Platforms: PC | PS3 (tested) | PS Vita (reviewed)
Publisher: Devolver Digital
My customised fighter screams into the sepia sky from the holds of a lurking Unterseeboot, a lone aeroplane against an entire air force. The enemy is on my six in seconds, swarming around me like gnats, filling the skies with fire as patrol boats throw up a hail of anti-air ordinance. I merrily dance through the flack, redline my engines towards the stratosphere, then turn on a sixpence and lock into a controlled stall; shredding an entire squadron of fighters as I plummet towards the ocean. My plane hits hits the water, but keeps going, erupting back out of the waves as my machine guns pummel the enemy frigates into twisted metal.
Luftrausers makes me feel like an ace pilot - no, I am an ace pilot. I am Baron Jon Richthofen! I'm a force of nature, the Sky Captain, a real slam-bang honest-to-goodness three-fisted humdinger. I'm a bona fide supraman... oh no, wait, now I'm just a small pile of burning canvas. A battleship zeroed its ruinous deck guns on my position and brought me quite literally down to Earth. Damn.
Never mind, though, because next time my plane will have a thicker hull, detonate in an enormous explosion and carry a brace of lasers on its chin.
Vlambeer are masters of taking classic arcade concepts and making them sing, and they've done it again.
Every inch an arcade dogfighting game with bullet hell flavour, Lufthausers feels halfway between Biplanes, Minisquadron and Time Pilot (and of course Luftrauser, the flash game prototype upon which it's based). It's built around bite-sized simplicity, throwing you into infinte battles against increasingly desperate odds over a stylish sepia ocean, presumably playing as a Luftwaffe fighter ace against overwhelming allied forces. Once you've launched from the U-Boat and take to the skies, you're locked into a fight to death and glory.
Like the best arcade games, the controls are child's play. Steering your plane is a simple matter of tapping the D-Pad, analogue stick or arrow keys left and right, while pushing forward applies thrust in whatever direction you're facing. The fire button fires. Job, as they say, done.
Don't mistake simplicity for stupidity, though, because Lufthausers is underpinned by an utterly superb handling model that yields hidden nuance and depth over hours of play. Your plane is a slave to gravity, falling towards the ocean when you slack off the thrust, but doing so allows you to turn quickly and pull off insane high-G manoeuvres. You can skim across the clouds and surface of the sea, or plunge beneath the waves to triumphantly re-emerge like a bullet-spewing Luftwaffe dolphin. It almost handles like an arcade simulation at times, granting you a feeling of real weight and inertia, and feels utterly fantastic. Streamlined controls put real skill and crazy daredevil stunts at your fingertips.
Luftrausers wastes no time in deploying an insane amount of enemy air and sea power to take you down. Swarms of biplanes and fragile patrol boats soon give way to durable gunships, enormous battleships, looming war blimps and more, all of which add points to your high score and grant multiplier bonuses when you splash them. However, in a neat twist, your plane can only regenerate its health when you stop firing for several seconds, leading to a fiercely compelling risk vs reward setup. Do you silence your guns in an attempt to repair ruinous damage, or turn and damn the torpedoes, hoping that you'll destroy your attackers and scrape through alive with your multiplier intact? That's a question only you can answer.
Accruing high scores and completing challenges gradually unlocks a selection of plane components that let us assemble our own custom fighters. The vanilla machine gun soon becomes eclipsed by lasers, shotguns and rockets, while differing hull thickness grant defensive bonuses at the expense of all-important manoeuvrability. Engines can amp your thrust speed, or allow you to turn more effectively (or even blast extra bullets out behind you, perhaps in an homage to Jetpack Joyride). You can also unlock a massive suicide explosion that adds a massive post-mortem point boost, which is never less than utterly satisfying. Every plane feels completely different, nuanced and most importantly yours.
Impressively, each specific plane permutation also has its own background music, variations on a pulse-pounding theme that will raise the hairs on the back of your neck (for once I didn't have to put Kenny Loggins and Cheap Trick on loop!). Luftrausers is no slouch from a presentation standpoint, providing eyecatching pin-sharp visuals and stylish silhouettes that resemble old sepia war footage in front of a setting sun, without drowning your plane in fussy visual noise. You can unlock different graphics modes, but personally, I wouldn't bother.
My one major criticism would be that, on paper, there isn't really much to Luftrausers. Skilled players will unlock everything within a matter of hours, while its repetitive infinite structure is best enjoyed in 'little and often' bursts, much like Super Crate Box. Indeed, quantity is on par with a very impressive mobile game, only priced much higher. Blowing through it in a single sitting will lead to malaise setting in, and perhaps buyers remorse for players who've come to expect more bumf for their buck over the last few years.
But, as we said before, Luftrausers is an arcade game, and a damn good one. We don't play arcade games for unlocks and arbitrary rewards. We play them because they're fantastic fun, and to enjoy their finely-honed gameplay. Casuals and connoisseurs alike will get a real kick out of this one.
Luftrausers works well on PS3 and the PC version is reportedly very capable, but be in no doubt: you want it on Vita. Its bite-sized gameplay and mobile-esque structure is well-suited to a handheld platform, perfect for killing time on the commute or even the toilet (wash your hands), while that OLED screen makes the stylised visuals even more crisp and eyecatching. A single PSN purchase will net you both versions, so you're free to play on your terms.
- Hectic arcade action underpinned by superb controls and handling
- Customisable planes provide plenty of combat options
- Makes you feel like an ace pilot
- Relatively limited on-paper quantity and scope for £6.99
The Short Version: Luftrausers delivers white-knuckle arcade thrills and intense dogfighting action, allowing us to become a true fighter ace.
If you can, be sure to prioritise the Vita version to make the most of its pick up and play appeal.