Although the absurdist comedy of Runner3 would certainly allow for it, the game never actually throws a kitchen sink at players. But obstacles of all other shapes and sizes appear throughout, from Foodland’s literal milky way of white rivers, to Spookyland’s haunted theme park of cycloptic cacti and eldritch eyeballs, to Machineland’s mechanical traps that suddenly whir into frame. Runner3 is fun, but exhaustingly so, especially now that this rhythm platformer is paced less like the genial sprints of previous games in the series and more like an Ironman triathlon. The mechanics from Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien have been integrated into each level in creative and cohesive ways, but the gameplay is significantly more difficult.
For one, there’s no longer a way to adjust a level’s difficulty. Instead of easing players into punishing challenges by modulating a basic version of a course with additional obstacles, Runner3 throws you into the deep end. Levels only ever get harder, with the completion of the initial Gold path unlocking a divergent Gem path. That isn’t a problem by itself; after all, many masocore games like Celeste and Super Meat Boy revolve around intense trial and error. But Runner3‘s levels are considerably longer than those of its predecessor, and the amount of overlap between the Gold and Gem paths varies so wildly that it’s hard to build up the fast-twitch muscle memory necessary to perfect them. (The game’s rightfully titled “Impossibly Hard” levels each revolve around a flawless, repeated execution of a specific skill that the main game never adequately puts to the test.) Run into an unexpected surprise right before a checkpoint enough times and you’ll stop cracking smiles at a level’s whimsical environment and perhaps start cracking your controller.
As if dying constantly and having to replay a lengthy stretch of course alone weren’t frustrating enough, Runner3 requires completionists to replay levels to collect every hidden item. (You can no longer collect everything in a single run, as in Runner2.) Take, for instance, the new Hero Quest mode, which plays to the strength of Choice Provisions’s writers. Wander off the beaten path and you may encounter such characters as a murderous, depressed SADBOT or an engaged couple of Frosted Wheats. You might be asked to recover the missing words of an addled limericist. It’d be nice if these quests were given from the game’s main map, or if there were a shortcut directly to them. Instead, you have to play through the levels in which these NPCs are found at least twice: once to activate the quest and then again to fulfill the request. On top of that, the three items each NPC requires are hidden in separate levels, which often means grinding back through already cleared levels. And after a while, the density of split paths and hidden collectibles begins to eat away at the novelty and joy of your first few runs, until all that’s left is frustration.
The final problematic additions to the series are the new double-jump move and a camera angle that sometimes shifts away from the game’s standard planar view. The Runner games are meticulous, if not metronomic; they move to a precise rhythm, and the sound effect that accompanies a character move or the collection of an item flows perfectly in tune with the soundtrack. But actions are harder to execute when the camera flits about, or when the vehicular segments that have you flying in an explosive tin can or riding on the back of a slug are dependent on too-loose controls. If the double jump is inappropriately used to get around something that should’ve been slid under or glided past, it can put players slightly off-beat with the moving parts of the level, or make successive jumps that much harder.
It’s not that Runner3 needs to stick strictly to the rails. The unlockable Retro levels, modeled this time in the blocky and bright style of Hanna-Barbera cartoons, actually give players full control over your runner. What makes these areas work so well is their brevity; because none are longer than a minute, you don’t have to slog back through nearly as much of the course after making an error. In the Retro World, death isn’t an obstacle, but rather an opportunity to improve. In the main game, however, which counts up the number of times you’ve died in a row, death literally becomes a profanity. After 99 failures, the counter appropriately settles on @!#.