In as vast, ever-changing and hectic a scene independent games have quickly gotten, building an IP to the point that it can sport a recognizable — perhaps iconic — character has become ever harder. Not that it’s ever been the priority, but it helps; the IPs that have managed this have often been those in receipt of a large amount of acclaim. Shovel Knight, Shantae, Cave Story’s Quote, The Binding of Isaac’s tormented titular protagonist, as well as the dark-bodied sprinter by the name of Commander Video in the Bit.Trip series. But developer Choice Provisions’ endless-runner-esque platformer has usually focused more on its gameplay rather than its world or any manner of narrative subtext. And while Runner3 may want to paint itself as heralding a plot, a story or some degree of reason behind its goofy, non-sensical premise, none of that really matters in the end…and the developers seem fairly open to that concession.
Which in the end works out well as the fact is Runner3 is a game whose challenge, whose excruciating take on platforming per se, embeds it in a player’s mindset. For better or worse. On having to get Commander Video (or Commandgirl Video if you’re adamant to play the female role) to the end goal of a particular level, given you have no control over the speed and pace of your character, the player’s role instead is to avoid the many hostiles and obstacles that litter a level. Remembering key moments, timing one’s actions, working out the correct patterns of jumps, long-jumps, double-jumps, kicks and ducks alike with which its musical score provides rhythmic hints. But like many things, it’s easier said than done. Not unlike Cuphead with its similarly, seemingly endless cycle of death — slowly getting to grips with the patterns and arrangements laid out before you.
Runner3 has its focus then acutely set on the need for split-second, twitch-based reactions. The kind of play-style that is sure to spell disaster for those preferring slower, casual affairs, but even for those aware of Bit.Trip’s frantic tension, will sure to cause many a basic mistake and subsequent retry alike and it’s this where the game’s successes, its “one more go” addiction, resonates well. Make no mistake about it, given it’s an all-or-nothing affair throughout, as well as that each level only has one checkpoint around the half-way mark, to die over and over with nothing but a growing frustration-turn-anger your only company is an inevitability rather than a possibility. But for the most part, Runner3 manages to push its difficulty of memorizing entire patterns of levels to the threshold without delving too far into unnecessarily impossible-to-avoid nonsense.
Granted, some enemy placements feel too existent for the sole purpose to annoy and there will come a point where the difference between success and failure is but a mere frame or bundle of pixel positions away. But for all the swear words and groans that the thirty-plus levels will conjure, Runner3 gets its measurement just right — always teasing the player that the solution is almost always within reach, but provides little leeway in helping players along. Though the environments and level design will rarely get a seeing-to — and do come off but mere props, stage-dressing to what is usually a straight-and-narrow sprint to the finish — Runner3 does throw up a few interesting deviations to at least break away from monotony of the left-to-right convention.
Regardless of whether it was the developer’s intentions to inject another layer of would-be distraction or consideration in one’s peripherals, there’s a charm to be had in the way the figurative “camera” if you will, swoops around at points, taking a different angle or perspective. The next minute you’ll have a behind view wherein depth perception plays a critical role or it might zoom in giving you even less of the level to ready one’s self with. In one interesting (if temporarily annoying) example, the foreground can even obscure some upcoming obstacles or objects one needs to avoid. Another spanner in the works that Runner3 just gets away with.
For as simple a template most of its levels are built around, Runner3 also offers up plenty of small deviations and new mechanics to keep things fresh and interesting, from gates that temporarily increase the speed/tempo of a level — thus requiring a complete rethink on one’s timing — as well as some environmental interaction that does at least make one’s surroundings feels less static than they often are. There ere also collectibles to gather and secret items to uncover and while the game will play on the obsessions of collectathon nuts, this fortunately presents itself more a lure into testing one’s skills further rather than some mandatory requirement. The gem paths, which are accessed upon a level’s completion, open up alternate routes at given points in the level and often require double, even triple the amount of twitch-heavy button-pressing. And this is before we even get to the trial of beating levels without activating a checkpoint and above all else, the ’80s aesthetic-stamped, fittingly-named “Impossible Levels,” which is perhaps as good a descriptor you’re going to get.
Runner3 does unfortunately offer a few technical hitches along the way; at their most forgiving, an occasional, half-second frame-dip (even on PC) but at their worst can find you clipping through the entire level to eventually fall to one’s death. Another slight complaint is the unlockable, traditional platforming levels that require a hidden VHS tape to access. And while the alternate gameplay style is a welcome inclusion, the fact that it takes up almost half of the entire game’s content does feel a little overblown for what is essentially a simplistic platformer. Especially considering Runner3 is but three main worlds and can take even the lesser experienced players around five to six hours to reach the end credits.
Few games can tout that their frustration, difficulty and somewhat teasing attitude is what makes them so enjoyable, but Choice Provisions prove once again that the only thing more palpable than failure is the inevitable triumph. Runner3 isn’t reinventing itself on its third outing, but its frantic, split-second gameplay remains just as addictive to [eventually] get right, as it’s always been. While its transition to 3D-styled environments do little to exude the silliness it initially boasts, the smaller additions to its core gameplay as well as a few neat twists to the in-level perspective, prevent one’s play-time from feeling stagnant along the way. It’s been a while since a game has had the audacity to be as ambitious but as annoying in its difficulty, but Runner3 more than gets away with it.