Review: Luftrausers (**** stars)

Luftrausers gives me mixed signals. Sepia-toned warfare from the Super Game Boy never looked or smacked you upside the head in quite this experiential a way, yet it lacks something in the execution. Let me explain.

On the one hand, the game itself contains tons of lovely, unique friction. Controlling the planet provides the experiential quality of being in a dogfight, the gravity of letting your planet fall and stall from the sky, and the subsequent rush when the thrust kicks in from your jet to bring you in a parabolic trajectory back up into the sky. You control the planet itself by tilting the nose left and right, while boosting with a separate button; along with the weight of the planet, it all melds into gloriously juicy and crunchy mechanics of flight. You start understanding how to swoop around, and like Super Mario 64’s physics, what once seemed strange and unwieldy works like a feat of intense man-hours and engineering. Some things are hard to put into words, and that’s true of Luftrausers; a hands on approach sold me on it!

Think of it like this: a review cannot encapsulate what makes Luftrausers fun to play, nor why it is fun to play. You just need to actually try it yourself. That does make the rest of this review pointless in a way, but I find it difficult to know what I want until I actually get my hands on it, especially video games. Luftrausers, to me, seems designed for “gamefeel” and little else. I like to think of it in the sense of prayer: sometimes, what exactly you pray for doesn’t come out right, or the words just don’t nail it. Human language fails to convey what, exactly, you mean as interpretation gets in the way. Yet, the Holy Spirit never fails to know what you, exactly, pray.

26 In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; 27 and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the [j]saints according to the will of God.

Romans 8

So now, let’s try to put unspoken things into words, groveling in the dark for the correct language to convey it!

One of the best things about Luftrausers isn’t the shooting – which I find merely competent for a game like this. Rather, it’s the object collisions. Playing this with a controller, any contact with enemy bullets or craft (land or air) makes the screen shake and shatter with unbelievable visual feedback. It feels like the entire world is exploding for a moment, and if you deal enough damage this way you get surprisingly satisfying feedback from its sudden explosion. That goes for the Nuke as well; it’s a perfect capstone to a run as everything dies from a giant skull-shaped mushroom cloud.  The guys at Vlambeer really know how to knock your pleasurable feedback centers, especially given that the perfect sound effect design integrates into the music backing track. Plus, due to the minimalism of the interface, getting into another game takes about five seconds total, which works wonders for keeping the high going.

There’s an ebb and flow to the combat which naturally arises out of the health system which adds another layer to all of these elements. You never die in one hit – well, except for certain craft. Rather, you take damage and the screen indicates to you how close you are to death through encroaching circles. This works wonderfully well as a visual indicator, and you can always tell when you need to boost to the skies. The only way to recover health, interestingly enough, comes from not shooting or boosting; thus, you need to plan when and where you want to recover without getting blasted to bits by battleships. That flow makes every Luftrausers game engaging, even if you happen to play it horribly (like myself!). All of this just seamlessly works together to create quite a game!

Unfortunately, Vlambeer lack the know-how to take all of this great stuff to the next step – namely, attaching a game to it. Because random generation of content (read: enemies) seems all the rage now, we have that in Luftrausers. At the same time, Luftrausers motivates you towards total offense through its scoring system. Kill one enemy, bump the multiplier up a point. The score multiplier goes up to 20x (indicated by giant letters spelling MAX on it), and the only way to keep your score bonus comes from continuing to destroy enemies. You can see where this is going.

The optimal way to score that I found consists of waiting for lots of tiny enemy spawns, especially ones that dies in a few hits, and keeping them on screen for as long as possible. Then, you use them to prolong the multiplier while you destroy bigger enemies. Individual kills work best to prolong the multiplier. The problem comes in ships and bigger aircraft like the blimp, which take tons of hits to kill and only contribute one to the multiplier. Optimal scoring somehow works antithetical to an approach of pure offense, instead trying to camp stuff the whole time. Far too frequently, you can never form a good scoring strategy due to the lack of quick enemy spawns, which really frustrates you when you MAX out the multiplier with nothing to use it on.

I should probably also mention the weapon and ship variety. Far as I can tell, the various plane loadouts all fall under the same scoring rubric, so I can’t imagine the leaderboards showing much, if any, consistency on that note. That also adds to the scoring problem – why bother if there’s so many weapons. Are they balanced? I have no idea! But I imagine that we could call it difficult, with any consistency, to attach a score to random generation and over 120 combinations of plane loadouts without it seeming hollow.

So really, I am just left with survival mode instincts, and I am fine with that. You might just say that it lacks some kind of framing device to make your efforts worthwhile. All the work went into the feel rather than anything else; unlockables don’t provide enough incentive. But how long will the majority of people keep playing after a few hours of dogfighting fun? Probably very little. The incentive for mastery just isn’t there, and that’s quite a shame.

It’s rare that you find a game so innately satisfying in an endless mode like Luftrausers, and that is exactly what you get if you buy it. Whether you think it will satisfy you depends on what you want out of a video game – frictions, scoring, framing devices, or what? As such, just play it; that will go a long way to see where your real priorities lie regarding video games in general. As for me, this hits the above-average range just from the sheer joy and exuberance every round of Luftrausers provides.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.