Luftrausers is a game that's easy to get lost in. That's an odd thing to write, considering that the whole game essentially boils down to one killer mechanic mixed with a sepia-toned aesthetic. There's no big world here to explore, no quests to embark on, no storytelling of any kind. It's just a shooter, the kind that, at first blush, doesn't seem all that different than any other bullet hell brand of shooter released in the last couple of decades. But once you start flying one of Luftrausers' myriad ship types around its war-torn skies, something takes hold of you. Hours pass as you mix and match weapons and engines and body types, chasing after difficult goals, elusive blimps, and an ever-higher score. It doesn't matter that you're essentially engaging the same exact battle over and over again, because there are so many different ways to approach it. Every fight inevitably ends in the same fiery death, but the gameplay is so grippingly good that all you'll want to do is try and try again.
I'm not naive enough to assume that everyone who plays it will turn Luftrausers into an obsession, but I'm betting that most who do will at least lose a few accidental hours to it. It helps that jumping into the game is exquisitely easy. The tutorial is brief, showing you only the basic controls--up boosts your ship, letting go of the up button causes it to stall and drift downward, X fires your gun--before turning you loose in an aerial battlefield full of enemy fighters, homing missiles, and sea-bound attack ships. At the outset, you're given a basic machine gun weapon, and entirely functional body/engine designs. Those simple-sounding controls are a bit more challenging in a full-on firefight, in that balancing boost and stalling, while rotating your plane to fire at nearby enemies, takes some getting used to. At the bottom of the screen is the sea, and at the very top is cloud cover. Both are danger zones that do damage to your plane if you linger there too long. In effect, your task in Luftrausers is to boost, drop, and pirouette around the skies while trying to stay somewhere in the middle of the screen, dodging enemy fire and kamikaze pilots all the while.
This results in what at times feels like an aerial acrobatic routine. Of course, it's an acrobatic routine that requires you to gun down enemies in the process. Doing so is how you score points. Each kill ticks up a combo counter until you reach a maximum of 20x the base score. Going too long without killing an enemy causes the combo counter to reset, but at the same time, just holding down the fire button gives you no chance to regain health. Only by flying around sans any gunfire will your ship recharge, making for an ingenious little risk/reward system. Do you keep firing at that elite pilot that keeps haranguing you in the hopes of keeping your score high, or do you let off for a few seconds to ensure your survival?
As tough as all this sounds, Luftrausers' tight controls mean it won't take you long to get the hang of the basic mechanics. Where the longer-term challenge comes from is finding the right combination of weapon, body, and engine for the way you prefer to play. There are many varieties of each, which unlock as you progress and complete in-game challenges (shoot a number of enemies, kill an ace pilot at max combo, etc). Guns include spread shots, continuous laser blasts, and homing missiles that aren't super great at the whole "homing" thing. Bodies can allow you take more damage, negate crash damage, or even just launch huge, screen-clearing nukes when you die. Engine varieties offer speed boosts, underwater flying sans damage, or the ability to literally propel yourself with bullets. Mixing and matching ship types becomes its own little metagame as you try to find the combo that best suits your abilities. Not every single unlock is a winner, and there are several that I found just about zero use for whatsoever. But there are enough different unlockables to keep you trying different combos for at least a few hours, and using the randomization option can sometimes lead to winning combinations you'd never expect.
The game even makes subtle aesthetic changes depending on what combination of parts you put together. Each combination gives the ship a distinct look, and each comes with its own unique name which appears at the bottom of the screen when you first launch into battle. The soundtrack changes as well, blending different instrument tracks into subtle variances of the same high-tension battle anthems. These little alterations go a long way toward negating any feelings of over-repetition, especially given that, again, there's only one battle environment you fight in. It's a cool-looking environment to be sure, propped up by a variety of unlockable color schemes (some of which are great, others of which make the game difficult to look at), and a mostly smooth framerate. The only time the game chugs is when you're taking huge chunks of damage, and that seems to be more by design than anything else.
The only downside to Luftrausers' single-minded design is that once you've unlocked everything and found your winning combination of plane parts, your interest level may wane. A harder difficulty level can be unlocked by defeating one of the super-hard dirigibles that show up after surviving in battle for a while, but it's excruciating. Shooter masochists may love it, but most will probably just find it harrowing in all the wrong ways. That means that for most players, the reward for continuous play will simply be to unlock all the available parts, and work toward getting the highest score you can.
For me at least, that was enough to get me to spend nearly the entirety of Luftrausers' launch day firmly planted in front of my PlayStation 3, diving into battle after battle in hopes of increasing my spot on the leaderboards. And once I tired of that, I immediately downloaded the Vita version (the game is a cross-buy title, so buying one nets you both versions) and jumped right back in. I expect one day I'll burn out on Luftrausers, but for right now, all I want to do is stop writing this review and launch right back into its beautiful, bullet-riddled skies.