Platform: PC (£6.99)
Developer: Triple B Titles
Ring Runner: Flight Of The Sages is worlds away from your average space shoot 'em up. It looks like a fairly nondescript Asteroids clone on a cursory inspection, but as you can probably tell from that confusing and fussy title, there's a lot going on here.
This recklessly ambitious indie project is thirty hours of epic adventure spread throughout an enormous galaxy, buoyed up with writing of quality you never see in this genre. Its mechanics take inspiration from action RPGs, creating a versatile framework of attacks and classes supported by ship customisation comprehensive enough to make Chris Roberts blush. It's singleplayer, cooperative, competitive, procedural and beautiful. Ring Runner took more than half a decade to make, during which time three sibling developers stuffed it with everything they could possibly think of, from Steamworks support to fully-featured multiplayer that's as engaging as any MOBA out there.
Put simply, Ring Runner might be the best £6.99 you'll spend this month... even though you've probably never heard of it.
The story sees players waking up on a space station that's about to explode, missing a piece of brain and talking to a sarcastic computer lodged deep within their cerebral cortex. Gradually unfolding over 25-30 hours, the plot takes us from slavery to the subatomic level, charting a neat course between Sci-Fi and fantasy as the stakes continually ramp up and the galaxy opens out.
As mentioned, Ring Runner features the most impressive dialogue and writing I've probably ever seen in a top-down SHMUP; reminding me heavily of Bungie's Marathon and Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy in parts. A continual stream of one-liners and glib humour is definitely hit and miss (especially in what ought to be serious moments), but what's usually an afterthought scribbled in a .txt file is front and centre here, even tying in with a companion novel.
Despite its RPG pretentions, Ring Runner isn't a non-linear game or open world sandbox like Fusion Genesis. You'll still rampage around some discrete maps and arenas in classic SHMUP style to complete a range of objectives (usually "kill everything," though you'll thankfully encounter some pleasing changes of pace from time to time), but after the first four hours, a massive galaxy map lets you pick episodes to complete in the order you want. It feels huge, like an enormous universe you're genuinely exploring, despite being closer to Geometry Wars than Elite.
Gameplay-wise, Ring Runner builds on the basic Asteroids template (steer, thrust and shoot) with smart and substantial improvements such as heat, HUD callouts, shields, aiming vectors, inertial dampening and an arsenal of pants-dampening weaponry. What feels clunky at first masks accessible depth, providing scope for some slick manoeuvres that can leave your opponents chewing on plasma wake; zero-G air resistance-free moves that wouldn't be possible in a regular twin-stick shooter. It's mechanically solid, and provides the cornerstone for a truly excellent class system.
Ring Runner's ship customisation is sensational, taking its cues from fantasy RPG and MOBA archetypes to subvert what you'd usually expect from the shoot 'em up genre. There's something to suit every taste, from the hulking Arsenal hulls that bristle with weaponry to stealthy Rogues and even a range of insane reality-twisting Casters. The Grappler makes for a totally unique experience, trading in regular weapons for the ability to throw foes and objects around like toys. An embarrassment of researchable components, 400 abilities, insane pseudo-scientific Sage powers and modules let us take great pride and pains in our vessels, overwhelming at first, but providing a range of play styles and welcome depth once you've learned the ropes. Eventually you'll rip through legions of foes in a unique ship you've designed and earned, tailored to suit your every whim.
Sadly it takes a little too long to get to this point, which is one of Ring Runner's biggest problems. There's arguably too much of it (a churlish observation, if one that needs to be made), leading to several missions that feel like throwaway padding and a seriously slow start that delights in drawing out basic tutorials; forcing you into captivity as an unarmed gladiator when, frankly, we'd rather out there getting our hands dirty. This section is a great introduction to the Grappler, but lasts far too long and ought to have been an optional episode in its own right.
Our first five hours are slow, and likely to turn many players off before ever getting to the meat of things. "Why is the rotation speed so sluggish?," they'll ask. "Why are the ships so weak?" The answer to both questions is, "because you need to build a better ship, stupid," but Ring Runner takes far too long to let us loose and get to the point.
The point is utterly stunning, though, since Ring Runner proves to be surprisingly capable in the visual department. Once again, the first few hours give you little to feast your eyes on, but an eventual jaunt to a subatomic plane of existence suddenly showers us with gorgeous particle effects, impressive physics and lighting. As the hours roll on, the lush 3D backgrounds and attractive 2D ship artwork become ever prettier, especially when coupled with sumptuous ripples and gratuitous explosions. We like gratuitous explosions.
Never mind the graphics, though, because there's so much more to discuss. Several multiplayer modes let two local players control a single hulking ship, or take part in several procedurally-generated online challenge mode for fun and profit. Whether facing off against randomised fleets or holding off zombies, there's plenty of scope for tight teamwork and cooperation, seeing how different builds compliment each other. Finally there's the Space Defence League: a MOBA that lets you take your beloved ship into dangerous arenas and vie for supremacy with and against other players, all while feeding back into that superb customisation system. Be sure to watch this tutorial video for a taste of SDL in action... and you can even download it for free.
£6.99 feels like daylight robbery... since we're ripping off hard-working indie developers for six years of work and more content than we get in most £40-50 retail titles. It's astonishing.
Unfortunately, finding a multiplayer game can be tricky at the moment - and I suspect that Ring Runner may be enjoying fewer sales than it deserves to. Triple B certainly did themselves no favours with that nonsensical title, not to mention the optimistic release window that went up against the next-gen publicity storm with no fanfare whatsoever. With luck, their hard work will receive the acclaim - and the payout - that they've more than earned.
- Massive campaign, fun challenges and enjoyable multiplayer...
- ...backed up with solid gameplay, comprehensive customisation and RPG elements
- Surprisingly pretty and polished, eyepopping effects
- Strong writing in the main (considering the genre)
- £6.99 is an absolute steal, multiplayer is free to download
- Very slow start, awkwardly-paced and occasionally padded
- Hit & miss humour can occasionally backfire
- Ship design and customisation can be overwhelming
- Needs more players (i.e. you)
The Short Version: Ring Runner: Flight Of The Sages is superb, a veritable Christmas present that blends hectic shoot 'em up action with an enormous RPG campaign, robust customisation and a bevy of modes.
For £6.99, it feels like we're robbing the developers blind, and getting a huge amount of polished epic adventure, multiplayer and customisation for peanuts. With luck, Ring Runner will receive the attention and plaudits it deserves.