Playing a bad game is no fun, and it's even worse when that bad game comes from a developer you usually like. I guess I could probably call the review a wrap right there, but just in case you want to know why I think Random Runners [$0.99], the latest from Ravenous Games, is so lousy, grab a beverage of your choice, take a seat, and I'll lay it out. I sincerely hope this game ends up a simple outlier in Ravenous's spread, because I hate to see the folks behind the brilliant League of Evil [$1.99] go this low.
So, first of all, I should probably give a brief overview of the game. This game is a spin-off of the successful Random Heroes series. While they aren't perfect games by any means, they control well and offer a nice variety of weapons and characters to unlock to keep you busy. Those games were stage-based, free-roaming, sidescrolling shooters, and I would definitely recommend checking out Random Heroes 2 [Free] if you came to this review looking for a good game to play. Random Runners is, as you might guess from the title, a game in the runner genre. You start off with a weak hero and a weak gun, run through pre-built stages or a semi-randomized endless mode, pick up coins and diamonds, and buy stronger heroes and stronger guns. Conceptually, it's not a bad idea, but the execution goes wrong in almost every way possible.
Let's talk bugs. Ravenous is no stranger to bugs, of course, like many small development teams. They're also fairly good about fixing the big ones in the long run, but I can't review anything but what was released on the store and is in front of me now. And boy-oh-boy, is what is in front of me buggy. In the course of playing through this game for the review, I've had: multiple crashes, menu buttons and store selections becoming randomly non-functional, a glitch that caused the level clear menu to pop up twice which skipped me past the next level, collision issues where I fell "through" the end of the stage and was marked as a death instead of a stage clear, and horrendous slowdown when too many coins are on-screen. I can't even begin to imagine what went on here, but most beta versions of games I've played have been scores more stable than this is.
The sad thing is, the bugs are just the start of the problem here. They may even be the least of the problems. Look, I understand that runners are very popular on the App Store, and it probably looks very tempting to try for a slice of that pie, but the prosperity and proliferation of that genre on iOS means the competition is extremely stiff. People have tons of high quality options, and many of those options are free. So if you're going to show up to this genre, you really need to bring your A-game. You need to either bring an awesome new innovation, or do everything and do it very well. Random Runners falls short of even the middle of the pack in every regard except perhaps visuals. It leaves out many of the key elements of enjoyable runners and brings almost nothing in exchange. The end result feels like they took Random Heroes [Free] and added auto-run instead of taking a great runner concept and adding a Random Heroes twist.
The worst way this manifests is in the controls. Jumping has an oddly weighty feel to it, causing you to miss jumps that it felt like you could have made. It almost feels like you need a better character to jump better, but even once you've acquired them, it still feels off. When you miss a jump, another control quirk rears its head. You can wall jump in this game, and it's performed by pushing the jump button when you're touching a wall. The thing is, when you blow a jump, you'll often end up in a damage-inducing pit, and probably just on the outer edge of it. The natural instinct is to hit jump again to get out of the pit, but this will often result in a wall-jump that only throws you farther back into the pit. Adding to the control problems is that after you shoot, there's a slight delay before you can slide or jump again, creating all too many no-win situations until you've upgraded your weapons.
You will need to upgrade, of course, and that's fine because this is part of the Random Heroes series, so it's what we do. Enemies are as bullet-spongey in this game as they are in the rest of the series, and the gun you start with is so inefficient at killing things you might as well not even try. As you gather the two fairly abundant forms of currency you can buy new guns, which are useful, and new characters, which for the most part are not. Characters really only have two stats with little else separating them except the cost to unlock them and their appearance. For whatever reason, the most expensive characters are actually not much better than the character you start off with, and have no special quirks or abilities the way they do in the Random Heroes games. Considering how much scratch you have to save up to unlock the final tier characters, it's pretty disappointing that the best buy is probably the low-cost, mid-tier SWAT character, thanks to his huge life bar.
There are two ways to play Random Runners. There's a level-based mode where you'll run through 45 stages trying to collect three stars and reach the goal, and an endless mode where you simply see how far you can get before you buy the farm. The level-based mode is definitely the better of the two, thanks to the deliberate designs minimizing no-win situations, but there's one element that kind of ruins it. In this mode, if you die during a level, you can revive for a flat rate of two diamonds per resurrection. At the beginning of the game, that's a bit steep, but before long you'll have fistfuls of diamonds.
As the cost of resurrection never goes up, the penalty for dying is virtually nil before you're even done the first set of maps. As a result, the challenge of collecting some stars and other items that would normally be tricky to get is trivialized, since you don't really have to worry about dying. Most runners hike up the price of resurrection with each successive use, so that the player eventually reaches a point where the wisest course is to cut their losses and try again from the start, but not here. It's like playing an arcade beat-em-up on freeplay, where a simple push of the button drops you exactly where you died. It stops being fun pretty fast, and the only mercy in it is that it's pretty short.
Like I said, however, the level mode is the better of the two. The endless mode in this game is really weak compared to its peers in the genre. There are only three background types, and you select the one you want before you start, so you'll be looking at the same stuff for your entire run. Each type seems to have a fairly small number of set-ups that are chained together randomly, and you'll notice them repeating very blatantly even in a short run. The way they stitch together often creates situations where you can't avoid being hit, and there are no power-ups along the way to even things out. While I'm talking about things this game is missing that runners usually have, there are also no missions to shoot for while you're doing your run. Not that every runner needs them, but this one could certainly use them.
Just to avoid being completely negative, I'll say that the game looks and sounds pretty good. Ravenous Games have mastered the art of faux-retro pixel art, and it's as impressive here as it was in Random Heroes. I mean, it has to be, they appear to be largely the same sprites. While the backdrops lack variety, what's there looks good. The music is pretty typical fare for Ravenous, which is to say it's made up of some catchy chiptunes that pair well with action gameplay. I'm not a fan of how hardware-intensive this game is, though. For such simple-looking graphics, it's bizarre that things don't run well at times. If you're on an iPhone 4, I'd strongly advise that you not shoot any enemies, because the coin explosion will drag the game to a halt. Even on an iPhone 5, if you pop a couple enemies at once, the ensuing burst of coins will cause some slowdown that will almost certainly end in you taking a hit or two.
I'll give Ravenous Games credit: they seem committed to fixing this up. I'm not sure if any number of buckets of lipstick are going to make this pig look like a princess, but I at least hope that they can whip it into the condition it probably should have been at release. Even if they fix the balance, adjust the controls, and squash every bug, though, you'll still be left with a mediocre runner. I really hope they do their homework if they ever decide to make Random Runners 2. As for this poor beast of a game, I can't find a single reason to recommend it, even for fans of the developers.
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