Monday, 18 March 2013

REVIEW - Bit.Trip presents RUNNER 2 (XBLA / PC)

So, Bit Trip Runner finally gets its well deserved sequel. The infinite runner was by far the greatest asset of the Bit.Trip series of games, as well as being one of the shining stars of the Wiiware service. Now the star of the show, Commander Video, is back with an assortment of oddball chums for another forced scrolling adventure in twitch platforming.

For those of you unfamiliar with the infinite runner genre, a brief synopsis may be in order. Basically, it plays much like a 2D platformer such as Super Mario Bros on NES, but instead of exploring the game at your own pace, the screen constantly scrolls to the right, with your character in a fixed position. This means you must use the abilities of the character in question to avoid the many pitfalls thrown at you from the right side of the screen, be they jumping, ducking, blocking and so on. 

Commander-Video is joined by some super friends

The genre has seen a boost in popularity due to  being perfectly suited to touch screen mobile devices – even the classic Atari game, Pitfall!, has been rebooted into an infinite runner. But Bit.Trip Runner made the genre its own by creating a game that is as much about music and rhythm, as it is about quick platforming skills. The sequel sticks closely to the formula set by its predecessor, though ramps everything up a fair few notches. The first thing that strikes you is the massive visual improvement over the first game. Gaijin have done a sterling job giving the graphics a more modern and appealing look, while still retaining its retro charm. Commander Video is no longer a homage to 8-bit sprites, but a fully fledged 3D model, as are all his friends, and the enemies that stand in your way. The backgrounds are a treat for the eyes. Colourful, vibrant and full of life, a cross between a Saturday morning cartoon and the enchanting areas of Super Mario World.

The first world is a dream-like sky stage

The sound is, again, intrinsically linked to the gameplay – hence the Rhythm part of the long-winded title – with each music track building in intensity as you collect the red plus symbols located throughout the stage. The tracks manage to be a hypnotic mixture of energetic and chilled out, and are pleasing to listen to, but it would have been nice to have had some more pumping tracks. The selection on offer can often feel quite sedate compared to the frantic action on screen. The sound effects bleep and bloop along with the on-screen action and are in sync with the track itself, meaning you can get into the flow of jumping ducking and dodging in time with the music.

Jumping over the new mid-stage checkpoint awards big points

The goal is, as always, to reach the end of the stage without hitting anything. Collecting the gold pieces is not mandatory but will reward you with a perfect rating, and the option of firing yourself from a cannon for bonus points. As well as his previous abilities, Commander-Video has plenty of new tricks up his sleeve. After completing World 1 he is granted the new ability to strut his funky thang with the tap of the right trigger. His dance moves (and those of his unlockable friends) are suitably ridiculous and will raise a smile, but they also award points each time you do them, meaning score chasers will be shaking their booty at every available opportunity as they dash through the stage.

Collecting every piece of gold in a stage lets you fire your character 
from a cannon in order to obtain bonus points

Additional obstacles are added to the stages, such as loop-de-loops that you must swirl the right thumb-stick along with to score highly, airborne obstacles that must be fly kicked out of the way, rails to grind or hang from and many more. Each new object is introduced at a steady rate that feels natural and it never overwhelms you. The same can be said for the difficulty level. One of the main criticisms of the first Runner title was its unforgiving difficulty, and while the sequel will have you shouting expletives at the screen in the later stages, the first half of the game is a lot easier going for those with quick reactions. Gaijin have added the option to change the difficulty level at any time, and there are new mid-level checkpoints to soften the blow of a last minute collision as you near the end of a stage.

The game has a zany sense of humour throughout, from the silly dance 
moves and character costumes, to these adverts that pop up

The game comprises of 6 Worlds, presented in a world map style familiar to those of you who enjoyed Super Mario World. Many stages contain alternate routes to the exit, increasing replayability and making the game far more interesting than the first Runner game. Also important is the key vault stage on each world that, once beaten, make previously transparent large keys appear throughout many stages. Going back to one of these stages allows skillful players to find hidden costumes and unlockable friends that can be accessed from a character select screen. The characters and their bizarre outfits are also pretty amusing, though the half fish man's swinging nads are pretty disturbing in a Ren & Stimpy kind of way.

The world map is a nice throwback to classic platform games from the SNES era. 

Many of you will be sad to hear that the Atari 2600 style bonus stage that awaited you at the end of a perfect run is gone (booo!). To be replaced with even cooler 16-bit SNES style hidden levels (yay!), discovered by locating hard to reach golden Famicom cartridges in certain stages. These are outstanding, and remind me of classic 1980's arcade games such as Wonder Boy and, as such, are a real highlight. Less impressive are the rather tedious cannon blasts at the end of a perfect level completion.

The amazing 16-bit bonus stage in all its pixellated glory

Runner 2 offers a lot for replayability for score chasers. Jumping over the new mid-way checkpoints awards players with a massive score bonus, while collecting every item, taking the harder routes and dancing at every chance will see your final score skyrocket. The online leaderboards, including close comparison micro-leaderboards shown at the beginning and end of the stage will keep you dedicated to beating your friend's scores or just getting as high as you can overall.

One of the boss encounters that await you at the end of each world

The game does have some problems that mar the overall experience, though. The main issue is the amount of visual clutter. For a game requiring pinpoint timing and pixel perfect jumps, there are far too many deliberate distractions. Checkpoint characters dance around in your way as you pass, stop signs explode when you hit them, firing massive pieces right in your line of sight, and giant creatures run around alongside you in the background, drawing your eyes away from what matters. These are clearly put here to artificially increase the difficulty and take away from the pure test of skill the game should be.

Stages contain multiple routes which is a great change over 
the predecessor's linear stages

Equally irritating is the entirely unnecessary use of Charles 'Itsa meea, Mario' Martinez, whose unique vocal styles are used throughout. The cut-scenes themselves are pretty amusing but I draw the line at having him introduce himself by name every time you start the game. With a title as long as Bit.Trip presents Runner 2 - Future Legend of Rhythm Alien, it takes too long and is unskippable. It soon begins to feel like the scene in Ground-hog Day when Bill Murray meets an annoying former associate over and over again, culminating with Bill punching the guy in the face. After hearing the Runner 2 intro for the umpteenth time, you will begin to relate.

Slide-jumping between narrow gaps gets the pulse racing

Gripes aside, Runner 2 is the perfect follow up to the original and easily surpasses its predecessor in every way. Gaijin have really developed the usually simplistic genre into something with a lot of depth and a tremendous amount of replayability. It can be enjoyed by casual gamers as much as seasoned platform addicts with a penchant for high score chasing. Runner 2 will make you smile and it will make you swear out loud, but it will keep you coming back as it is such a hypnotic and enjoyable experience.

The Good

  • Excellent new visual style
  • Perfectly synced rhythm platforming
  • Multiple routes and lots of secrets
  • Online leaderboards and addictive score chasing potential
  • Awesome 16-bit bonus stages

The Bad

  • Intentional visual clutter can confuse during gameplay
  • Could have used more energetic music
  • Hi, I'm Charles Martinez and... arrrrgh!

Developer : Gaijin Games
System Reviewed : PC & XBLA
Also Available On : PSN, Wii-U
Price : £11.99 / 1200 points

Thanks to the kind folks at Gaijin Games for providing a PC and XBLA version to review.