The somewhat-obnoxiously named Bit.Trip Presents Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien exudes a voluminous aura of indie charm, but it’s particular gamers who will fall in love with Commander Video’s latest adventure. With nary a story beat to miss, you’re in it for the gameplay, and Runner 2 goes down smooth. Yet unlike mechanical bastards like Super Meat Boy and WipEout HD’s toughest trials, Runner 2 isn’t out to ruin your evening. Despite its obvious intention to test my reflexes and on-the-fly thinking, I never felt ruthlessly challenged in my time with Runner 2, but that’s to its credit. A wealth of cleverly implemented choices, secrets, and difficulty modes means Runner 2 is only as hard as you ask it to be. This auto-run platformer is accessible to thumb wizards and newbies alike, but how long you stay will depend greatly on your patience for early- and mid-game repetition in pursuit of late-game thrills and utterly enchanting music.
As Runner 2 is the PlayStation nation’s first exposure to the Bit.Trip series, it’s worth noting that this seventh installment is narratively disconnected from all prior entries. However, Runner 2 most definitely honors the series’ lineage of brilliant chiptune music that walks hand in hand with gameplay. Slide under an airborne enemy to hear a *blip*. Grab a gold bar for a high-pitched *ding*. As levels grew longer and became packed with more obstacles, I was delighted to hear my move strings and combos craft a compelling electronic score. My running went from repetitious to graceful; my pace, from plodding to fluid. Obstacles come in fits and waves as the camera pushes you forward, but mastering the platforming beats and timing is rewarded with beautiful, airy music that mirrors your outstanding performance.
Then again, becoming an expert at Runner 2 comes easily when the game makes every effort to encourage your progress. Jumping too early or screwing up a move will never set you back more than a few dozen seconds. You’re constantly pushed forward by Commander Video’s automatic movement (think Canabalt or iOS hit Temple Run), but an impressive degree of choice gives you some ownership over the challenges you face. Splitting paths are clearly marked by red and green arrows denoting relative difficulty, but you’d do well to test yourself on the tough routes. An impressive array of alternate paths and unconventional jumps will lead you to an equal number of bonus rounds and secrets. Stockpile gold bar pickups and find alternate exits to unlock secret stages, including a key level. Beat the key world to make treasure keys appear throughout the zone. Nab the keys and their tough-to-reach chests for extra costumes and characters. Repeat through five delightfully vibrant zones that run the gamut of fantasy settings, from city-in-the-sky to lava factory.
In fact, my biggest problem with Runner 2 stems from these tiring (albeit compelling) environments and the interplay of colors that fly by ad nauseum. Thirty minutes into every session, the dullest of dizziness began to set in as the stream of vibrant details made Commander Video increasingly difficult to focus on. My disorientation would plateau after an hour of play and persist for as long as I ventured–frankly, menu screens were a welcome relief. Ultimately, my eyes battled the background noise by focusing on the screen’s center and using peripheral vision to time my jumps and moves. It’s impossible for me to say how many gamers will feel the same way, or worse, but anyone with a history of eye fatigue or nausea should take to YouTube to test their mettle before dropping $15 on Runner 2.
Dropping cash on this game should also come after some examination of your gaming personality. If you love the idea of "practice makes perfect" and triumph over frustration, the fast-paced, addictive action and impressive replayability of Runner 2 is like nirvana on the cheap. If the genre and philosophy has no extraordinary value for you, you’ll have to weather a long-stretch of mid-game repetition before Runner 2’s best music (and levels) come to bear. Almost all of the game’s arsenal is deployed by the time you reach the third zone, and the really exciting stuff doesn’t show face until the last 20 or 25 levels. If you’re not a fan of chiptune music or ethereal synthpop beats, you might be put off altogether (but also, I don’t know you).
Thankfully, Runner 2’s gameplay hooked me from the outset and I was able to enjoy a fluid journey framed by impressive art direction and production values. I’ve already mentioned the game’s uplifting electronic score, which crescendos as you chain successful moves together in anxious bliss. Similar care was given to character art and menus; "childish" in the best way, these drawings could be ripped from any youngster’s sketchbook. These 2D sensibilities contrast sharply with fully realized 3D environments that, while visually lucid, distract from Runner 2’s gameplay purity. A good degree of aliasing stands out in these spaces, as well.
The indie talent at Gaijin Games brings a lot to the table with Bit.Trip Runner 2, but an otherwise excellent package is bogged down by somewhat nauseating action and gameplay equal parts terrific and tiring. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Commander Video’s latest adventure, but I didn’t feel compelled to hunt down every secret or perfect my runs to climb the leaderboards. If those endeavors are right up your alley, Runner 2 should be the next thing you play. If you’re not immediately enthused at the prospect, you’ll find little to love after the pleasant first hours.