Totem Runner [$0.99] is the rock-paper-scissors of runners. Rock: your warrior form, good for running and drawing grasses up from the earth. Paper: bird form, which can soar and dodge. And scissors, boar form, which can smash through any obstacle and most enemies. Deciding which one to pull out isn't luck or psychology, though—it's one part foreknowledge and one part quick reflexes.
In its earliest levels, the game is forgiving. You run a little, smash a briar patch or two as a boar, and fly over a few big gaps. Before long the challenge spikes, and you need to swap between bird and boar mid-flight or on the trailing edge of an attack. Obstacles phase in a few at a time, playing tricks with timing. Though enemies always telegraph their attacks, you'll need to pay attention to spot the moment one solidifies while another slips away. Thankfully death costs you nothing but a trip back to the most recent checkpoint, so when the only way to get through a tight spot is memorization you'll have opportunities to memorize.
Running ties the game together. You might want to fly or smash through everything—who wouldn't?—but that's not meant to be. You can only draw up grass while you're in your human form, and that's how you earn points. Score goes beyond the leaderboard, too—your ranking unlocks levels for you. It's not generally all that difficult to earn two stars, but three takes skill and incredibly careful timing.
You'll need to master the quick switch between one form into human and back, over and over. Kudos to you if you can pull it off regularly—I found the game getting in my way far too often. There's always the dynamite option, a consumable dragon form that sweeps straight through whole segments of levels, but I'd prefer to save it for moments that feel difficult, not just obnoxious.
There's no one big thing that makes Totem Runner occasionally frustrating to play, but several small issues snarl up the works. The hit box of the bird form is just a tiny bit too big, for example, so skirting right over or under something can be deadly. This wouldn't be a problem if the game didn't ask you to do just that on occasion. Then there's the dragon button, which sits a few pixels above the boar-form button. Boy, do I love when I'm in a tight spot and the game slows down to show me how to swipe out the spirit dragon instead of pulling out the boar. It's even better when I'm so close to the next checkpoint I can taste it.
And this might just be me, but that slow down is a real mood killer. Let me explain: whenever you get close to danger, the game slows way down to give you a moment to switch forms or swoop out of the way. It's kind, but the more it happens the more it makes the play experience jagged and uncomfortable. Imagine how much better it could be if you could fly through forms just as smoothly as silk.
Otherwise, Totem Runner is a fantastic experience. It's particularly smart when it leaves the challenge up to you. A level may be infinitely easier if you soar above it as a bird (at least early on), but you'll leave it barren and scoreless. Similarly, the dragon is there to provide you an out whenever you need it, but it's never mandatory. The charges you earn by collecting gems should get you out of most binds; you're not likely to even notice the IAP option that lurks in the game's menu.
Totem Runner also happens to be gorgeous. From stills you might assume that this is a cheap Limbo knockoff in the looks department, but it isn't that at all. Spidery silhouettes aside, this game distinguishes itself. Each level has a vibrant color scheme and fantastical backdrops—forests, castles, villages and stranger things. The background layers achieve a lovely parallax effect that's very nearly distractingly attractive. The music doesn't bring as much life to the world as it could, but it's usually a pleasant accompaniment. Together, there's much more vitality in this game than may appear on first glance.
There are better auto-running platformers out there, but Totem Runner does a good job of keeping up. The experience is well-balanced between twitchy button handling and careful planning—it's just a touch cerebral, and never too frustrating. As is so often the case with on-screen controls, it's a few tweaks from perfect, but we've all seen much worse. In Totem Runner, Yagoda Productions has put together a beautiful game that's just shy of excellence.