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Runers Review | The Spellbinding Of Isaac

Jonathan Lester
Dungeon crawler, Games reviews, Lets Get Kraken, Mastertronic, PC games, SHMUP

Runers Review | The Spellbinding Of Isaac

Platform: PC

Developer: Lets Get Kraken

Publisher: Mastertronic

At the end of the day, blasting a pixelated rat with a fireball doesn't feel hugely different from blasting a pixelated rat with a lightning bolt. Or a magic missile. Or a spiralling steam helix. No matter the devastating elemental spell at your disposal, you're still shooting rats in a box.

That's the big problem with Runers, which in fairness, brings some great ideas to the brainstorming table. As a Roguelike hybrid, it retains the procedural dungeon crawling and permadeath of its ASCII ancestor, but replaces turn-based tiles with a completely different core gameplay mechanic. In this case, top-down shooting a la Geometry Wars. However, in a neat twist, you'll choose from a selection of classes with different active spells and racial traits, then combine elemental runes to form totally new attack spells on the fly. One round you're a lizardman bard shooting out rock spikes and entropy missiles, the next you're a Dwarven Paladin wreathing the levels in flames.

It's a brilliant conceit that's fun for a while. Unfortunately, if we're honest, Runers' core SHMUP gameplay just isn't quite strong enough to prop up the rest of it.

Runers Review | The Spellbinding Of Isaac

Things start out rosy enough. Taking cues from D&D, you'll pick both a class and a racial modifier, which grants you a unique pair of active and passive abilities. Everything from randomly-directed arcane blasts to base stat increases and health regeneration is on offer, but usually balanced by some thought-provoking debuffs. Like the idea of randomly-assigned bonuses depending on how many rooms you explore? Sure thing... but beware that your stats can also dip to -18%. Want 80% health regen? Of course you do, but it comes with a 200% vulnerability curse. Meanwhile class skills run the gamut from melee charges to stun blasts and

Despite being a simple 'click, click, done,' process as opposed to half an hour of dice rolling and doodling character portraits, Runers' character creation is bound to satisfy any fantasy fanatic.

Runers Review | The Spellbinding Of Isaac

Perhaps the most important pre-game choice, however, is your starting spell. As my Icewind Dale magician used to say: "a little fire and lightning should liven things up!" Runers boasts a phenomenal amount of magical spells -- read projectiles and buffs -- assembled from runes you'll randomly pick up from fallen foes. These magical building blocks can be converted into attacks or combined together for differing effects, leading to an extraordinary number of potential projectile types. Think Magicka crossed with The Binding Of Isaac and you're partway there.

I'm not entirely sold on blending runes being limited by rare 'combiner' items. Unimaginative name aside, I appreciate that these items were implemented to force players to make tough choices with limited resources, but it sometimes feels like Runers is gating its most exciting feature behind an unnecessary barrier to entry. Never mind, though, because the continual acquisition of new and exciting weaponry, coupled with a randomised levelling system that lets you pick from 50 'traits', makes each run feel fresh and exciting.

For a while. Sadly Runers doesn't quite have the legs it needs.

Runers Review | The Spellbinding Of Isaac

The reason, sadly, is that Runers' SHMUP framework is decidedly primitive and inanely repetitive. Each boxy dungeon room tends to be either empty or chock-full of brain-dead foes who'll charge directly at you or hang back and fire incredibly damaging projectiles at you. Though a few enemies and some great bosses buck the trend with more interesting quirks -- such as skeletons who have to be crushed underfoot and burrowing nightmarish worms -- ennui doesn't take too long to set in despite the sterling efforts of a rousing soundtrack.

This needn't have been an issue; after all I've basically just described Geometry Wars. Unfortunately Runers' action is very primitive even by the standards of most independent games, lacking satisfying feedback between projectiles and enemies, slippery movement and uninspiring pixelated visuals. The lack of controller support is vexing especially given the placement of your two support spells, mapped to the 1 and 2 keys, which is patently ridiculous considering your hand placement. Worst of all, the early stages that you'll see at the start of every run contain the same rats, skeletons, rats, blokes wearing hoods, rats, bigger rats and more rats that you'll circle around over and over again. And again. And again. Oh look, a water mage!

Runers Review | The Spellbinding Of Isaac

Surprise is also lacking. Once the Rune combination system loses its sheen, each run can feel very similar indeed in terms of second-to-second minute-to-minute action, not helped by limp 'event' rooms being the only real way the game tries to vary up its challenge. These optional objectives also boil down to locked arenas, only with a slight gimmick such as a zoomed-in camera or having to clumsily corral hateful little dots into a vortex before they're eaten by a red rectangle. It's infuriating and painful, yet by far the most unique of these challenges!

Even so, though, your mileage with Runers will vary based on one important factor: how long and how often you play it. I've had to crush it for review during lengthy sessions, whereas little and often blasts will likely yield a more satisfying result. I freely admit that my review conditions might not have been optimal, so bear that in mind, though I didn't suffer from similar malaise while playing the likes of Realms Of The Mad God or Desktop Dungeons. There's fun to be had here, just don't let the SHMUP action overstay its welcome.


  • Character creation is simple yet deceptively deep and versatile
  • Spellcrafting system is great fun to mess around with
  • Compelling permadeath structure, at least for a time
  • Great soundtrack


  • Primitive and repetitive SHMUP action with uninspired visuals
  • Limp 'event' rooms; lack of surprises to keep you playing
  • Weak variation of foes and backgrounds, especially in early floors

The Short Version: Runers' deep character creation and excellent spellcrafting makes its sub-par shooting gameplay feel fresh and exciting... at least for long enough to get your money's worth. Approach in bite-sized chunks, and be sure to try the demo.

Runers Review | The Spellbinding Of Isaac

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