Are you a score chaser, always looking for bigger, better numbers? Are you a shmup die-hard that feels right at home in bullet hell? Are you a indie fiend who can never get enough of lo-fi visuals and chiptune audio? Well, buddy, do I have a PS3/Vita cross buy event for you. If Luftrauser doesn’t get your blood pumping, then I’m afraid you don’t have blood. For everyone else, especially those looking to dip their feet into the indie experience or are looking for a great portable title to dust of your Vita for, then do not sleep on Vlambeer’s latest – and dare I say greatest – offering.
You may remember Vlambeer from the zany mobile game Ridiculous Fishing. Like their award winning title, this game was once a flash experiment. Don’t let that dissuade you from springing the $10 asking price for this version though, the jump to big league consoles has provided a polish that the Adobe Flash edition didn’t have. This game runs brilliantly, and it better, because it requires you to be an air ace as soon as you hit the skies.
The gameplay is rather simple on paper. As a pilot in the air force of a military body eerily similar to the Third Reich’s Luftwaffe, you’re tasked with eliminating your enemies with extreme prejudice. Sounds simple enough, but as a sum of its very straightforward parts, the game reveals itself as the subtly complex bullet ballet it really is.
From the elementary press of the Up arrow (or up on the stick for “those” people), you are thrust into this steampunky sky madness. Square fires your weapon in the direction you’re facing, while the arrows change your facing during travel. If you can’t seem to avoid all of the fire you will be subjected to from various sources – other planes, battleships, and a big ass zeppelin, to name a few – then you’ll notice the pixelated plane in which you occupy begin to close in around you via a surrounding circle that shrinks as you accumulate damage. Need a breath of fresh air to regroup? Just stop firing, and avoid being hit, and your murder machine will be good as new.
There’s something oddly refreshing about this minimalist control scheme. You don’t focus on hitting the right button at the right time. Instead you focus on the things that matter, like not being turned into fascist sky scraps. It’s the sort of elegance only a mobile game developer can provide, and its overall effect on design is part of the games replayability. I can whip my Vita out anytime I have a few minutes and know that I won’t have to fight through too much interface or menus to get to the game-playing part.
Another example of smart mobile design choices making its way to the console space are the recurring tasks. Kill ten of ‘X’, five of ‘X’ in one game, etc. to gain points, level up, and unlock some of the myriad of upgrades you can receive for your kill craft. These little goals are usually key to unlocking real progress in the game, as well as adding little incentives alongside simply staying alive and killing for as long as possible. The main experience offers plenty to keep you busy, as gaining multipliers (that only grant you a score once it fades) drives you to dream big on your score runs, but adding a little extra is exactly the sort of push the title needs to avoid stagnation.
The customizability is also a key feature sure to keep potential pilots coming back. By changing the weapon system, chassis, and engine, you can create a craft that is wildly different from the last, a detail cleverly pointed out by the ever changing adlib-esque name your plane gets after its upgrades are locked in. As you unlock more options, you start to see that you can create a plane that can really tackle any particular challenge well. Want a heavy armor option for long encounters? There’s an upgrade for that, but you’ll sacrifice speed. Don’t really like dodging planes? Theres an upgrade that allows you to just run into them without taking damage. Sky’s the limit.
Another important limit: your attention span. If you’re the type that requires more than simple gameplay to hook you, you may be left wanting. The soundtrack is good, but unless you are a chiptune connoisseur or have a big retro appetite, it may sound like every other 16-bit soundtrack in indies nowadays. There is no story to speak of, which may be a blessing if you felt icky protagonizing as an Axis air annihilator. Those who were looking for characters and story for narrative motivation, though, will find nosuch here.
Even in the strictly mechanical space, there is turbulence. Sometimes, you just don’t have many enemies to kill. Whatever procedural generation algorithm science wizardry that should spit them at a gentle pace sometimes only supplies sparse sport for your needs. This can make killing things in rapid succession (and thus increasing your combo meter) pretty difficult. The way scores register can be a frustrating calculation as well, as it doesn’t immediately tally itself to your total. If you’re in max combo and are killed before coming down from your high; none of those points are banked. It stresses a pattern of aggression, then defense, then re-aggression, but that pattern seems somewhat counter productive.
Let it never be said that some genres are too old to improve on! Shooters are as old as gaming, yet Luftrauser finds new paths of innovation in the clouds. It’s frenetic and addicting, full of unique personality and a mechanical sophistication that makes the title worth notice. If these sort of games have never interested you, than Vlambeer’s latest will not change your mind. This game is simply an execution of similar shooter tropes in a near flawless way, and not a complete reimagining.