Platforms: PC (reviewed) | Wii U (eShop) | PSN & XBLA versions incoming
Developer: Gaijin Games
Jump kick slide jump jump block slide jump jump jump die.
Again. Again! Just one more go. I'll nail it this time. Or the next time.
Of all the BIT.TRIP games, Runner is usually the one we remember most fondly. Equal parts execution challenge and bold musical experiment, the original retro-tough retro-styled platformer battered our retinas and reflexes as we guided CommanderVideo through a maddening gauntlet of foes, pits and traps. Every jump, slide and spring fed into a dynamic and evolving soundtrack that tied into the gameplay rather than just accompanying it. And despite the masochistic difficulty level, we just kept on running... and running... and running... regardless.
BIT.TRIP Presents... Runner2: Future Legend Of Rhythm Alien (we'll call it Runner 2 from now on) builds on its predecessor in every conceivable way. If the original BIT.TRIP Runner was just a component of a six-game synesthesia experiment, Gaijin's sequel stands on its own merits as a fully-fledged and exquisite gaming experience. It will blow your mind, in any sense of the phrase.
The core gameplay experience remains largely unchanged. Throughout 120 main stages and five boss encounters, CommanderVideo automatically runs from left to right towards a beckoning finish line. However, the deceptively simple 2D courses are littered with insane collections of enemies, barriers, hazards, pits and traps; any of which will send our hero back to the start of the level with his pixelated tail between his legs. Players are entrusted with jumping over foes, sliding under narrow gaps, gliding over chasms, leaping up springboards and collecting enough gold bars to secure leaderboard-worthy scores. As before, every action you perform adds a note or tone to the background music, which builds from a simple electronic beat into a glorious crescendo as you progress through each stage.
New moves such as blocking (a neat tip of the cap to BIT.TRIP Beat) and loop-the-loops fit nicely into the Commander's existing skillset, expanding the gameplay experience and feeling natural on a console controller. The keyboard controls can take a little getting used to - and there's no option to rebind - but the action is much more responsive and immediately engaging than we saw in the original game. If you fail, it's because you screwed up, plain and simple.
You will fail, of course. The core experience is still incredibly tough, but Runner 2 features a much smoother and more satisfying challenge curve than its predecessor. New mechanics are introduced at a considerate pace throughout the early game, and hazards are gradually assembled into ever more horrific configurations, giving you chance to hone your skills naturally rather than running straight into a difficulty spike. Later levels can take dozens of attempts to complete (let alone master with 100% gold bar completion), but the responsive controls, quick respawns and new mid-mission checkpoints turn potential aggravation into compulsive lust for self-improvement.
This fusion of accessible score attack gameplay with stiff difficulty and an evolving soundtrack makes Runner 2 a ruthlessly addictive proposition, both frustrating and utterly satisfying in equal measure. That elusive 'just one more level' factor is back in force, as there'll always be just one more gold bar to collect, or one more friend to dominate on the online scoreboards. And, more to the point, it's just damn good fun.
A new visual style helps to seal the deal. A far cry from the 8-Bit pretensions of the original series, Runner 2 provides a colourful 3D world to charge through, comprising of several thematic zones with gorgeous animated background elements. Whether you're running through a merry sky zone populated by grinning blobs or a lush Caribbean paradise, your senses are constantly being seduced, massaged and pummeled by a ceaseless barrage of stimuli. Admittedly this extra level of detail can sometimes be a little distracting, but the sharply-defined foreground is usually easy to pick out in front of the soft-focus backdrop. CommanderVideo has never looked better, and three dimensions rather suit him.
We've even got a little story this time around, courtesy of irrepressible narration from Super Mario himself. Well, voice actor Charles Martinet at any rate. Marinet clearly relishes every minute of his role, hamming up a brisk and humorous plotline that apes classic Saturday morning cartoons at every opportunity.
Despite this injection of visual flair and personality, Runner 2 is still a stern execution challenge that prioritises reflexes, pattern recognition and muscle memory. Business as usual, perhaps, but Gaijin's biggest innovation is also their most subtle. Every once in a while, players have the opportunity to act instead of react.
Many levels feature branching paths that offer the same number of gold bars and powerups, yet feature totally different obstacles and unique challenges. One route might provide a relatively easy selection, whereas the other rewards surviving an insane death alley with a new costume or character. Hidden retro warp zones require you to fight your reflexes and think about how to access their portals, rather than automatically running through the 'correct' path in the 'correct' way. Unlockable keys challenge you to revisit previously completed levels for extra loot, while experiencing totally new routes and pitfalls. You can also decide whether to run through a mid-mission checkpoint or jump over it, granting a stonking point bonus that will dissipate along with your lost progress should you wipe out towards the end of the level.
This player choice and agency, limited though it is, elevates Runner 2 to new heights. It's intoxicating and empowering. Runner isn't just a mad dash to the finish line any more, instead it's a game - our game - to explore and experiment with beyond crushing the leaderboards. Which is, of course, still a devastatingly addictive pursuit in and of itself.
Replayability has also been increased a thousand fold. We've got bonus levels to unlock. Characters to find, and costumes to customise them with. Multiple routes. Keys. Chests. Runner 2 is absolutely packed with fun and polished content, more than earning its price tag.
Beyond the lack of customisable keybinding and the occasional distracting scenery object, my only major gripe with Runner 2 is more of a personal observation rather than a flaw. It might even be a concession of weakness on my part. But I feel compelled to tell you that the combination of intense concentration and detailed parallax backgrounds can sometimes become mind-blowing in a rather unpleasant way. After playing for a couple of hours on the trot, sitting close to my PC monitor rather than lounging in front of the telly, I started to suffer from a nagging headache and a little motion sickness. I then stopped playing, walked outside, and it went away.
This isn't Runner 2's fault, and it's important to play any videogame in moderation (I daresay that most of you won't want to play it as intensively over such a short period as us reviewers). Just be aware that you might need to give your brain a rest from all the awesome once in a while.
- Responsive twitch gameplay with new skills and branching levels
- Colourful art design and fantastic evolving soundtrack assault your senses
- Absolutely packed with replayable content
- Fiercely, maddeningly, wondrously compelling
- Some background scenery elements can be distracting
- No keyboard rebinding
- Extended play can melt your brain
The Short Version: BIT.TRIP Presents... Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien will become a joyful and inescapable new addiction, so long as your fragile mind can handle it.