The original Bit.Trip series were amongst my favourite releases on the old WiiWare store, to the point that I also bought and played them on PC and 3DS. I remember the rush of exhilaration I felt when I finally cleared the last level and would rank that as one of my finest gaming achievements. The sequel, BitTrip Presents Runner 2, released in 2013, still gets me to dig out my trusty old Xbox 360 from time to time, despite it being a little more fussy and cluttered.
It’s safe to say that I was hugely looking forward to Runner3 and jumped at the chance to play it. Now after many deaths, some words that should never be mentioned outside of a gynaecological context, and a few necessary calm moments stepping away from the controller, I can relate my experience.
A cursory look at Runner3 is all that’s needed to see the evolution of the series graphically. Whereas the first game rocked a deliberately basic Atari 2600 style that worked perfectly with the focus needed to complete its devilish challenges, Runner3 takes the busier 3D style of its more immediate predecessor and amps everything up another level. This makes it a more impressive looking game, but doesn’t always have the best effect on the experience of playing itself.
Many of the wacky and colourful events happening in the background seem to have been designed specifically to distract you and lead to death. This would not be so bad were it not for the disconnect between such eye candy and the pure twitch gameplay that still characterises Runner3. Mistakes should always feel like your own fault, but having your eye drawn away from the main action often feels like a cheap tactic.
That being said, once you enter the focused flow that the Runner games have always engendered so fantastically, distractions are far rarer. Whilst the levels are perfectly paced to suit quick sessions of gameplay – the Switch is surely the game’s natural home, though we reviewed on PC – in reality you’ll find yourself hooked on trying to pass each level, with the muscle memory built up over repeated replays of tricky sections enabling you to flawlessly conquer sections that seemed impossible at first. Many of the levels here epitomise this kind of design, and the sense of achievement when it all clicks is still up there with the best feelings in gaming. The basic, straightforward runner gameplay is fantastic and warrants a purchase for any fans of twitch gaming.
The introduction of a double jump adds an extra dimension to level design, but can just as often lead to more deaths as rapidly pressing the jump button accidentally triggers an unwanted extra leap. Whilst this still falls within the realms of player error, there were a few too many occasions where it felt as if the controls were to blame. This was particularly the case in the obnoxiously difficult ‘impossible’ levels. Although not quite as bad as their name suggests, and I did finish the first one at least, these levels really push the gameplay to its limits, and largely focus on a design that is more reminiscent of the original Runner game. Where Runner3 could become more divisive is in its frequent departures from the original, core 2D style.
The most blatant excesses of a more contemporary approach are the Crash Bandicoot-like in and out of screen moments. These are incredibly disorientating at first and often lead to deaths simply due to the mental gymnastics required to recalibrate your perspective. Coupled with the frequent vehicle sections, this added variety to the central gameplay can feel a little too far removed from its origins. In the early parts of my playthrough I was lamenting these additions and felt disappointed at what the series had developed into. Thankfully it didn’t take long for these aspects to click and feel part of the challenge. There is still something jarring about the transition between 2D and 3D within levels, but this is less of an obstacle than it first appeared to be.
There are an incredible amount of unlockable extras and cosmetic features. Characters from other indie games feature as playable characters, as well as the endlessly suave narrator Charles Martinet, and every level contains a hidden puppet that goes towards an unlockable puppet show that conveys the zany storyline. These are full of the characteristically wacky humour that has become the series’ trademark, and while it may not be to everybody’s taste, it is mostly optional. I particularly enjoyed donning a Victorian bathing costume and monocle to traverse the levels – just within the game, as my monocle was in for repairs.
Every level of the main game contains two different paths: the first for collecting the traditional gold bars, the second and more difficult route to collect pink gems. The latter is unlocked when you complete a level for the first time and helps to add some variety and extra depth. Some of the transitions between paths are inspired and really give the impression of an interconnected world rather than a simple 2D structure. Navigating these separate paths to find the puppet stickers requires some leaps of faith, but have a coherent logic that doesn’t result in frustrating deaths.
Another new inclusion in this entry is sidequests to unlock the guest characters. A few levels have yet another optional path on which you’ll find NPCs who will send you looking for collectables scattered throughout the game. Whilst this may sound like more annoying replaying of levels, the fact that the map screen makes it clear on which levels you must look mitigates this somewhat.
The only real misstep in the game is the retro bonus levels that can be unlocked through finding VHS tapes. Whereas earlier examples resembled Atari 2600 classics such as Pitfall, here the bonus levels are an odd free roaming platformer which feels weirdly out of place. With their own set of collectables, golden coins in this case, they feel completely tacked on. Equally, having health enough to sustain several hits was a massive step away from the fragility on which Runner’s gameplay has always been centred. Fair play to the developers for experimenting, but these were my least favourite part of Runner3.
My early impressions of Runner3 were that the original purity of gameplay had been sacrificed in the push for more sophisticated visuals and quirkiness. After a few deaths brought about by perspective transitions, I was starting to feel an unwelcome sense of disappointment. Fortunately, once I got used to these new additions and the classic flow of Runner’s gameplay loop got its hooks in me, this initial reticence was forgotten. At its best, Runner3 is the epitome of pure twitch gaming and, as such, is a fantastic addition to the series.
PC version tested – Also available on Switch.