Ever since playing Super Meat Boy upon its release, the idea of Bit. Trip Runner enticed me. Playing as Commander Video, an unlockable character in Edmund McMillen’s 2010 instant classic, made me wonder what kind of world this goofy little dude inhabited. His design is instantly recognizable, easy to draw, and memorable: all elements of a perfect mascot. But my journey to the realm of Bit. Trip would remain on hiatus until this very release. I was never particularly drawn to the series, because the idea playing an auto runner in a world filled with so many amazing platformers seemed a waste (which is a shame, because Runner2 is an incredible game). So I bit the bullet on Runner3, finally delving into a world I was completely unfamiliar with. For those of you out there in a position like mine, this one’s gonna be hard to recommend.
Runner3 opens with absolute lunacy: a two-odd minute advertisement for Boil Foil, an imaginary aluminum product designed to treat boils, voiced by Charles Martinet (the voice of Mario and that one dragon from Skyrim, among other things). This is one of several faux-advertisements that might greet players when they first boot up the game. I laughed aloud at the idiocy of the thing, and it reminded me of a one-off South Park bit in its delivery. I figured I was in for quite the ride.
The game briefly introduces its story with a cute (and skippable) marionette play. Then you’re off to the races: races which have just one speed and are filled with treacherous pitfalls and hideous monsters. Stages are loaded with horrific, surreal set pieces and backdrops themed around their respective world’s aesthetic. The artstyle feels like a remaster of a PS2-era title like Psychonauts, filled with whimsy and artistic confidence. It’s not the most gorgeous thing to look at, but its uniqueness gives it some merit. Just like our protagonist, it’s unmistakably Runner.
Runner3, as I mentioned before, is hard to recommend to series newcomers. That’s not because it’s a bad game, it’s just a really, really hard game. About half way into the first world I was dying upwards of 20 times a stage, and these suckers are long. There’s just one checkpoint in each level, and often some of the most difficult obstacles come just moments before them. This challenge is surely welcome to those who played the other games (if I had to guess I would say it’s a linear progression from Runner2), but it can seem a tad harsh to those unprepared. When the very first stages require multiple, overly-long drudges through hazards you’ve mastered just to get to the one part you need practice in, it can be undeniably maddening.
There are a plethora of ways Runner3 pushes its mechanics, which are deceptively simple at first glance. As your character runs, you can jump, slide, and kick your way through hazards. Aside from a quick drop that can be performed by holding slide in mid-air, that’s all there is to it. But the way these mechanics are woven together, forming patterns much like the melody of a song, is graceful and creative. There’s never an unfairness to Runner3, not in the sense that it “tricks” the player into dying. The difficulty that’s here is fair, it’s just that at times there’s so much to digest in a given stage you’ll find yourself needing to repeat it multiple times, making just a little more progress with each attempt. It’s similar to perfecting a song in a rhythm game, just a lot more punishing.
Even more of a reason to repeat any given stage are Gem Paths, alternate routes that score the player purple gems that can be used in shops to buy cosmetics. These more difficult routes take more of the skills the player has garnered during their time with the game into consideration, and offer a nice break when revisiting them. Runner3 also sports “retro” levels, unlocked by collecting a VHS tape in each world. These allow for freedom of movement, but it feels unresponsive compared to the rest of the controls. Unfortunately, these retro levels both look and play like a Flash game from 2005, but they’re necessary for unlocking some of the more flashy cosmetics.
I played Runner3 both on the big screen and in handheld mode, and there was no noticeable difference between either. This might sound like a good thing, but I did notice some frame-pacing issues which caused some irritable micro-stutter during my playtime, as well as long load times and a few audio glitches. On top of these, the unflattering graphics were marred by a distinct lack of anti-aliasing, with “jaggies” sharp enough to cut a diamond. These are by no means a deal-breaker, but they feel worth mentioning. On the whole, the game feels great in portable mode, but you might find obstacles a little harder to dodge, particularly when the perspective of the level changes to obscure them.
Don’t be fooled by its mask of whimsy, Runner3 is a brutally difficult game that pushes its simplistic mechanics to their breaking point. Some challenges come at unfortunate times during a stage, which can lead to some frustration, but mastering a level feels more rewarding for it. While a little rough around the edges, it’s a title deserving of commendation for standing at the front of the pack in a world saturated with games of its kind.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game. A copy was provided by Choice Provisions.