Runner 2 is a platforming delight, its beauty coming from an elegant simplicity, and a variable challenge that offers gamers of all abilities something substantial to get their teeth stuck into. There's a plot in there somewhere, and the game is narrated by Charles Martinet (the voice of Mario), but these factors play second fiddle to everything else the game has to offer.
Players sprint through each stage, all the time dodging a variety of obstacles that are attempting to halt forward progress. If anything breaks your stride it's back to the beginning, or the nearest checkpoint, and the pattern repeats once again. Sometimes several times over.
Small critters with spiked helmets must be hurdled, blocks parried with a shield, and floating obstacles require a carefully timed duck in order to make progress. As the levels advance more challenges are introduced; Runner 2 never lets you rest on your laurels. New obstructions pop up constantly, and it requires sharp eyes and quick fingers in order to make it through each level.
At first it's not that tough, but later stages get much more tricky to navigate. Before long you'll be jumping, ducking, blocking and leaping in quick succession. Speed boosts throw you forwards, and plentiful enemies create hazardous obstacle courses. It can feel unrelenting, and the eyes sometimes struggle to keep up. The new 2.5D visuals are charming, and for the most part they really set the tone. They may be a bit too cutesy for some, but don't be fooled, they don't reflect the game's difficulty.
Fans of the original might bemoan the introduction of checkpoints, somewhat lessening the initial challenge, but the change makes the game more accessible, and those seeking a sterner test can still easily find it. Before, failure would see you flung back to the beginning of each level, now if you get to (roughly) halfway through, you pass through welcome checkpoints, giving you an anchor should failure rear its ugly head during the stage's second half. It's not as punishing as once it was, but it's now likely that more people will enjoy the new-look Runner as a result of the changes made.
There's three difficulty settings to choose from, making Runner 2 as hard as you want it to be. A straight up run offers your basic challenge, but when chasing high scores you have to actively seek out trouble, and then avoid it like the plague. The easiest setting is surmountable given a little persistence. Normal ups the frequency of obstacles, and increases the amounts of restarts required to complete each stage. The hardest setting populates each run with a plethora of things to hop, skip and jump over. Reaction times need to be split-second accurate, and each stage will require extreme persistence in order to progress.
The shouting of expletives at one's screen is commonplace, especially on the harder levels. In fact, we can't remember a game that has caused as much red-faced fury as Runner 2. However, unlike some platformers, the shouting isn't aimed at the game, but rather at oneself. Each restart is down to human error, and there's nobody to blame except the person holding the controller.
Whilst we're on the subject of controllers, the version we tested was on PC, but we were still advised to play the game on a control pad. We found the analogue stick more frustrating to use than the D-Pad, and although we often found our thumbs drifting towards the stick (out of habit more than anything), the D-Pad offers more purposeful controls and felt more comfortable to use.
There's plenty of replayability to be found. Once your first run is complete you can tackle the level on a harder setting, or let the completionist in you go free as you aim for that perfect finish. Collecting all the gold bars on a single run allows you to jump into a cannon at the level's end, firing the player-character into a giant target for additional points. To further increase a score you have to dodge as many obstacles as possible, dancing through the middle of the chaos, but all the while keeping it at arms length - going for the path of least resistance isn't going to help you beat that personal best, to do that you're going to need to actively dodge or parry everything that comes your way. It's a wonderful way to reward skilled players chasing high scores; increased challenge means an increased points haul.
Dodging, parrying or leaping an obstacle adds musical notes to the soundtrack, with tunes increasing in complexity throughout. Each level becomes a tapestry of sound, and each stage has a distinct rhythm to it. The importance of Runner 2's soundtrack can't be overstated, and it really does add an extra layer to the experience. The word "Rhythm" isn't in the title for nothing (you may be wondering why the unusually long title - it's actually homage to the offbeat names given by eastern publishers in order to sell western games).
There's five different worlds to play through, and each is punctuated by a boss encounter. Enemies reappear in the five different areas, but enough new challenges are added to ensure that the experience changes along with the decor. Each world is visually distinctive from the last, and there's plenty of levels in each. Some individual stages require certain amounts of points for them to be unlocked (which isn't immediately clear and caused some head-scratching early on). There's also Key Vaults - levels that once beaten cause previously transparent keys to appear on certain stages. Once the keys have been picked up previously inaccessible areas can now be attempted, giving even more content to run through.
New characters and costumes can also be unlocked at various points in the game, and there's also retro challenges that can attempted in the right circumstances. There's a lot going on, and for those who fall in love with the game, there'll be plenty of incentive to come and play some more, whether it's aiming at personal bests, beating a friend's high score, or just grabbing all the collectables dotted around the game.
All of the various strands coming together - the fiendish challenge, the art style, the rhythmic music - makes for an intoxicating experience. Those wanting a simple and enjoyable platformer will be well serviced, but if high scores and tricky challenges are your thing, Runner 2 has got everything you could possibly want, and then some. It's quirky, fun and devilishly addictive, and one of the best platform games we've ever played. Consider that a glowing endorsement.
Bit.Trip Presents Runner 2: Legend of Rhythm Alien is set to launch on Steam on February 26th, with console versions set to follow thereafter.