Review: Runbow

For all the increased emphasis on interconnected worlds and complex online interactions in games these days, there’s been a fascinating renaissance of local multiplayer games that ask you to unplug completely and gather your buddies around the same screen. For every Watch Dogs, there’s another TowerFall: AscensionSamurai Gunn or Sportsfriends popping up in its place. These games are chaotic and raw, leaving players screaming and laughing and crying foul at their friends in ways that just can’t happen online. Runbow is that kind of game, supporting up to nine players, and whether or not you should give it a look is entirely contingent on whether or not you have a stable of friends to assemble on your couch every week to play.

Runbow is simple at its core. It’s a 2D platformer where you can run, double-jump and perform a dash attack. Enemies can slow you down, but they can’t kill you; given that the most common goal in Runbow is to reach the end of the level faster than everybody else, though, a significant slowdown is as good as a swift death. It’s simple to control, and it needs to be: you’ll already have a lot to contend with between the enemies and any other players, but where the game really finds its challenge is with its color wipes. Every so often — it could be every ten seconds or every two seconds depending on the level — the background color of the level will wipe, the new tone absorbing any platforms of the same color. Plan your jumps accordingly.

You won’t get new abilities, but each progressive level will demand a bit more precision or offer a slight twist on the wipe mechanic: sometimes a level will be dominated by two-toned stripes and you’ll need to stay within a specific color to progress, for instance. Still, while the simple mechanics do a decent job of getting out of the way so you can focus on everything around you, they end up just feeling shallow after a couple hours. It never felt like I was picking up useful skills or learning anything new about how to apply the moves I already had; it just felt like I was playing riffs of the same song over and over. There’s a real workmanlike quality to the controls here — everything works as intended, but it all feels a little too stiff and basic; the core action of getting from one end of a level to the other isn’t especially satisfying on its own, and that’s not great for a game where that’s usually the entire goal. I felt like my skills plateaued almost immediately with nothing left to learn or practice; even a game as straightforward as Pac-Man Championship Edition allows for a better skill ramp by letting you chain turns together by “sparking.” Runbow has none of that.

Of course, almost any game becomes more fun when you add friends into the mix and Runbow is no different — provided you have a set of friends at the ready. If you’re in high school or college, getting a group together to huddle around the Wii U and yell at each other probably isn’t too much of a challenge. But if you’re not — and many of us aren’t — then that’s probably a lot more difficult. I’m the kind of guy who impulse buys SportsfriendsTowerFall and three additional DualShock 4 controllers on a whim before remembering that oh right, I’ve graduated college and now my friends and I all have full-time jobs and live in different cities. We can still get together and play games every now and again, but that’s the reality of growing up, and it happens to everybody. It’s hard to fault Runbow for that, but it does mean games like it are going to have limited appeal unless they have a strong single-player component as well.

Runbow offers an adventure mode and a “Bowhemoth” mode that can each be tackled alone or with friends, but everything else is a strictly multiplayer-only affair. Adventure mode offers dozens of individual levels of varying difficulty for you to complete, while Bowhemoth mode faces you off against a series of increasingly stiff challenges without the ability to save your progress. Adventure mode starts feeling pretty one-note and unfocused after a few levels, but it’s more tolerable with a friend and is clearly only there to offer some single-player value to an otherwise multiplayer-only game, so it’s hard to fault it too much; still, a better adventure mode would’ve gone a long way toward making Runbow a much more appealing package. Bowhemoth mode fares a little better since the challenge is much greater, but it also serves to highlight the game’s shortcomings even further. Runbow doesn’t have the instant restarts when you die that have made games like Super Meat Boy so addictive, so instead it uses the time it takes reloading the level to mock you with phrases like “wow, that was boring” and “we have easier levels, you know.” Now, maybe I’m just getting old or something, but somewhere along the line, I lost my taste for being berated by the games I play. Weird.

If you don’t have friends to play with locally, you can still hop into the game’s online modes to play with random people. There are three modes for online play: the standard race to the end mode, a battle mode and a king of the hill mode. Given Runbow‘s strong preference for nearly full matches, I found the racing mode to be a little chaotic and wished Runbow would’ve taken a page out of Rocket League‘s playbook and let me search for matches with fewer players. Every match in a full racing mode starts out with a hot mess of players using the dash attack over and over to get an early advantage.

The dash attacks are your only mode of interaction, which in racing mode is kind of annoying but not too much of a problem; in the battle and king of the hill modes that encourage direct confrontation over speed, though, it becomes far too limiting and where the game feels most shallow. Rag Doll Kung Fu: Fists of Plastic proved years ago that a game with extremely simple fighting mechanics can still have an incredibly fun king of the hill mode, but Runbow is not that game. And while the racing and battle modes were consistently popular enough to get into immediate matches, the king of the hill mode took about 30 minutes for us to find a match, a problem exacerbated, of course, by Runbow‘s insistence that every match have at least six players before starting.

Closing Comments:

The best way to describe Runbow is that it feels like the kind of idea that would’ve made for a creative series of one or two levels in a Mario game, but here that’s the entire game from start to finish with little variation. I can’t stress enough that you probably just shouldn’t bother with Runbow unless you have at least three or four friends with whom to play with on a regular basis. It’s not the worst way to spend your time and money, but there are also much better local multiplayer games you could be playing instead.