Remember when I said I wouldn’t expect something like in depth progression and storytelling in a game like Luftrausers? Yeah, about that…
Jet Lancer is an absolutely phenomenal game and I can’t believe I didn’t know about it sooner. No game has captivated me quite like this has. Since I first picked up the game, I could tell that it was going to be special, and now that I’ve completed it several times, gotten nearly all of the achievements (something I almost never do), and speedran the game (something I’ve never done before), I’m pretty comfortable in saying that Jet Lancer has become my favorite game of all time, even dethroning Ace Combat, something I love so much I wrote a 17,000 word article about it. If you like good, difficult games, you don’t need to read the rest of this, just do yourself a favor and buy it.
And now begins the rambling.
First things first, allow me to say that as easy as it is to look at this and say “Jet Lancer is like Luftrausers but better” (seriously, just look at the Steam reviews and count how many people compare it to that game in their first few sentences,) I think that does a disservice to both games. Luftrausers is a stripped down extremely minimalistic game by design, and that’s all it was ever meant to be. But Jet Lancer is far from minimalistic. Jet Lancer is not just more complex, larger in scale, more polished, more structured, more challenging, and more addicting, but it’s also a lot more ambitious. It feels less like a game developer’s idea for a cool mechanic, and more like someone’s dream brought to life. Maybe it’s not that big a deal for the developers and I’m just projecting, but it sure feels that way. The only thing these games share in common is that you have a jet, you shoot other jets, and you can turn your engine off sometimes. And they’re 2D. They’re both great but they’re not really comparable in my opinion, and I feel quite strongly about that.
Part of the reason for that is because while I’m capable of explaining exactly how I feel about Luftrausers and why, down to the details, I can’t do the same for Jet Lancer. The sheer quality of the gameplay has left me blown away, to the point that I can’t effectively analyze it anymore, even after so many playthroughs. I can pick out a couple things though. First, there is an absolutely insane amount of screen shake in this game, and the developers somehow managed to pull it off about as well as they could have. It adds so much impact, pumps you with so much adrenaline, but still manages to avoid detracting from the experience. When you’re new to the game, it’s bewildering and somewhat disorienting, but feels exhilarating and you want more. Once you’re experienced, you adjust to it entirely and it actually becomes useful visual feedback informing you of what’s going on around you. But if you just can’t stand the screen shake, you can turn down the intensity of it in the game options.
That feedback is very much appreciated though, because your plane dashes all over the screen and is hard to keep track of because of that already, and that’s before considering that not only is it very small, the screen is also absolutely filled with other planes, and while they do look visually distinct, you could be forgiven for looking at the wrong plane thinking it was yours early on. But here’s the thing… none of that matters, because you don’t need to look at your own plane at all. It moves in an extremely specific way, so as you play, you develop a feel of where you are and where you’re pointing. The more skill you develop at this game, the further away your eyes get from your plane, and that’s kind of amazing to me. Being a fan of racing and flying games, I’m intimately familiar with the concept of looking where you or your target is going to be rather than what’s directly in front of you, and Jet Lancer takes that concept to the furthest extreme, moving beyond foresight and into pure instinct. That’s when the screen shake becomes an asset, because by that point, you might be sniping enemies far off the screen without even looking in that direction, and the shake lets you know you hit.
But when you do pay attention and look at things, you’re rewarded with extremely stylish, gratifying, detailed, and beautiful visuals. Do not allow yourself to take the visuals of this game for granted, even if the beyond perfect sound design further allows you to operate on pure instinct alone, with distinct audio cues for everything important. Along those lines, the music in this game is also phenomenal in its own right. Fat Bard really hit it out of the park with the music and sound in this. But Nicolai and WhyNot of Code Wakers also knocked it out of the park with the design. The mechanical gore is absolutely stunning, the bosses are all amazing looking (sure, one may be just a big tank, and another may be just a square that spins, but I still think they’re cool) and everything just overflows with character and style.
The game is not easy though, so the journey from rookie to ultra instinct can be grueling if this isn’t the kind of game you’re accustomed to or pick up easily. While I recommend aiming to eventually beat the game with no training modules and on default settings, you can give yourself some breathing room with the accessibility options by increasing the evade window, halving the damage you take, or even becoming invincible entirely. You can also make it harder for yourself if you’re so inclined by removing the evade window entirely and turning off the UI in the same menu. Aside from that, there are other accessibility options there, like changing the minigun and the afterburner to toggles instead of press and hold, and disabling strobe light effects. You can also remap controls and such, or use a controller, but let me just say I have no idea how one could play this game with a controller when the mouse controls are just so, so tight… but I might buy it again on the Switch anyway and find out.
I mentioned training modules, and the reason you want to eventually use none of them is because you can only equip four modules in total, and there are three training modules. You unlock several others throughout your playthrough and new game plus, and some of them can change your whole playstyle on their own, like the dash module that replaces your dodge roll with a forward dash that deals serious damage and uses your afterburner meter. If you equip that along with the autoroll module, then you will still automatically perform dodge rolls, but only while using afterburner, so you have to manage that meter in a new way to balance evasion and offense. Alternatively, you can make your minigun shoot a lot faster in exchange for most of its range, or make it so much more powerful that it will propel you backwards slightly. Many of the modules have effects for specific special weapons, like giving unguided weapons a bigger hit area. Get good enough and you can equip the ace module, even when four modules are already equipped, and get slightly higher damage, speed, and maneuverability in exchange for dying in a single hit, perfect for when you’re chasing ace ranks on missions. There are a lot of different ways to play the game to keep it fresh.
That’s not to say Jet Lancer gets old though. It doesn’t at all. While there are a lot of the same mission types, and like most other games, can be boiled down to “shoot the things but don’t get shot,” just enough changes from mission to mission to keep that feeling of progression up, not least of which is the environments around you. Bosses are frequent enough to keep you always close to a big payoff too, and as I hinted at before, the bosses are all amazing and unique. Yes, even the spinning square. Ever wanted to fight a giant flying robot snake in a jet? Jet Lancer has you covered! There’s a story too. It may not be the biggest story, it may not be the best story, but I love it and you should too. Plot happens almost constantly after the first few missions are done, and while we’re not going in depth with any detailed character building here, they’re great portrayals of archetypes we all know and love and are easy to like, even if you don’t really connect with them. I will say that I didn’t feel any personal connection to anyone or anything in the story, and yet it still managed to have some kind of impact on me, so… maybe there’s something special in there I can’t see.
Let me warn you though, when you beat the game the first time, you might feel a little let down. You might also think it’s a great and fitting ending, I don’t know, but if you do feel let down at all, just trust me on this one: Go beat new game plus, and pay attention to the dialog near the end. If you still aren’t satisfied, well, at least you got good enough to get there at all, and that’s a pretty darn rewarding feeling.
Another warning, the final boss is absolutely not the most difficult part of the game, that would be mission 37. I don’t think this is a bad thing at all, and I don’t think you should feel that way either once you see what I mean. If anything, I don’t think adjusting mission 37 would benefit the game at all unless the final boss was then also made much more difficult, because fighting tons of different small targets all over the map at the same time will never be the same as fighting a single particularly dangerous target. Mission 37 is the true final boss, the rest is the victory lap, and that’s okay.
All of that was written before I even tried the newly added arcade mode because I was too busy speedrunning and chasing ace ranks. Arcade mode was a free update that added a whole new way to play, stripping you down to nothing but your gun and unguided missiles, and you get to choose from random upgrades after the end of waves if you survive. There are also three more playable characters now with their own planes that perform differently, and their own primary weapons replacing the minigun. I like playing as Lem a lot because he’s a total speed demon and the flamethrower weapon is maximum aggression, ideal for my kind of playstyle. As far as I can see, it’s endless, and the difficulty just keeps ramping up forever. Ever wanted to fight two separate bosses at the same time on new game plus difficulty WHILE fighting a wave of regular enemies? Now you can! What’s not to love?
I haven’t had a single complaint so far, and that’s what I do, complain about things. I had plenty of complaints about Ace Combat, but for this I have to stretch a bit to find any. There are only two things I can really bring myself to complain about, and that’s the fact that the automatic text during missions is kind of slow and can’t be sped up or skipped, and that the cutscene skip and mission result screen are also a bit slow. It would be a nice quality of life improvement to speed those up – or provide the option to do so – for people who beat new game plus and start going for raw speed, but at the same time, it’s not a big enough deal for me to feel the need to ask for it.
And so ends my ability to analyze Jet Lancer. I could ramble for a bit longer probably, but that’s probably not a good idea. Instead I’ll just close out the same way I opened up. Jet Lancer is an absolutely phenomenal game that I will never forget, and will now always hold a special place in my life. This two man team, Code Wakers, has created an absolute masterwork, a triumph of a game.