Steam (reviewed), Xbox Live Arcade, Wii U eShop, PlayStation Network (March 5).
Price: $14.99 (or 1200 Microsoft Points)
Bit.Trip Presents… Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien (or Runner 2) is the abundantly named and highly anticipated follow-up to the cult hit Bit.Trip Runner, produced by Gaijin Games.
It is a step away from the retro style games Gaijin usually produces, and a step towards modern, HD graphics and contemporary style. Runner (the first) was itself a step away from Gaijin’s usual style of lo-fi rhythm games that pay homage to the Atari 2600. Runner 2 keeps the roots of the Bit.Trip series in mind, while bringing something new to the table.
The first noticeable addition is a narrator, Charles Martinet, the voice of Mario since 1994. The game features an absurdist and minimalistic take on storytelling which is at times hilarious and at times just flat-out weird. Basically an “unfusion” beam out of nowhere sends our hero Commander Video into an unknown realm with no information other than some evil guy named Timble-Tot did a badness and needs to be stopped. Once the running is justified not much else is needed as regards the story.
The absurdism is most evident in the little things that surround the story. When launched the game is preempted by one of many joke advertisements, which are usually quite funny, such as “Pipp’s Lips Ships Chips.” During gameplay the background houses many more laughs. For example, in World 3 a Bigfoot wearing Daisy Dukes runs and jumps alongside the stage. I cannot foresee a person playing this game and not at least cracking a smile at some point.
Runner 2 also displays its absurdism in the playable characters other than Commander Video. We have what seems to be a drunk pickle and a German guy whose head is a cheeseburger (named Whetfahrt Cheesebörger), just to name a few. While the female playable character option is not absurd, her name certainly is—Commandgirl Video.
The game is first and foremost a rhythm game. Every successful move you make corresponds to a sound, which contributes to each level’s respective song. Each world’s music is themed around the setting. World 2 takes place in a tropical locale so it features music with a distinctive Caribbean flare. World 4 takes place basically outside of Bowser’s Castle, so it features industrial music. Despite the fact that each song in a given world is created from the same base, each one remains unique thanks to the complex layout of obstacles in a given level.
Because of the rhythmic aspect, it’s easy to slip into the belief that the game would be calculable and easy to master. In practise it only takes about two minutes to dispel this notion thanks to the same complexity which keeps the music fresh. Miraculously, this difficulty does not hamper accessibility, and the game never feels unfair. In fact, Runner 2 feels easier to play than the original. (By the way, if you play on PC, don’t let the game’s warnings fool you—the game plays well with just a keyboard.)
The game’s accessibility is due in part to the addition of mid-level checkpoints in both regular levels and boss battles. Nothing was more disheartening or frustrating than hitting an obstacle right before a level’s end and being sent all the way to the beginning. Now you only fly half-way!
The checkpoints are actually optional, and are the first indication of the game’s incredible openness and amount of options. The original Runner gave you one path, one way to beat a level, and so on. By comparison, Runner 2 features multiple paths of varying difficulty, some that lead to alternate exits, unlockable bonus stages, and even alternate ways to progress if you miss certain jumps. Often these options lead to rewards, like new characters or costumes.
With the addition of checkpoints also comes the addition of features that don’t innovate the game quite as nicely. There are a few new moves brought, but they don’t substantially deepen the gameplay. One is just a loop-de-loop which suggests that you smash the space bar as you run through it. I say “suggests” because if you don’t do it all you miss out on are points. The only “new” moves that added anything are the ones that just combine sliding with something else.
That said, a sliding kick is a much appreciated addition, the absence of which being a large source of frustration in the first game. I would have liked to see a kick that could be held more than a second though. That may sound unrealistic, but you can slide the entire way through a stage without any explanation as to where the momentum is coming from. Commander Video—he is only a man! How can he do that?
While the levels themselves are extremely varied, especially from world to world, the enemies are largely the same throughout, with minor variations. I would have appreciated more varied enemies to give the evil a larger scope. As far as I know Timble-Tot only has about 15 guys working for him. And the name “Timble-Tot” isn’t doing much for him in the way of instilling fear either.
Runner 2 does a fantastic job of bringing the series to HD, and does a lot for the game as far as story, music, and image are concerned, but fails to deepen the gameplay experience. That said, I don’t think it’s an experience that needs all that much deepening in the first place. Perhaps the game’s failures to do so are indicative of that, especially given the high level of creative and technical talent that Gaijin Games continuously demonstrates. Despite these minor short comings, Runner 2 is amazing where it counts, is amazingly playable, and is by far the best title in the Bit.Trip series to date. Final Score: 11.5/13