Madmen who run unattended: A critical review of three endless runner games

Wait a second, wasn’t this year going to be all about video games? Well, we’re slightly less than halfway through. There’s still time, and time is of the essence in this review. One thing that the digital world has given us is the ability to distract ourselves for periods of time as long or short as we please. And some distractions seems tailor-made for those social situations where we’d really rather have our respective heads buried in our phones. I’m talking about the real time wasters, games for places like the DMV or family reunions.

Occasionally when I get bored, I pop open the App Store on my rickety old ipad and see what Lovecraft, Poe and worse inspired distractions there are out there. One can’t do this constantly, as it turns out that games that fit both my quirky interests and my budget–that is, games that are free–are not falling out of the sky. Still, sometimes I make good. This happened recently when I found a trio of distinct endless runner games of a similar flavor.

The first was the iOS exclusive “Blood Roofs,” which was by far the most ambitious of the lot. You play as a duet, an initially unnamed-yet-shirtless man carrying a crippled-yet-armed woman named Catherine, who are on the run from an unnamed force of unhappy critters in an unnamed, but very Old World looking, city. Catherine is a fairly crack shot with a submachine gun, and her companion’s ability to jump frightening distances and land safely suggest his calves are made of spring steel.

Visually speaking, “Blood Roofs” is fairly impressive. The city is detailed without being particularly repetitive, the monsters are inventive and large and have unpronounceable names (and, oddly enough, sound like Godzilla from time to time), and our heroes resemble a slightly pixilated Frank Frazetta painting. All in all, not bad. There’s also a decent amount of depth to the gameplay. There are plenty of collectibles to purchase with in-game currency (or real dollars, if you are so inclined) which are there to ease or extend the game. The most exciting of these are probably the increasingly wacky alternate companions, offering you a chance to trade Catherine for either an escaped convict with a flamethrower, a landlocked mermaid or a broken grandfather clock.

The controls are a little buggy, most notably when it comes to the jumps, with our heroes sometimes sailing right over a rooftop and other times failing to catch a single shingle. Jumps are a rather important part of a runner game that has the word “Roofs” in the title, but I imagine you’ll manage. One nice component of the game is that you genuinely feel like you’re improving and advancing as you go along. Besides, I suppose that that’s the trade-off for what is otherwise a surprisingly deep game. Well, that and having to look at that man’s well sculpted ass the entire time.

In a way, the most satisfying of the lot was probably “Nightmare Runner” (also available as a browser game) because it was the one that did the most of what it set out to do. “Nightmare Runner” is exactly what it says on the label: You are endlessly running, and you are hopefully just in a nightmare. The game is short on plot, longer on style and longest on ease of entry.

“Nightmare Runner” can be completely summed up with its description, a horror themed platformer/rail shooter, but that’s kind of the point. The lack of plot means that it’s something that you can turn on and play for five or 10 minutes without having to worry about save points of character development or anything like that, which is what these games all are at heart.

The style works too. Its world is built out of silhouettes and twisting tentacle things, some of which are floating toward you and have to be shot at in order to safely continue, but others of which loom in the sickly yellow background, which gives the screen a kind of depth and might make you reconsider just what it is you’re running on top of. Also, “Nightmare” passes the Lovecraft video game test: At one point, a monster the size and age of a small planet looms on the horizon, and you feel the cartoon awe for a moment. Until you kill it and realize it’s mortal after all. Probably.

About the only thing some people have complained about regarding “Nightmare Runner” is its market system, which uses purple gems to buy upgrades. Gems are almost nonexistent in gameplay, seemingly available only to those who fork over real cash in exchange for digital currency. But none of the upgrades seem all that necessary, so this is hardly a weakness, just an annoyance for OCD completionists.

Aside from utilizing some pleasantly quirky animation, and referencing a Doors song in its title, “Light My Fear” (also available on Android) was by far the biggest letdown of the lot. You play as the delightfully named Hector Baltazar, a young man with a passing resemblance to Edgar Allan Poe who wakes up in a forest with no idea of how he got there. I don’t either, but I personally think you can leave him there if you want. Nevertheless, Hector picks up a torch and starts making his way back to civilization, burning whatever hapless creatures of the night get in his path.

The most frightening aspect of “Fear” is its horrific controls, which often renders Hector standing stock still and being bitten to death on the ankles by very large spiders. Most criminally, if you do manage to slog through the stiff controls and unforgiving enemies, there is only one chapter.

OK, so it’s only a demo. That’s too bad, because it is a fun style, very Tim Burton-y for those who like that sort of thing. But it’s a demo that has been a demo for two years now, so the odds of it being smoothed out and expanded seem rather low at this point. Who knows? It might have ended up being the best of this trio. At this point, I’ll never know, and probably neither will you.


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