Certain genre’s feel like they’re of their time. There are fewer and fewer point and click games for example and the myriad of MOBA’s have thankfully fallen by the wayside too. When most people think of mobile gaming two genres in particular come to mind, the match 3 games that would rinse people of their money and time and the endless runners that would rinse people of their money and time. Bit Trip Runner tried to legitamise this genre with its peak indie spin all those years ago, pushing for a home console release for an endless runner which was nothing if not brave. The Bit Trip Runner series is up there with the pantheon of ‘boy done good’ indie games that broke out of a small niche bubble and became something recognizable amongst the wider gaming audience. Years later we’ve lost the Bit Trip and gained Charles Martinet in Runner3 for Switch and Steam.
The core concept of an endless runner remains the same, the game auto runs in a direction for you and you must use your reflexes to perfectly time jumps, slides, kicks and enemy avoidance into a perfect run. One hit sends you back to the start of a level or the midpoint checkpoint if you’re lucky enough to have made it that far. I’m a relatively calm gamer, I’ll let out the occasional expletive when playing Street Fighter or mutter something when getting killed in Overwatch but on the most part its a split second of annoyance, games are fun and are meant to be enjoyed. Runner3 tested me, it tested my patience and my abilities to an extent that I’m still not sure if I got satisfaction from.
A key theme of the Runner series has been the music, it’s not just there to pump you up and keep you immersed in the world they’re building, it’s also your guide, you jump to the beat and on occasion you could tell what was coming by the music and what speed of taps may be required of you. In Runner3 this is sadly lacking, the music is largely forgettable, reminding me of royalty free music people use on Youtube, and rather than jumping to the beat you just seem to be adding a piano note to the track with each gold bar pick up collected. It’s a shame as the music should induce into the player an essential element for an endless runner, ‘flow’. Flow to me is just that perfect moment when you’re giving your game your full attention yet at the same time you’re on autopilot and just getting the job done. Runner3 is doing everything in its power to get rid of any semblance of flow, the music is just there, the world is so full with craziness and wacky creations that you can’t look at and the difficulty is borderline unfair to an amazing level.
I expected the first few levels to be my tutorial, getting back into the world of endless runners as I personally haven’t touched one since Temple Run 2 a couple of years back. Instead the first couple of levels were tough experiences, but I got them, and I did feel good for my achievement. But then level 3 through 6 I had nothing but trouble. You’re introduced to a few new skills at the start, level 1 is just for running and then a bit later you get the slide to go under objects, then a kick to take out barricades and then wall jumping etc. Each time I got a skill I wondered if the game would click for me and become a bit more manageable but that moment never came through my 6 or so hours finishing the main story. Side missions and new paths are unlocked as you go offering a somehow even tougher experience.
One of the main issues I have with Runner3 is the levels are far too long to be enjoyable. Levels have a checkpoint at the midway point, but when it takes 3 or 4 minutes to just get to the checkpoint you’ll have an idea of how long a perfect run will take, once you then add in the multiple failures you’ll have and be sent back to the start you’ll start to realise that despite the genre’s mobile pick up and play origins, this is not a pick up and play game. You’re not going to be knocking out a couple of levels as you wait for a bus or before your partner gets home from work, both physically and mentally this game is a commitment.
There’s new elements brought into this third game in the series with some quite enjoyable vehicle sequences, and also the occasional change of perspective. A particular favourite of mine is the mine cart where you still have to jump and duck as you go along to avoid things but instead you’ll be viewing all of this over the shoulder rather than in a 2D perspective. All of this is mired by what feels like unfair hitbox detection at times. There’s a particular obstacle that the developers seem to be in love with, short stairs, this normally requires 3 or 4 very quick jumps, unfortunately if you’re not pixel perfect you are destined to fail after your first jump as due to recovery animation from a jump you can’t bounce straight back up. You can mitigate this by hitting down whilst jumping to cancel out of the animation but you’re cancelling into another animation that also requires recovery. It’s obviously possible to make these jumps but to introduce so many unfun elements in just the first few levels of the first world puts the player on the back foot and starts the resentment early.
I want to love Runner3, it has a fun style to it, it has Shovel Knight and Charles Martinet (the voice of Mario), it seems like this would be the perfect on the go game for the Switch, I just worry that this game is mostly going to be enjoyed by anyone who has uttered the phrase ‘git gud’ online without making a joke or being ironic. Cuphead is hard, Runner3 just seems cruel. In Cuphead you know why you failed, you did something wrong whether from greed or lack of skill, in Runner3 it often just feels like its punishing you. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Runner3, its just had a number of decisions made during production that have solely been influenced by the developers who knew how the game worked inside and out, they knew the number of frames after a jump before they could jump again; the average player is not going to have the same experience. It’s a shame, there’s something good here, and perhaps a patch could sort this out if its a widely held belief, but at the moment unless you’re really looking to improve you endless runner skills in 2018 its hard for me to recommend this, I just don’t want to be held finanially responsible for you smashing your Switch into a wall.