Luftrausers is intense in the most perfectly balanced way imaginable. Go to far and you end up with madness inducing twitch-fests that fail to hold your attention for long periods. Don’t go far enough and you end up with gameplay mechanics that feel tired and easy leading to a dull game. Very few games manage to toe the line so well, games like Hotline Miami, Ikaruga and now Luftrausers.
A 2D-shoot-em-up style game instead of scrolling in one direction you’re given a fairly open playing field bound only by the sky and the sea and enemies constantly spawn in from the sides to attack you. At the start you’ll be beset by propeller-driven planes and the odd attack boat but within a minute or less you’ll have jets, battlecruisers and what look like V2 rockets aimed at your now-insignificant plane. The art style relies entirely on silhouettes so shape is incredibly important and at a glance you can tell exactly what every enemy is, which direction their facing and how much of a threat they are. In the same way that Geometry Wars used simple shapes and colours to turn bullet-hell into a trippy yet rhythmic hyper-speed strategy game, Luftrausers manages the same trick. You’ll find yourself reacting differently to each enemy, learning tricks to deal with the tougher ones and concentrating your fire whenever you can score easy points.
The controls are a joy with some slightly realistic manoeuvres exaggerated to the nth degree. You can press one button to boost, and if you let go you will lose altitude. When you’re boosting though you have less control over turning, with a wider arc. The answer is often to boost in a straight line then flip around, often going into a stall, then boost off again once the threat has been dealt with or you’re on the right bearing. It feels perfect to swoop between a cloud of gunfire, drop the engines, spin around and take out your pursuers with a well timed bursts and then fire off directly upwards in order to escape a barrage from a looming battleship. The clouds and sea are not hard barriers either, you can swoop under the sea briefly but you will take an extraordinary amount of damage that will leave you vulnerable when you emerge. The enemy have to follow roughly the same rules and when you’re dealing with MiGs it’s quite satisfying to dip right down next to the sea and watch as they try to make a bee-line for you, unable to pull up in time due to their excessive speed.
As you kill enemies you complete challenges which then grant you new levels and new unlocks. With the unlocks come much more exotic and unrealistic weapon and engine types as well as entirely new hulls. You can have a large craft that uses a laser on the front and propels itself along – barely- by firing out of the rear. yOu can have a quick and nimble fighter that uses a spread gun, the joy is in finding all of these new parts as they refresh your experience entirely and keep you going to just try and survive a little longer.
Luftrausers is not a long game, but it is difficult enough to ensure unlocking everything takes a decent amount of time and there’s no let-up in the challenge thanks to a difficulty curve that ramps up steadily as you get further into the game. You regenerate health when you’re not shooting but that means the standard tactic in games like this where you carve a path through your opponents is no longer an option, instead you need to move around them in death-defying acrobatics that nearly always feel based on skill rather than luck.
Luftrausers might be something of a one-trick pony, with little variety and fairly simple gameplay but what it does it does incredibly well and almost faultlessly. An astoundingly good shoot-em-up.