You take to the skies in your custom-made plane. It doesn't turn on a dime, but it's got the extra armor and firepower you like. The smaller enemy aircraft up here are little more than cannon fodder, and you weave through their bullets with ease. The battleships on the sea below give you a bit more trouble, but you don't panic--at least, not until the airship arrives from above and makes quick work of the very vessel you used to take down nearly a hundred others.
So goes Luftrausers, a game that would fit right in next to arcade classics like Time Pilot and Sinistar. It's got a similar (and similarly compelling) quick-play format to an earlier game from developer Vlambeer, Super Crate Box, but it gives you more control and purpose, resulting in a game that keeps you chasing high scores for even longer.
Being a pilot in Luftrausers is easy. Holding up on the analog stick or keyboard gives thrust to your plane in whatever direction you're pointing, which you can change by turning left or right. Letting off the thrusters causes your plane to fall, which is much more useful than you might think. There is a floaty nature to the way gravity brings you down, and you can often turn faster when you're not thrusting. Masterful use of these mechanics separates the ace pilots from the rookies.
The game's only other button fires your weapon. You don't want to hold that button down all the time, though, because when you take damage (and that is a "when," not an "if"), your plane repairs itself only when you're not firing. A large circle appears on the screen when you get hit and tightens around your plane as you sustain more hits. If you don't back off the guns and give yourself a chance to heal, you'll go out in a blaze of glory. Luftrausers is not an easy game, and you won't get far if you're not careful.
The controls feel so natural that the game's tutorial is almost unnecessary, but don't assume you're a master pilot after a few flights. As you play, you unlock new parts for your plane: new guns, new bodies, and new tails. Each of these parts can drastically change the way the plane flies, and the wealth of potential combinations means there are a lot of different play styles at your fingertips. Do you opt for an engine that can hit the water without taking damage, or take a plane that is propelled by gunfire that shoots behind you?
These parts are unlocked by completing challenges, of which you can attempt three at a time. Each part has its own list of challenges that must be completed in a set order if you wish to unlock additional equipment, and you can tackle those challenges only when the part in question is equipped. So if you need to sink eight ships in one combo to complete a homing missile challenge, for example, you can do so only when you have the homing missiles equipped. Beyond simply presenting you with goals to accomplish, these challenges are a good way of enticing you to try new parts and new combinations, especially if the challenges for specific parts happen to share similar goals.
It's important to note that these new plane parts aren't "better" so much as they're different. Every new piece you unlock may improve one aspect of your plane, but it comes at the cost of another. A stronger weapon might mean a much slower firing speed, and you have to sacrifice a lot of armor for a plane that doesn't take damage when running into enemies. While this may disappoint anyone hoping to get better, faster, and stronger through equipment alone, it does ensure a relatively level playing field on the leaderboards. Your preferred setup may vary from mine, but high scores are attainable in many different ways.
The key to these high scores is the combo multiplier, which builds up to a x20 bonus as you destroy enemies. You keep this multiplier if you get hit, but it fades fast if you don't kill things to keep it going. The risk of shooting down enemies to keep a multiplier going is weighed against the reward of much higher scores, and finding the balance between safety and bravado is appropriately challenging.
Outside of parts, you can switch things up a little with unlockable color schemes that change the way Luftrausers looks, but these alternate styles can be hit and miss. Some look fine and are a nice change of visual pace for a game or two. Others are an eyesore, especially outside of the game itself, where text can become practically unreadable.
Challenges are a good way of enticing you to try new parts and new combinations, especially if the challenges for specific parts happen to share similar goals.
While there are hours of fun to be had in Luftrausers, there's only so much to it. With a little skill, you can unlock most of the weapons in a couple of hours or less, and while there is still reason to keep going, the core experience doesn't really change. You're staring at the same sky and fighting the same handful of enemies over and over again. Even the music, while great, is limited in scope and gets tiresome after a while. For this reason, Luftrausers is enjoyed best in short bursts, which might make the Vita version the one to get if you're having trouble deciding, provided you can handle a bit of slowdown that's not as problematic on the PC or PlayStation 3.
Other faults with the game are relatively minor. There are small annoyances, such as being unable to quit or restart from the pause menu, or the fact that a few challenges don't effectively explain what they want you to accomplish. But these flaws pale in comparison to how much fun Luftrausers is to play. The act of flight feels natural, and the next high score is always so close that it's easy to spend hours saying, "Just one more try." It may be a simple package on the surface, but Luftrausers will have you taking to the skies again and again.