking, LUFTRAUSERS is really quite beautiful in its retro style. There’s no more than perhaps four colours used, and everything’s presented in silhouettes, but the silhouettes are designed well enough that each of the enemies are easily identifiable and distinct from one another. There’s also lots of little details you may not notice initially – the engine cutting out, for example, leaves a little burst in your plane’s wake. But there’s also huge, beautiful explosions, as well as smoke and flames pouring out of planes and ships as they take damage. You can also unlock new colour palettes to use instead of the default, and while some of these add a subtle but interesting new look, such as the greyscale variant, others can be a bit too garish and hard on the eyes, making the game almost unplayable. Still, it’s a nice addition, and can help complement the otherwise stellar graphics.

The music is an interesting beast. On the one hand, there’s only two different songs that loop infinitely, one for the menu and one for the battle screen. The menu track is loud and epic, almost too much so for selecting new parts or looking at the leaderboard. But the battle music is wonderful; it perfectly matches the feeling of soaring through the air, and combines it with a pounding beat that keeps the action levels high and the overall mood tense. Interestingly, you can alter different elements in the song by changing your kit, keeping the soundtrack fresh each time you try out new combinations. And since you die so often, you’ll rarely hear it loop. Combine this soundtrack with a healthy dose of explosions and bullets firing and you’ve got a great soundscape that requires a good set of headphones to truly enjoy, absorbing all the emotions that go with it.

The only problem that remains to talk about is length. As previously stated, I was maxed out at level ten, with all the pre-blimp kill parts unlocked, in under two hours. Until you kill a blimp and unlock those extra missions, you’re left with nothing to do but go for higher scores, which is fine if you’re a fan of pure score-attack, but if you’re looking for more things to unlock then you’ll be left annoyed that it’s all locked behind a randomly spawning boss-like enemy that wipes you out in seconds. For those who are lucky, and skilled, this isn’t much of a complaint. But for people such as myself, it makes me feel like more of a failure, throwing myself onto yet another suicide mission for no real reason.

But I kept doing it, and I kept dying, because LUFTRAUSERS is that kind of game. It’s easy to pick-up and play, and tough to truly master, but you’ll have a blast trying. There’s enough here to keep everyone interested, with plenty of different options to try out and new things to unlock, and it all looks great and sounds fantastic to boot. It’s just a shame that you may never get to see all the game has to offer because of one randomly spawning, tough-as-nails enemy, and that may well put you off from playing after only a few hours. Still, it’s a hell of a good way to spend a few hours.

  • Insane, tense, and fantastic fun
  • Plenty to unlock and play with
  • Retro-styled graphics are gorgeous
  • Customisable soundtrack is clever and enjoyable to listen to
  • Blimps are too rare and difficult to kill
  • Blocking unlockables from people who haven’t killed blimps is infuriating

There’s something about LUFTRAUSERS that makes me giddy with excitement. Maybe it’s the beautiful retro graphics that are both simplistic enough to blend with older games, but detailed enough to appeal to the modern gamer. Maybe it’s the ever-changing soundtrack that pulsates through you and pumps you up in the heat of battle. Or maybe it’s because it’s just a lot of fun. Problems with blimps aside, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute I spent on this game, dying and being reborn to destroy more enemies with a variety of weapons and plane shapes. But I can’t help but feel that my attention span just isn’t enough to make me want to put myself through hours more of the game just on the off-chance I might get to kill a blimp. For a few hours it’s a great little game that simply must be played. Beyond that, and it’s an infuriating battle against randomness and near-impossible bosses. A great, if highly aggravating, game to waste the day away with.

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