For such a tiny, simple game, there’s an awful lot to say about Luftrausers.

For the uninitiated, Luftrausers is the latest bastard-hard arcade title from Vlambeer, a team that has some claim to being the indie kings of bastard-hard arcade titles. Amongst other things, they carefully constructed the free-and-excellent Super Crate Box (yes, it’s a silly name, but play it anyway), the cheap-and-entertaining Serious Sam: The Random Encounter, the mobile fish catcher/blaster Ridiculous Fishing, and are currently working on action roguelike Nuclear Throne. Saying that they’ve had a degree of success is, perhaps, an understatement.

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That boat’s going to die, but if I don’t pull up awfully quickly, I’m probably going to get murdered by the gunfire coming from the battleship off to the right.

Luftrausers is a bit different. The short version is to say it puts you in control of a plane, and you attempt to survive for as long as you can while shooting down other planes and blowing up boats. The short version doesn’t even remotely get across how glorious, frustrating, tense, exciting, maddening, and exhilarating the game is.

Most of this comes down to the flight mechanics, which must’ve taken a hell of a long time to get to the point where they instinctively feel “right.” While this isn’t a realistic game by any measure, your plane is affected by both gravity and inertia. If you’re not accelerating, you’re falling, and this can be used to pull of some aerobatic manoeuvres that would rip the wings off any real plane.

You might rocket up into the air, then stop, start to fall, and blast off sideways. The planes pursuing you turn to follow, so you start to arc upwards, abruptly stop, and – as you fall – spin sideways to shoot at them. Once they explode in a shower of points, you hit the engines again to avoid gunfire from the boats below. You weave, pirouette, descend, spin, rise. It’s like dancing in the sky.

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Your current level of health is shown both by how much fire is coming out of your plane, and – when you’re really damaged – by a circle closing in around your ship.

It’s also not something that can be mastered quickly, because there are all sorts of different parts for your plane that change the way it handles and the way you need to use it. These are divided up between weapon, body, and engine: weapons mostly deal with what you fire out, body largely deals with your armour, and engine largely deals with your propulsion.

I say “largely” because most of these also have an impact on the rest, and it’s rarely so simple as “lots of armour makes you go slowly.”

Okay, sure, there is a body type that gives you lots of armour and makes you go slowly. Then there’s one that straps a nuke to your plane, which explodes when you die, or the one that causes you to drop bombs every time you fear. There’s also one that makes you very easy to kill but completely removes collision damage, so that you can ram into enemies to destroy them, which – when combined with the engine that removes the damage you take from diving into the sea – lets you become a sort of human-guided boat-seeking torpedo. There are five or six different options in each category, and the combination you choose really changes the way you have to play.

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The characters populating the menus, incidentally, are wonderfully designed. The in-game art style is incredibly simple, but it too works rather effectively.

Unlocking further bits and pieces is generally done by completing phone game-like missions, individualised for every piece of kit. You might have to destroy eight boats in one combo, or score 10,000 points, or destroy a total of five jets over however many games. Some are easy. Some will require you to carefully choose complementary plane parts. Some of them are sadistically hard.

No matter what parts you choose, your plane isn’t really the most durable of things. While it can repair mid-flight it can only do this if you’re not firing – and if you’re not firing, your combo is likely going to run out. And if your combo runs out, you’re not going to get that many points from your next few kills. And considering how easy it is to die, there’s no guarantee you’re even going to get another combo.

So the game, at its best, becomes a careful balancing act. You need to keep shooting to maximise your combo, but equally, you need to stop shooting to heal up. You have to dive into the thick of danger to get points – and stay there as long as possible to keep the combo up – but if you try to fly off too late, you’ll die. Etc.

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Other unlockables include a variety of different colour schemes, in case the sepia-like default tone doesn’t work for you. This one might arouse feelings of nostalgia in old-school gamers, but it’ll cause most everyone else to shoot blood from their eyes.

Special mention has to be given to the game’s attention to detail, too. Every possible combination of ship parts results in an entirely unique name for the resulting craft, and every individual ship part also changes the background music. So yes – depending on the craft you’re flying, the music sounds different. It’s a hell of a thing, not least because I’ve never noticed it sounding wrong. It all fits, beautifully.

Unfortunately, Luftrausers is also a game with a bit of an identity crisis, and “getting a high score” often requires an entirely different mode of play to “completing missions.” Making it a bit more problematic is the sheer randomisation; you might need to blow up a submarine, but can’t get one to spawn for love nor money.

I call this randomisation, but I can’t be certain. A lot of games of this ilk tend to have some sort of trick to enemy spawning, but if there’s one here, I’ve got no damn idea what it is. Near as I can tell it doesn’t matter what enemy types you focus on destroying, whether you try to get a high combo or not, whether you try to get a high score or not, whether you wait around without destroying things… and not knowing what, if anything, triggers particular enemies makes completing missions a crapshoot.

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After a few rounds of SMFT mode, going back to the relatively tranquil base game can be incredibly soothing.

The randomisation also factors into the difficulty in another way, which is that you can die rather unexpectedly. You don’t really get much in the way of cues as to where enemies are when they’re offscreen, or where they’re firing from, and the narrow view and relatively fast movement of your plane – plus the inertia, and the resultant turning circle – means that a lot of successful runs will suddenly end without warning when you barrel into a load of gunfire from offscreen that you simply couldn’t see coming. Again: frustrating.

This is exacerbated in “SMFT mode”, which Super Crate Box players will remember as “a bonus mode that made things even more ludicrously hard.” This? This is harder. To put it into perspective, I think that my average game length in SMFT mode is probably about 10 seconds. Enemies spawn constantly and everywhere, and they fire a whole lot more. Sod getting a high score: surviving is hard enough on SMFT mode. It’s frustrating enough that after one half-hour session of trying to complete a single SMFT mission I was making plans to carve “SMFT” into the forehead of whoever designed it.

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This is SMFT mode when it’s feeling generous. This is also about 11 seconds into a game.

For all of this, Luftrausers is generally at its best when you’re ignoring the missions and going for points. Pick a random ship or your own favourite design and then fly the unfriendly skies, again and again, pirouetting and diving through the air and blowing up countless boats, battleships, planes, jets, aces, submarines, and perhaps a blimp or two – or even a rather more secretive and unlikely foe. When you’re simply playing for the sheer joy of flying, Luftrausers is a glorious marvel. It’s when you’re trying to accomplish specific goals that it seems to fall apart a bit.

Much as I’ve spent half a page complaining, and much as it can be an utterly infuriating game, I like Luftrausers a whole lot. It lacks a few little tweaks that would put it up there with something like Geometry Wars in terms of being a perfectly designed time-sink, but as a tricky aerial combat game, it’s a wonderful little near-gem – as long as you can deal with a bit of frustration.

Tim McDonald
Tim has been playing PC games for longer than he's willing to admit. He's written for a number of publications, but has been with PC Invasion - in all its various incarnations - for over a decade. When not writing about games, Tim can occasionally be found speedrunning terrible ones, making people angry in Dota 2, or playing something obscure and random. He's also weirdly proud of his status as (probably) the Isle of Man's only professional games journalist.

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