Ever play a rhythm-music game? How about a rhythm-music platformer? If you've ever played a Bit.Trip game, then you certainly have. Gaijin Games, creators of the Bit.Trip series, was on hand at PAX East this year with a playable build of Runner 2 Future Legend of Rhythm Alien. Runner 2 is the sequel to the award winning Bit.Trip Runner. How does the sequel shape up so far to it's predecessor?
In Runner 2, you'll once again take control of Commander Video as he runs, jumps, slides, kicks, and blocks his way through level after level while creating some sweet music. Runner 2 at its core is a platformer. Commander Video is constantly running forward, and it's up to the player to use his other abilities to avoid obstacles and reach the goal. What makes the game unique is the blending of music with the gameplay. The objects that Commander Video must avoid and platforms he jumps to are placed such that they correlate to a note or beat in the background music track. You can very well use the music as cues to when to jump/slide/etc, and are very much encouraged to. Picking up powerups adds addtional parts of the song until you hear the full song. It's an exhilarating feeling to get into the zone running a level dodging and jumping while creating and unlocking some sweet sounding chiptunes music.
Gaijin Games had a total of 19 levels playable, which encompasses the entire first world (minus the boss battle) of the game. The first thing that caught my attention was that within the first 5-6 levels, I already had access to all of five of Commander Video's skills from the first Runner. This made me wonder if the difficulty is going to ramp up to how the first game ended real quickly? Worry not as be kicking players in the rear too hard this early. The patterns I came across during early levels were simple enough to get reacquainted with the controls, but then gradually ramps up to more and more challenging sections. As someone who has played hours upon hours of Runner, I found myself bored with the simplicity of the first few levels, then had to start paying attention around the ninth or tenth level, and finally starting to screw up and die around level 15 or so. The learning curve is nicely done and provides a challenge while not becoming frustrating.
Regarding challenging/frustrating gameplay, a complaint some players had with the previous game was that some of the levels were incredibly long (most people hit this stump around world 1-10 if I remember right). Combine that with how running into an object or falling into a pit meant restarting the whole level again led to some players becoming frustrated. Runner 2 looks to correct this by adding a checkpoint in the longer levels. This means no longer having to run the entire level again. In a bit of surprise, the new checkpoints are actually optional! Players who don't want to use them can actually jump over them in exchange for a higher score. This certainly helps newer players enjoy the experience more while learning patterns, while the experienced runners can go for a challenge and high scores.
As for other new features, there's the loop-de-loops, which display the face buttons of the controller as you go around them. Timely button presses during the loop earns more points. There's also branching paths during the later levels. Find yourself going down one path and getting stuck? Try taking a different path as it may be easier. The trade off being that some powerups or bonus unlockables can only be aquired during certain routes. It makes for a nice variety in level design not to mention a neat risk/reward choice. Also, I can already see that the branching paths with make seaching for optimized runs for the 'perfect' score more fun.
Visually, Runner 2 is making a running leap from the 8-bit style of the first game to full 3D models. I will say the transition was done nicely. Commander Video is still stylishly unique and iconic as ever, while rocking a slick pair ofred sneakers. The background is still as lively as ever with large hills with faces (one even has a pipe in it's mouth), small floating islands being held up by large balloons, and more. I did notice a small drop in the framerate during a couple of the busier sections of the later levels, but nothing that majorly affected my runs.
On the audio side, music will once again feature chiptunes tracks that the Bit.Trip games are known for. It's smooth, soothing, and will get you grooving as you play. More often than not players will likely find themselves bobbing their heads to the beat of the music. I am anxious to hear what sort of themes will come about for the rest of the game.
Runner 2 Future Legend of Rhythm Alien currently slated for a release sometime late this year on PSN and Xbox Live Arcade. From what has been shown so far, Gaijin Games has taken the great parts of the first Runner, improved them, and has taken steps toward addressing some of the criticisms. I know I certainly enjoyed playing Runner 2 enough that I found myself constantly coming back for more throughout the PAX weekend. At this rate, Gaijin seems to have yet another winner in their hands. I. just. cannot. stop. RUNNING!