Running on Magic and I don’t get on. We’ve tried to make it work, but it’s not going to happen. If we spend any more time in each other’s company, a game controller is going to get hurt.
Things were looking so positive in the early moments of the relationship. There’s a peak 16-bit look to the art style which makes it look like a lost Disney platformer; a cousin to The Lion King or Aladdin on the Sega Mega Drive, perhaps. It’s in the gorgeously detailed pixel art, but mostly in the slick animations. We’d throw Earthworm Jim in for good measure.
The quality of the art and animations means the characters can absolutely sing. The main character, your wobbly hatted little magician, has an unflappability to them – they just want to run – and it’s endearing. But it’s the Grim Reaper, the Hawaiian-shorted Death who follows you as you run, that has the greatest lines. Sure, his laid-back version of the character has been done before, in Undertale and Terry Pratchett most notably, but he’s got a clumsy gait and a weird fascination for your main character, and the moments when you catch up to him are Running on Magic’s highlights.
Because Running on Magic never stops running. You could almost say it’s an endless runner. But while the genre tends to have a roguelite approach, where you keep going in an attempt to beat a personal best, this is more level-oriented. There are six levels here, and you are looking to time your jumps, avoid beastly pests and do so for long enough that you reach the level’s end. Then you’re watching a cutscene between your wizard and Death, before scooting to a new level theme. Underwater levels, swamps and deserts all await.
It is a simple enough set up, well presented, that it should have worked. But for us, and we do wonder if it will be just us, it became so mean-spirited and joyless that we wanted to heave it out of a window.
As with all endless runners, there is no control over the movement of the environment. It keeps running from right to left, and part of the challenge is keeping up with it. We have no quarrel with that. But endless runners then make one of two decisions: either they lock you into a run at a certain speed, so you only have to think about your jumps; or they give you full control of the character.
Running on Magic proudly sits between the two stools. You are always moving forwards BUT you can also move backwards, albeit feeling like you are trying to run against a current. We, and we know it’s a strong word, hated it. The language got pretty fruity while we were playing. The problem is that it feels like a traditional platformer, but with your character sidling forwards at every opportunity. Imagine a Mario game, but every time you jump onto a platform, the little plumber takes a couple of leaps onward. You might have landed on a precarious platform, but now you’re swan-diving off it.
What this means is that you’re constantly jamming backwards on the controller to stay on a platform. Reigning in your wizard becomes more than a little tiresome. If Running on Magic built levels to accommodate this infuriating mechanic then things would be gravy: unfortunately, it tosses tiny platform after tiny platform at you, and it got to us.
Then it adds quibbles. Get hit by an enemy and, inexplicably, you’re stunned for a solid second. If you’re jumping onto a tiny platform that has an enemy on it and you get hit, well, you’re going to be leaping off that platform like a lemming, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The same goes for environmental effects like meteors, where you can be hit while you’re floating (a jab of the A button keeps you aloft), and it’s a death sentence.
Levels are procedurally generated to a point, as there are some sequences that are guaranteed to appear, but others are more random. While this is good in theory, and is very much a staple of endless runners, the algorithm here is shot. Sequences appear that – we are willing to bet – are actually impossible to navigate without being hit. Rows of enemies leave no room to float between them; a meteor hits you as you jump to a rock. When you’re on your last pip of health, it can sometimes feel like doom is just around the corner.
Then there’s the magic system. Collect little spectral orbs and a magical bar fills up. This bar can be used to perform a floor-stomp, incapacitating some enemies, or float for a period, Yoshi-like. But thanks to the procedural generation, we often found that no magical orb appeared for a sequence that deemed it essential. A huge crevasse would come into view, but we didn’t have the magic to get across. And it’s pretty hard to tell when you actually have a pool of magic: there’s nothing on the character that visually displays when you’re souped up. You have to drag your eye over to the top-left of the screen, but the game’s fast enough that this isn’t always possible.
These aren’t even the knockout blows. Because failure in Running on Magic is exceptionally harsh. There are no checkpoints: you have to complete the really rather long levels in one go. That means staying alive for a good five or ten minutes. But all of the faults we’ve listed are waiting like bullies hidden in a bush on your way home. They’re ready to steal away your magic bar when you most need it, throw up an impossible level layout, stun you until you fall into pits and generally be jerks.
We can feel the anger rise up in us as we write. Running on Magic is not a game to play if you want a sunny disposition afterwards. We came out the back of the campaign with a grumpy frown and a need to sit in a dark room for half an hour. Luckily, everyone else had gone to sleep. We weren’t going to touch the supplied Endless Mode (the only other way to play Running on Magic) for longer than we needed to, as we knew that would send us over the edge.
There may be a masochist who enjoys the endless running of Running on Magic. It certainly has plenty that’s pretty and charming, particularly in its art and characters. But you’d have to pay us good money to play it again. It’s clumsy to control and has some sloppy level generation that, in combination, makes you feel like you’re being sabotaged as you play. We’d love to say that we just need to get good, but we’ve got a sneaking suspicion that Running on Magic doesn’t want us to play it.
You can buy Running on Magic from the Xbox Store