Jet Lancer’s blue skies recall classic scrolling shoot-‘em-ups like U.N. Squadron and Aero Blasters, but its biggest influence is something far less colourful – the monochrome 2D dogfighter Luftrausers. The stark aesthetic and accomplished air combat of Vlambeer’s 2014 title is encased here in warm brightness, a mission-based structure, and boss encounters. It’s an alluring proposition. Yet Jet Lancer’s execution lacks the clarity of its palette.
The simple pleasures of Luftrausers transfer across to Jet Lancer well enough. Rotate and thrust controls enable looping turns to throw missiles off the scent, or audacious 180-degree spins that see you coasting backwards, unleashing your cannons on a pursuing assailant. It’s a shame then that the compact chaos of Luftrausers is somewhat lost in Jet Lancer’s broad play areas, as enemies spread out and disappear from view, leaving you shooting vaguely at icons dotting the edge of the screen. Too much time is spent chasing down stragglers, and unavoidable collisions are common, as unseen combatants suddenly cut across your flight path.
Some fancy moves and weapons help counter these inconveniences, but they distract and overcomplicate as much as add meaningful depth.
Victories rely heavily on deploying missiles and special weapons, which in practice usually means monitoring two separate cool-down timers to fire them as often as possible. As for defence, a barrel roll dodge manoeuvre is often most effective if you constantly hammer the button instead of trying to time reactions to threats. And while there are plenty of unlockable upgrades available, few force you to rethink your play style or feel like worthwhile improvements over the earliest available parts.
Different mission objectives similarly add variety but little sense of evolution. Whether you’re shooting waves of sky pirates, taking out specific targets, or escorting a ship through dangerous territory, you’re usually fending off swarms of insect-like planes. Occasionally there’s a bigger twist, like when using your weapons attracts the attention of an enemy super-laser, but these are more extra irritations than interesting challenges.
Difficulty is also imbalanced, with extreme spikes, especially in a couple of missions that require you to attain a certain points tally in a three-minute time limit. It’s possible to spend hours repeating these, performing near flawlessly and still failing to reach the absurdly high targets. For a game that’s otherwise mildly to moderately challenging, and has accessibility options including invincibility that make many stages unfailable, it’s a large oversight to gate progress behind these arbitrary tests of skill and luck.
The basics of dogfighting in Jet Lancer are still enjoyable, and the breezy presentation remains attractive. But a game about the skill and bravado of jet fighting shouldn’t be so clumsily uneven or struggle so much to express itself. Sometimes blue sky thinking creates as many problems as it solves.
Boss fights are a welcome change from plane-to-plane combat, and while some are underwhelming, a few are satisfyingly ambitious. The pick is a huge mechanical spider, which stomps over the landscape, chucking out all kinds of projectiles. It’s also a solid but fair challenge, which rewards careful planning and flying.
A sleek jet hampered by excess baggage and unwieldy systems.
Genre: Shoot-‘em-up | Format: Switch (tested) / PC / Mac | Developer: Code Wakers | Publisher: Armor Games | Price: £13.49 | Release: Out now