BIT.TRIP Presents: Runner 2 - Future Legend of Rhythm Alien raises eyebrows by virtue of being different. At first glance, it looks like the kind platforming game that we've all played dozens of times before. But as you explore the mechanics, it soon becomes evident that it's actually a music game cleverly disguised as a platformer. And like learning to play an instrument, the title is challenging and rewarding in equal measure.
The “story” depicts the events of the intrepid hero Commander Video, who is attempting to save the galaxy. Like other platforming games of its ilk, the plot stands teetering on a rather shaky premise and never really goes anywhere. This isn’t really a complaint per se but more a statement of fact. Aside from the overly alliterative dialogue, the premise reminds us of LittleBigPlanet.
When in the game, the good Commander runs along at a set speed. The goal is to jump over, slide under, and generally platform your way through the multitude of levels all the while collecting gold and other collectibles as you sprint to the finish.
The clever bit, though, is how the platforming serves to enhance the soundtrack: you essentially create music as you play. Every time the Commander grabs some goodie or jumps over a baddie, a different sound will occur. Stringing them all together creates a melody over the background music. It sounds strange (and it is), but here’s the thing: it works. The game is surprisingly addictive and extremely rewarding.
As you progress, the title infuses more variety into your skill set. At first, you can merely jump over and slide under enemies and obstacles. But before long, new moves like kicking in boards, repelling incoming projectiles, or bouncing off trampolines are introduced. Naturally, and also more importantly, these newfound skills each have their own particular sound, so the music will get even more complicated. All of these mechanics are simple to use and easy to understand, but the real skill lies in putting them all together at speed.
Each level has exactly one checkpoint half way through. Screw up beforehand and our friend the Commander will get yanked all the way back to the beginning of the level. This can be frustrating if you are tantalisingly close to the end of a stage (or its checkpoint). However, like Super Meat Boy, the punishment isn’t severe enough to be breaking.
It’s important to note that the game controls well, so if you’re howling at the moon over a tricky patch (as we often were), it’s likely that you only have yourself to blame. Runner 2 isn’t unfair, but rather like learning to play an instrument, you must use your mistakes to improve. Getting the timing right requires practice and an expectation of failure.
Still, this is the type of title that invites a lot of casual cursing. Super Meat Boy again springs to mind, and while Runner 2 isn’t that infuriating, comparisons can be made. When a game presents a genuine challenge, the rewards for sticking with it are important. Thankfully, there are lots of secret levels and Easter eggs to unlock, so it's worth putting in the extra effort to get the best scores possible. Some of the retro-style bonus stages in particular are quite clever.
While the graphics are great, it’s hard to enjoy them. We actually found ourselves limiting play time to short bursts. It can be tough to focus because you're essentially splitting your attention between the good Commander and what is coming next. It’s easy to come away from a prolonged session feeling cross-eyed, and headaches can develop as well. The fact that frustrations mount quickly only serves to exacerbate the problem.
Thankfully, the soundtrack is easier to digest and is excellent. Naturally, the more you put into the game, the more you'll take away from it musically. If you can manage to grab everything in a level and attain a 'Perfect' score, then you're rewarded with not only the full aural soundtrack but also the chance to shoot for a bonus score. We won’t tell you what that entails, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
BIT.TRIP Presents: Runner 2 - Future Legend of Rhythm Alien is a game packed with many highs and few lows. While downloadable titles are renowned for their limited staying power, we can see ourselves sprinting back to this one for more. Yes, it can be frustrating at times, but it’s been a long while since we’ve felt a true sense of accomplishment for getting things right.