Review: Runner2 takes the rhythmic action genre to unseen heights of brilliance

The original Bit.Trip Runner was a challenging game that truly tested players’ mettle and patience, all the while providing an inviting and entertaining experience. The game featured an auto-running gameplay style that forced players to stay alert, rely on their twitch reflexes, and follow the beat of the music. Bit.Trip Presents… Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien marks the return of CommanderVideo, and it’s even more accessible than its predecessor. Don’t take that to mean that this auto-running game is easy, though. Runner2 is a highly challenging affair, but that challenge is always fair and incredibly rewarding. Simply put, developer Gaijin Games has delivered one of the most satisfying games of this or any other console generation, and to call Runner2 anything but sheer perfection would be utterly ludicrous.

From the very moment you hear the game’s title music, you know you’re in for a real spectacle. The grand vibe of Runner2 is only amplified when you hear the narrator say, “I’m Charles Martinet, and now it’s time for Bit.Trip Presents… Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien.” Those few words from the legendary voice of Mario set the stage for an incredible journey through magnificent worlds riddled with treacherous obstacles and appropriately scored with unforgettable music.

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The first few levels of Runner2 do an excellent job of teaching you the basics of jumping and sliding, but it doesn’t take long for the game to ramp up the challenge. Before you know it you’ll be kicking down destructible walls, blocking incoming objects, and even dancing. There’s literally no room for error. Everything you do has a purpose, and a rewarding level of difficulty is plentiful throughout the experience. The game actually manages to get better the more you play with absolutely no dull moments to be found. Sometimes you have to jump over enemies, while other times you're required to slide under them. Later in the game, you’re tasked with sliding and then immediately kicking down a wall. Of course, you can’t stop to breathe because after kicking said wall, you need to jump repeatedly over some fiendishly placed baddies.

Performing all of these actions increases your score, but even if you’re not battling for the top spot in the online leaderboards, Runner2 graces you with a myriad of ways to have fun. Gold is scattered across every stage, and collecting everything can become quite the daunting task, especially in later levels. It’s not uncommon to replay stages multiple times as you learn the layout and exact position of gold bars. This is just one of the many incentives that accompany revisiting each of the colorful lands in Runner2. If you collect all of the gold in any given stage, you can then shoot your character out of a cannon. Hitting the bull’s eye awards you a perfect+ rank, so if you’re up for the challenge and don’t want to settle for a regular ol’ perfect rank, you can chase these coveted badges of honor.

Certain stages in Runner2 unlock bonus characters for you to play as if you feel like giving CommanderVideo a break. Aside from gold bars, you’ll come across treasure chests that unlock alternate outfits for your crew of intergalactic heroes. Oftentimes, these treasure chests can only be reached by taking alternate routes. These paths are usually more difficult and are decorated with far more obstacles than the normal routes. Hidden throughout many of the levels are special cartridges that grant you access to retro levels that are among the toughest in the game. If and when you inevitably fail a retro level, you’ll be glad to know that you can access it immediately without having to seek out the cartridge again in the main level.

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Runner2 presents you with a world map, though progression is still fairly linear for the most part. That said, there are a few wrinkles thrown in for good measure. A handful of levels have alternate exits that open up new areas on the map. Additionally, certain levels are locked and require a specific number of gold bars to gain access to them. There’s also a special “key vault” level in each world that rewards you with said key. This key can then be used to open up locked areas within stages in that particular world, giving you access to alternate routes and treasure chests. The sheer amount of content and variety is enjoyably vast, and the game constantly invites you to revisit older levels.

Like previous Bit.Trip games, the soundtrack in Runner2 is impressive and catchy. This is some of the best music in the series, with themes that range from purposely quirky to undeniably grand. Every one of your actions affects the music, so whenever you collect a gold bar, slide under an enemy, block a projectile, or jump over a pitfall, you’re treated to a new beat in the music. Songs start off quite calm, but as you get to the more challenging sequences, the music drastically changes and becomes a rhythmic harmony of artful sound that’s just amazing to listen to.

Gaijin went in an entirely different graphical direction with Runner2, but that’s not a bad thing at all. This is a new chapter for CommanderVideo, and the art style reflects that. Our hero’s adventure is decorated with brilliant use of color, breathtaking backgrounds, and awe-inspiring landmarks. Whether you’re running through the heavenly Welkin Wonderland, touring the tropical Emerald Brine, or traversing the forests of the Supernature, you’re constantly treated to some wonderfully atmospheric scenery. Sure, you can’t always focus on all of it on account of the game’s frantic speed and high challenge, but those moments when you do get a clear glimpse of the world around your character are astonishingly absorbing.

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It’ll take you about six hours to get to the end of Runner2, though you can add some extra time if you want to collect all of the gold bars in each stage. There are also three different difficulty settings that change the obstacle layout depending on whether you opt to take it easy or really challenge yourself. The awesome thing about the difficulty settings is that you can select the one you desire before starting any specific stage, so you have the freedom to chase a higher challenge as you see fit. If you’re hoping to get perfect+ scores on easy, medium, and hard, you’re in for a lengthy and worthwhile experience. You’re looking at a total of 100 levels plus 25 retro stages, all of which just beg to be revisited over and over again. As far as the Wii U version goes, there’s nothing in the way of extra content, but you can play the game in its entirety directly on the GamePad.

Runner2 is a one of the greatest games to come along in recent memory and a flawless victory in game design. Gaijin has effectively raised the bar for what the running man genre is all about, and it has taken the Bit.Trip series to even greater heights, reaching a plateau of prestige that only few have visited before. The incredulous leap of Runner2 from the first Runner is comparable to that of Super Mario Bros. 3 from the original Super Mario Bros. Yes, this game is that extraordinarily stupendous and evokes that same level of baffling wonder. Regardless of whether or not you played the first game, you owe it to yourself to be left in stupefied awe at the pure brilliance of Runner2.

[Reviewed on Nintendo Wii U]

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