Developer Gaijin Games has made a name for themselves with the downloadable Bit.Trip series. Originally available on the Wii, with later ports to home computers, iOS, and the 3DS, the games were notable for incorporating rhythm-based gameplay and meshing it with various other genres at the same time.
Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien, while technically a sequel to previous games, particularly 2010’s Bit.Trip Runner, represents a major change in graphical presentation for the series. The gameplay, however, generally sticks to what worked in the first title, though there’s arguably a greater amount of variety in the included content. The final product is a very engaging and creative rhythm-platformer hybrid, that may be one of the first must-have downloadable titles of the year.
The plot in Runner2, though charming in its presentation, is minimal. A brief intro chronicles series protagonist and mascot Commander Video in pursuit of an enemy, when a “reality un-fusion beam” suddenly zaps him into an alternate dimension. From there, each set of themed stages gets a brief cutscene told in a whimsical cut-out paper style, complete with narration by actor Charles Martinet, best known to many as the voice of Mario. Though cute and never intrusive, the cutscenes are far too brief to either leave much of an impact or provide an incentive to keep playing. Thankfully, that’s what the actual game is there to do.
The alternate dimension angle provides an excuse for the total graphical revamp of the series Runner2 provides. Whereas earlier Bit.Trip titles used a heavily pixelated and low-resolution 8-bit style, this latest installment takes a leap into a fully 3D polygonal world. The result, while certainly different, ultimately works very well. With plenty of color and an overall lighthearted feel to its visual design, the worlds the game creates are quite imaginative and appealing.
The soundtrack also gets an upgrade from the original’s MIDI-esque songs to a larger variety of instruments. It’s a good thing that the songs are also appealing, as the music is a key component of the gameplay itself. Essentially, the game is an auto-running platformer, though unlike iOS games like Temple Run, the levels are finite and premade instead of endlessly being randomly generated. Commander Video, or one of various unlockable characters, automatically runs from left to right, with the camera scrolling alongside him. Players are unable to slow him down or change his horizontal direction, but they are still given a range of different moves to pull off, including jumping, gliding, sliding, blocking, and attacking.
Each obstacle that presents itself as the level progresses requires one of these moves to be pulled off. Certain enemies must be jumped over or attacked, certain projectiles must be dodged or blocked, and other items in the environment, like small trampolines or fans, can provide a vertical boost to reach higher parts of the levels for alternate paths and hidden goodies, of which there are plenty. Besides the ultimate goal of reaching the end of a level to unlock the next one on the world map, there are numerous collectibles that you’ll come across on the way. The most numerous are gold bars, which certain levels require a certain amount of to be unlocked for play. Score multipliers in the shape of red crosses also increase the point value of each item and action, as dodging and attacking enemies, and numerous other actions, also reward you with points.
The overall experience starts off slow to ease players into the way everything works, and eventually gets quite challenging and frenetic, requiring lots of split-second inputs and a healthy amount of trial and error. Thankfully, each level has a midway checkpoint, and there’s no limit to the number of times you can screw up. Not having the pressure of screwing up only a certain amount makes things a lot more enjoyable, and it’s quite easy to get into an overall groove the more you play. It’s the kind of game that won’t leave you thinking the game is cheap when you die. Instead, you’ll find yourself eager to conquer a level.
More cosmetic collectibles come in the form of new playable characters and outfits. Each new map houses an unlockable character awarded upon completing a certain level, and many more levels contain treasure chests that will give a specific character an alternate outfit. An interesting way of encouraging replay value comes in the form of the key vault levels. Certain level paths will be blocked off by large locks, which can be broken by collecting a floating key earlier in the level. The catch is that all keys will be initially inaccessible until a hidden level in each world is found and beaten. All of this is a neat way to extend the game’s replay value, though players hoping for meatier unlockables such as hidden levels and modes might be disappointed.
One final challenge comes in the form of bonus levels that manifest themselves in the form of old-school game cartridges in certain levels. When touched, gameplay switches back to a retro style closer to previous Bit.Trip games, albeit more like the Super Nintendo era than the NES or Atari. Gameplay still revolves around reaching the end and collecting gold bars, but unlike the more forgiving infinite lives system of regular levels, players only get three chances to beat a bonus level before being kicked back to the level select screen. An unfortunate downside of this is the fact that players may accidentally find themselves in a bonus level, and if they lose, they have to start the previous main level over from the beginning. It’s a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things, but still one worth mentioning.
One last thing to note regarding the Wii U version of Runner2 is the ability for off-TV play on the GamePad. While the game was still playable, the lower resolution of the GamePad’s screen, combined with the constantly-moving fast pace of the game, made for a constant blur effect that ultimately made things a bit harder to see compared to a regular TV screen. The Wii U version is certainly still a fine version to pick up, as the developer has confirmed that it has the fastest load times, but this isn’t the best title to make use of one of the console’s main selling points.
Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien is a quality title. Offering plenty of content, addictive gameplay that will leave you saying, “Just one more level,” multiple times, and a great visual presentation, the game provides plenty of polish, challenge, and overall fun. Considering that it’s being released on just about every modern home console, it should be easily accessible for most gamers who have a system of choice, and for a game as good as this, that’s a definite plus.
This review is based on the Wii U version.
With an appealing visual overhaul, engaging gameplay and plenty of content, Runner2 may be one of the first must-have downloadable titles of the year.