The Joylancer: Legendary Motor Knight

A game by Alpha Six Productions for PC, not yet released, available via Steam Early Access as of 2014.
The Joylancer: Legendary Motor Knight stars Joy Lantz, one of the eponymous Motor Knights, an elite corps of nearly indestructible champions with incredible strength and dexterity. Joy and her fellow knights make use of motorized weapons called Burst Arms to defend their lands and destroy their enemies. Unlike traditional melee weapons, Burst Arms must be charged in order to unleash their full attack power, and this translates directly into the core gameplay.

On its surface, Joylancer may appear to be a standard retro-styled action game with loads of chunky sprites awaiting their doom at the hands of the hero and her trusty blade… but this is not the case. The action is fast and enemies are tough, and if you attempt to button mash your way through, you will find yourself quickly overwhelmed and killed in the very first level. In order to cause any kind of significant damage to your enemies, you will need to master the art of charging your Burst Arm, as well as blocking and parrying enemy attacks. New players are highly encouraged to make their way through the detailed tutorial before starting the game.

The action is controlled using only two buttons, per retro standards, with one button assigned to JUMP and one to ATTACK. Your default attack power is very weak, allowing you to defeat only the most insignificant of enemies. In order to cause more damage, you need to charge your weapon. This is done by pressing DOWN and repeatedly tapping the ATTACK button, which fills up the Heat Meter and simultaneously allows the player to block most enemy attacks. The design choice to combine the charge and block functions allows the player to charge up during the battle rather than forcing him to find a safe area outside of the combat zone… which is often impossible.

The Heat Meter may be charged up to four power levels. The first and weakest level allows Joy to unleash a fast series of weak attacks, and this attack may be used without charging the meter. The second level lets Joy initiate a somewhat more powerful lunge attack that sends her sliding forward a bit. Level three is a lengthier 2-hit lunge, and at full power, Joy dashes across the screen with a powerful 3-hit combo. There is a lengthy attack animation for this, but all attacks may be manually interrupted by performing a charge, and some of the Heat Meter is restored when doing this.

In addition, Joy is able to perform a number of aerial attacks. Any of the aforementioned moves may be used in the air to tackle airborne foes, and the longer dash moves can be used to cross wide gaps and reach distant platforms. Joy also has a downward strike, which is initiated by pressing DOWN and ATTACK while in the air, and this can also be used to break through stacks of destructible blocks. There is also an upward dash attack that is more difficult to use, as it requires that the player press DOWN and ATTACK, followed by JUMP, and the height of the attack varies depending on the Heat Meter’s power level.

The controls for the upward attack are somewhat awkward, as pressing UP and ATTACK would seem to be the most direct equivalent to the downward strike. In combat, the DOWN+ATTACK+JUMP configuration allows the player to move directly from a charge into an upward strike, but using the technique during platforming sequences is troublesome. The technique requires the player to come to a complete stop and then initiate the three commands with the proper timing, which interrupts the otherwise speedy gameplay.

Combat techniques aren’t the only thing affected by the Heat Meter… Joy runs at a higher speed when the meter is fully charged, and destructible blocks require a moderate charge level to break through. Most combat techniques drain the meter back down to one unit after use, although the upward and downward strikes only use up a portion of the meter. Joy also has a sliding dash move that doesn’t use up any of the meter, and this move lets her slide through narrow openings and trip some enemies. In addition to manually charging the meter, the player may collect crystals, each of which immediately adds one unit, allowing Joy to power up on the go.

The game’s development is very much focused on honing the combat experience, and platforming design suffers as a result, offering a generally stilted experience. When running at full speed, it’s easy to mistime jumps as the graphical design of building rooftops features angled edges that aren’t actually platforms but rather a background detail. In general, there isn’t much contrast between foreground and background objects, so it’s often difficult to tell whether you can land on a platform or if it’s part of the background art.

Lastly, there are a couple of environmental navigation tools like zip lines and handles that have special functions, but these are handled awkwardly as well. Grabbing onto a zip line lets Joy move in a straight line, and the player may tap the ATTACK button to increase her speed; however, the player must also hold the JUMP button to avoid falling off of the line, as opposed to latching on and letting the player jump away at will, which is the more traditional design for this type of object.

There is a similar issue with the handles that let Joy perform a set of jumps similar to a wall jump; however, letting off the JUMP button causes her to automatically jump away from the handle, rather than having her grab it and initiating another jump with a button press. This is somewhat confusing from a control standpoint, as action is traditionally initiated with a button press rather than a button release.

Despite the basic control scheme, combat is highly technical. Since Joy’s Heat Meter is completely drained by most of her basic attacks, watching for openings in the enemy’s defenses and timing her attacks is crucial. This design is supported by a graphical flourish that informs the player of how they should respond to an enemy strike. If a blue circle surrounds the enemy, the player should attempt to block the strike. If large red ring appears around an enemy, the player should attempt to attack just as the enemy strikes, thus parrying the move.

If either of these techniques is successful, the enemy will flash and be stunned for a moment, allowing the player to move in and grab the enemy, spinning it high into the air and performing a huge body slam, damaging any surrounding enemies along the way. Since battles often occur in enclosed areas against large numbers of fast-moving enemies, this technique is key for crowd control, and it causes much more damage than any other direct attack. The player is also able to parry projectile attacks, which causes Joy to grab the projectile out of the air and send it flying back toward the enemy.

When fighting enemies, a traditional beat ‘em up meter appears in the HUD, showing the enemy’s level and remaining health (and potentially multiple health bars). Occasionally, the player will encounter regular non-boss enemies that are more powerful than Joy, and in these cases, the parry technique will not work. Instead, the player must work the enemy’s initial health bar down to drop it a level, and stunning the enemy opens it up to body slam attacks as well. The player can also perform a small backwards hop by jumping while attacking, allowing Joy to avoid powerful attacks from higher level enemies.

At the end of each level, a summary screen shows the player’s score and completion time, and offers bonus points based on the number of crystals collected, enemies killed, and number of attacks chained together, as well as a heavy penalty for each death. The end result is a letter rank. Players wishing to earn high scores are encouraged to string together as many attacks as possible without getting hit.

Unlike traditional combo-driven fighting games, the point multiplier in Joylancer is more akin to extreme sports titles… Each successful attack adds to the multiplier and increases the bonus, but taking one hit causes you to lose all of the points associated with the combo. If the player does not take damage or extend the combo for a second or so, all of the accumulated multiplier points will dump into the player’s total score for the level.

Joylancer is positively packed with graphical options, allowing the player to control a number of visual elements, from the position and style of the HUD, to the zoom level, to the number of graphical flourishes that appear during battle. Players also have full control over the color of the game, and they are able to choose between a number of preset themes or manually adjust each setting individually. Players who want a clear view of the action may turn off a number of particle effects and even toggle damage numbers on and off.

Additional gameplay modes include Motor Combat and Dark Palace. Motor Combat offers 4P offline versus matches in enclosed arenas with multiple characters to choose from. Dark Palace is a survival experience where the player moves through floor after floor of a tower, facing ever tougher enemies and attempting to get the highest score possible. Each floor has multiple doors, some of which allow the player to skip past certain floors and potentially avoid some battles, although his overall score may suffer as a result. In addition, some floors also offer health restoratives as a reward, so players may not always benefit from skipping ahead.

This article is based on an Early Access version of the game, so not all features have been fully implemented, and some of the aforementioned designs may undergo changes before the game’s final release. Currently, there is a partially-implemented overworld map that allows players to move between levels at will, and several themed areas are planned for the game’s final release. In addition, multiple playable characters are planned for the main game, although these are currently only available in the multiplayer mode.

The Joylancer: Legendary Motor Knight was developed by Alpha Six Productions, a studio founded in 2013 by TJ Thomas. Additional programming was provided by Jesse Burnett. Prior to founding his own studio, TJ provided pixel art for a number of games, including Telepath Tactics, Defender’s Quest: Valley of the Forgotten, Thor: God of Thunder (DS), and StarDrive.

The game was published by Digerati Distribution, which also published Slain.