[18 March 2013]
Bit.Trip Presents Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien features a nominal storyline. Fresh off protagonist Commander Video’s victory over evil in Bit.Trip Runner, he gets sucked into an alternate universe, which contains the third dimension that his universe lacks. In order to return to his world and team of gallivanting good guys, Commander Video has to run and jump and duck and kick his way to freedom. Oh, and collect a bunch of gold. And occasionally giant treasure chests and vintage video game cartridges.
So, sure, the story doesn’t make much sense, but then again neither does the one about the Italian plumber curb stomping a bunch of anthropomorphic mushrooms. In Runner 2 the story acts as a way to add comedy to the game’s otherwise impeccable, frustrating gameplay. For those unfamiliar with the Bit.Trip series, Runner 2 is the next in a series of rhythm- and music-based games. But unlike the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series, your instrument in this series is platforming (or pong style paddle control or Asteroid-like space movement).
In Runner 2, you once again control Commander Video in a sidescrolling, musical platformer, in which jumping or ducking enemies, bouncing off of launch pads, collecting gold and upgrades, and kicking through barriers all contribute to reaching a crescendo within the game’s sonic environment. Your forward gait is automated so that you don’t ruin the beat, but your ability to collect items and dodge enemies dictates just how immersive the music becomes.
Unfortunately, over the half-dozen or so hours that it takes to complete the game and many of its side quests, the music doesn’t change a whole lot. The sound effect for bouncing off of a trampoline is the same regardless of which of the world’s five Mario 3-like worlds you’re in, for example, so you’d better enjoy digital keyboard triplets if you’re going to play through Runner 2.
That lack of musical variation has both a pacifying and stagnating effect on the gameplay itself. Because the music is tied to the platforming, obstacles can only appear in a handful of formations; notes don’t ever hit off beat in Runner 2. So the same formations appear repeatedly throughout the various worlds of Runner 2, but this acts as a foundation for the quick trigger gameplay. Everything that happens has a precedent, allowing you to quickly react to changing obstacles and oncoming threats. As the game progresses, levels become flooded with hazards but seemingly easier as you become more familiar with the variations.
The other way in which Runner 2 turns down the challenge is with checkpoints throughout each level. In the original Runner title, each level had to be beaten with a perfect run—if you hit one obstacle, you’d be sent back to the beginning of the level. But these checkpoints are optional for players aiming for the top of the leaderboard. Hurdling checkpoints offers extra points, as does taking more difficult, branching paths through the level, which to compensate for their difficulty often feature unlocks and secrets unavailable in easier paths. Those branching paths present the value of replaying Runner 2, in the same that way searching maps in Diddy Kong Racing to find unlocks necessitated replay.
Runner 2 is not particularly immersive, but the challenge it presents is enough to warrant a playthrough. Gaijin Games designed it as a throwback to early, dexterity-challenging platforming titles, and they do so faithfully.