Tag Archives: Video Game Reviews

Gaijin Games – Bit.Trip Runner

Remember Frequency and Amplitude? How about every artsy video-game critic’s favourite springboard, Rez? Those games immersed the player in a synesthetic experience, vastly prioritizing presentation and sensory stimulation over context. In doing so they achieved a singularity of design, uniting form and function (and tactility and audio-visual feedback) into a smorgasbord for the senses – spend time playing either and the veil of input nearly drops away, leaving only player and game in a strange, synesthetic union. Play any of them in a dark room with headphones on and you’re left with a startlingly pure experience, and one that later rhythm games like Guitar Hero struggled to emulate. Gaijin Games knows how it is: BIT.TRIP RUNNER drops right into place, swapping Rez’s Sci-Fi conceit for  Atari homage and adding in a healthy dose of absurd, unforgivingly difficult platforming for a startlingly fresh platforming experience.

Fourth in its series, BIT.TRIP RUNNER sure looks like a platformer: watching gameplay clips on YouTube, I initially came to the conclusion that it was a quirky and oddly-speedy homage to Pitfall, complete with pretty ambient techno music. Well, I was about half-right. What you can’t tell from the trailers is that BIT.TRIP RUNNER is on autopilot: yes, you’re controlling Commander Video, but he’s more than happy to sprint blindly to his death. Your job is to control his limbs: jumping, sliding, blocking, kung-fu kicking and springing your way past a litany of colourful, pixellated obstacles and enemies. It’s an on-rails platformer, in a sense – every level has a “right” path, with the odd fork over/under an impediment, and if you deviate, you die. Over and over, zapped back to the beginning of the stage, of which there are 36 (with corresponding bonus levels) over 3 worlds. Throughout those 3 worlds you’ll be dodging everything from errant UFOs, to flying balls of sewage, to hopping over outcrops of crystal and kicking piles of boxes in their boxy faces, and should you so much as poke a rock with your toe or kick when you should have slide-hop-blocked, you’re restarting. Again. Simple as that.

So BIT.TRIP RUNNER  is fussy – very, very fussy: it has a particular path, and you’re going to find it, or you’re going to ragequit. That’s fine, it injects each level with a sort of quick-draw puzzle element. Like the games whose Atari visuals B.TR pays homage, it rewards practice and repetition. In conversation I’ve likened these trial runs to learning piano: practice makes perfect, but of course the more you practice the more you’ll find ways to mess up sections you thought you had down pat, slowly driving yourself insane. It’s a satisfying sort of intense frustration, but the piano metaphor doesn’t end there: I’ll go on the record right here and say BIT.TRIP RUNNER is nothing without its music. Like its rhythm-game forbears, BIT.TRIP is not as it appears – Rez wasn’t a rail-shooter, Frequency/Amplitude weren’t reflex-testing tunnel-fliers, and BIT.TRIP RUNNER certainly isn’t a platformer.

Immediately upon launch, you’ll notice patron chip-rockers Anamanaguchi playing on the title-screen. Classy. Then, you’ll notice Commander Video’s little pixellated running-sound, then the blips and bleeps that emerge every time you dodge successfully. Then the expanding, electronic soundtrack that deepens and undulates every time you pick up the red floating cross power-ups. After about two levels, once you’re playing confidently, you’ll notice each of these elements synchs perfectly to each level’s background beat, forming an interactive sonic puzzle. BIT.TRIP RUNNER’s grand solution isn’t memorization, it’s a highly-tuned sense of rhythm – watch someone skilled play through a level, and a song emerges. Because the dodge-notes are random, the song changes slightly each replay, and each time you die the track carries right on without you (with Commander Video sometimes waiting for the downbeat to begin his run – a nice touch). BIT.TRIP RUNNER is, secretly, a very well-hidden rhythm game, and like all great rhythm games it is eventually synesthetic, the player’s inputs synching to its soundtrack to immerse the player fully in its gameplay. When it clicks, and the gorgeous (but limited) soundtrack kicks in, playing BIT.TRIP RUNNER is a beautiful aesthetic experience.

So I like BIT.TRIP RUNNER, it’s true. I’ve always been a sucker for games that prioritize style over substance, and that dearth of substance is occasionally noticeable here too. For one, its short – I’ve put in about six hours, and am on the second-to-last level, but I’ve been taking my time, trying for high scores and generally enjoying the aesthetic. It’s also brutally, at times apparently unfairly, difficult, though failure is always your fault, as the input is flawless (provided you’re working without lag). BIT.TRIP RUNNER demands nothing less than mechanical perfection, and for most players that’s going to take a very long time to develop – in a sense this helps off-put the limited amount of levels. There’s also effectively no storyline, and although exploring the rest of the series will likely remedy that issue, a little context to my hopping would have been nice. More problematic still is that like all great showmen BIT.TRIP RUNNER left me wanting more: more music, different tempos and sound-effects to play around in, more than three worlds’ worth of panoramas to explore. Its immaculately integrated sound-design might preclude user-generated content, but dangit that would be cool too. There’s no stylistic trap-door here that’s going to pull you in if you don’t dig the style either (check a trailer), but if you’re down for some hardcore arcadey action this Holiday season – and Super Meat Boy is a little too gross and cruel for you – you can’t go wrong with BIT.TRIP RUNNER.

8.0

Part 1 of my series on Humble Indie Bundle #4, available here until roughly the 27th. Pay what you want for five fantastic games and downloads of their soundtracks, DRM free, Mac/Linux/PC with Steam/Desura. Pay more than the average (currently about six bucks) for two additional games and soundtracks. The money goes to charity, so there’s no way to go wrong here: I urge you to do this.  

Originally published right here, December 2011. 

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Gaslamp Games – Dungeons of Dredmor

Disclaimer: Dungeons of Dredmor is a roguelike. Dungeons of Dredmor is not for the faint of heart. Have you played Nethack? Did you cringe in grudging respect at the boot-to-the-neck difficulty of games like Chocobo’s Dungeon (okay, more like Shiren the Wanderer)? This game is for you. Do not read the rest of this review: for the next day, buy it for charity and be on your way. DoD is a roguelike, and all reviews of roguelikes are contractually obligated to begin with “back in my day…”, so here goes:

Back in my day, games were really darn tough. Okay, well that’s not quite true: Donkey Kong Country gave me plenty of red balloons, rings were plentiful in Sonic the Hedgehog, and I never lacked for bullets in Blackthorne or phoenix downs in Final Fantasy. In fact, I think I missed the golden era of sadistically cruel PC gaming altogether – good thing, then, that games like Dungeons of Dredmor exist to remind us neophytes that sometimes, just sometimes, games want to kill you.

For the uninitiated, The Roguelike (as the name suggests) is a genre united in its homage and imitation of the 1980 PC title Rogue. As a sub-genre of adventure and rpg gaming, roguelikes typically include elements like top-down and turn-based gameplay, relatively simplistic graphics (though there are exceptions), and wide-ranging opportunities for roleplaying improvisation. There are also wide-ranging opportunities for highly-creative death, and weaker games in the genre have been rightfully accused of artificially manufacturing replay value via their constant Game Over screens. Completely unrelated games, bearing in mind roguelikes’ trademark difficulty, have also emerged as homage to the genre itself: Demon’s Souls springs to mind, as does PSX oddity Dragon Valor and the Dreamcast’s Evolution. Regardless, it is into this proud tradition that games like Dungeons of Dredmor are born: they carry the standard of turn-based dungeon exploration, customizable and highly strategic  gameplay, and the save-game-erasing schadenfreude of permadeath.

“So what’s Dungeons of Dredmor actually like?” you ask. Good question! Allow me to regale you with the epic saga of Vancepire I the Vampire, my sneaky blood/flesh-mage and double-knife wielder, and his brief, sad life. Things started out very promisingly for Vancepire! After playing through the lengthy tutorial (a must, as it’s helpful and hilarious), he was dumped into the eponymous dungeon between two modern vending machines: one labeled FÜD, the other DRINK. Broke as a stone, he ignored them, and proceeded into the next room. The tile-based gameplay means every single gameplay action is discrete: you walk a square, every other thing in the dungeon walks a square. You scarf down a Dire Sandwich (for health!), they open a door. You chug a Sewer Brew or a Dwarven Gut Rot (to restore magic energy of course), and by this point they’ve reached you and punched you in the gut. Vancepire, equipped with his two knives and his Flippy Floppies (“great for a day at the pool!”), meandered into the next room, and was confronted by one of many, many Diggles, whose description blurbs read as follows: “A strange little bird-thing that tunnels through walls with its odd, rubbery nasal appliance”. Charming. Vancepire, whose player-chosen skills varied from Assassin (increasing critical hit-chance) to Vampire (which could have eventually earned him the ability to fire Twilightian sparkles at enemies), wound up with his two knives and smacked that Diggle right across its horrible rubbery nasal-appliance face. The Diggle struck back. Vancepire swung again and missed, the Diggle struck back, and several of its friends showed up out of the shadows. At this point, a smart player would have realized that Vancepire the Vampire could only heal via blood-drinking. I was not a smart player. Vancepire ate a Diggle Egg he’d found. This seemed only to anger the Diggle mob further, and restored exactly 0 health. The Diggles swarmed. Vancepire swung around like an idiot. The Diggles – with their jeering overhead text-taunts of “Your mother is a radish” and “Why does nothing love me” – very gradually and embarrassingly killed him dead. Being a roguelike, Dungeons of Dredmor defaults itself to permanent death (permadeath), and so, as Vancepire I hit the floor, the game promptly wiped my save file, dropped a banner reading “CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE DIED!”, and booted me to the title screen. Thus ended the brief, sad life of Vancepire I. His son and grandson, Vancepires II and III, fared only slightly better.

What have we learned? Dungeons of Dredmor, on its medium setting (“Dwarvish Moderation”, there are also “Elves Just Want To Have Fun” and “Going Rogue”), is absolutely punishing to newbies. I cannot stress enough that this is awesome. There’s a very detailed breakdown of the various effects of the difficulty levels here, and while the game is certainly challenging on any difficulty level, the tutorial very explicitly lays out that this is the point. Like the recent oddball Binding of Isaac, gameplay in DoD, on its default settings, encourages experimentation and cumulative learning. Not long after the tragic death of Vancepire I (and II, and III), I was picking my stats carefully, trying all the mushrooms, breezing through the first couple dungeon floors, and not only confident in my newfound skills, but having a complete blast. Strategic play is heavily emphasized here, and while you’ll find hundreds of various pieces of loot (equipment and items, most of them fraught with puns), your statistical breakdown will render only certain items strategically advantageous – for some players this will mean avoiding alcohol or swords entirely, for others never being able to heal (see above). Limiting loot exposure like this lends DoD‘s often-brief repeat playthroughs real variety; the player is never locked into a particular playing style, and the cleverly self-aware class system (Flesh Mage! Mathemagic!) results in an honestly surprising amount of replay value. While limited in scope (plot? what plot?), Dungeons of Dredmor, with its hilarious enemies and mysterious item drops (Grunge Ear?) lends the player a terrific sense of discovery; after nearly ten hours of play (and, full disclosure, zero completions) I’m still finding myself booting up a new character and thrashing through that first floor of Diggles in order to try out new stat/perk combinations and – why not? – taste all the mushrooms.

Aside from general structure, Dungeons of Dredmor is a mechanically sound and simple game. One-handed mouse-play is entirely possible, provided you’re equipped with a right-click, and the game lends itself wonderfully to slow, extended play-sessions while you chat with friends in another window – I’ve found myself in numerous strategic roundtables with fellow Dredmor-ers, few of whom seem to share my affinity for absurdist perk combinations (“Am I the only Mushroom-Farmer-Viking-Mage?” I wonder). It’s entirely possible that the several musical jingles will drive you completely insane. This is where windowed-mode and iTunes comes in, although the game still suffers from a mystery slowdown every time the soundtrack loop rolls onto a new track (about every 11 minutes). The writing in this game is absolutely fantastic – if you haven’t gathered from my litany of quotations, Gaslamp Games have really outdone themselves with the humour and enemy/item descriptions here. DoD is altogether likely to remind you of a particularly lively solo session of the roguelike-like Munchkin, if you let it. The flip-side of all this great writing is that the graphical presentation is fairly crude: there’s only one character model (no girls!), equipment and perks lack on-character presentation entirely, and almost all spells and other on-screen effects are rendered with the same small retinue of visual effects, depicting everything from elemental attacks to much stranger things (Lovecraft, anyone?). Simplistic as it all is, personally I’ve found it quite endearing: it gives me the sense that this game started life as a particularly spirited text-adventure that someone excitedly decided to give graphical life to, which really only feeds into the game’s charm.

Dungeons of Dredmor is hilarious, it’s deeply strategic, and it’s addictive as heck. Importantly, the entire game is randomized as well – from enemies to traps to equipment and floor layouts, you’re never playing the same game twice. Random cheap deaths will occur, which strategy will not always be able to mitigate (turning off Permadeath fixes this), and while these are annoying and distracting, they’re a natural consequence of random-gameplay scenarios. Dungeons of Dredmor is unforgiving and difficult and it is an intentional throwback to a generation of gaming that’s been recently seeing somewhat of a comeback. I love this game and I love what it stands for: DoD isn’t afraid to laugh at you for your failures, and it isn’t afraid to force you into laughing at yourself, while lovingly forcing you into that one last game before bed. All in all if you can dig the roguelike gameplay philosophy you really can’t go wrong here. Buy it real quick (expired) to lose lives – and hours of your life – to swarms of Diggles this holiday season.

8.5

…bonus Diggle.

Originally published right here, December 2011. 

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