Whenever I see a game in ALL CAPS, my brain shouts it aloud in the Ridge Racer announcer’s voice. “RUUUUUUNOOOOOOUT!”. It’s not useful information, I just wanted to share.
RUNOUT is not a cricket game, as you might think, but is instead an imaginative reworking of the endless runner template. Graphically, it’s somewhere between Flashback and Strider, to use some really up-to-the-minute reference points, but we’ll excuse ourselves because RUNOUT itself is harking back to an older time with its pixel graphics and superficially simple platforming.
It looks supremely stylish, if you ask us, particularly considering its budget price point of £4.99. Blade Runner-style police cars float into view, and graffiti-addled trains pass by. The character animations are smooth, although we’re not entirely sure what the orange scarf-ferret thing is that follows the main character about. It all absolutely looks the business.
Still, we will shuffle forward our first criticism of RUNOUT, and there are a few. While beautiful, RUNOUT is also visually noisy and a tad illegible. In an endless runner, it’s imperative that you know what is an obstacle and what is background decoration, mostly because you are running at speed and relying on instincts. But here, it’s hard to distinguish the two. We’ve blundered into hazards and jumped over decor when we needn’t have done either.
As a counter to that, RUNOUT also sounds bang on. They’ve opted for a stylish synth soundtrack here, which is appropriate considering the retro-futuristic aesthetic, and it absolutely soars. When you’re tapping out jumps at speed, it can often feel like you’re playing a rhythm game, and that’s testament to the soundtrack.
To play, RUNOUT immediately feels like an endless runner. Your character, the little hacker at the centre of a narrative that winks flirtingly at Terminator 2, moves continuously and automatically in one direction. You can jump and slide while they are moving, and that gets you over obstacles and further into the level. But you can also tap a button to change direction, moving from right to left instead. So, it’s a game of pivots, as you change direction as the platforms demand it.
It’s gameplay that we’ve seen before this year, actually. Space Escape was a 79p release in June that, of course, very few people played, but it used exactly the same model, and we could copy and paste our reaction to it here, and most of it would apply. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
RUNOUT is not satisfied with keeping the mechanics there. It is an eager magpie, taking ideas from umpteen games and adding them to the game at a fair old rate. Within minutes you are jumping through portals, hitting switches, fiddling with gravity, dashing mid-air, clinging onto gantries and running up walls.
It’s breathless, and, if we’re being completely honest, it’s a little too breathless. RUNOUT isn’t hugely long – probably a couple of hours if you have nimbleness in your fingers – so it’s eager to cram everything in. But before you can truly master one mechanic, another waltzes in, and you begin to wish that RUNOUT was a little easier on its pacing. It had room to do so.
Still, the mechanics are all welcome, and you could never accuse RUNOUT of lacking variety or ideas. Biomes shift from cities into post-apocalyptic settings, and the story runs to keep up. Hazards move from lazers and buzzsaws to actual guards. Everything neatly escalates, and we never, ever felt bored. It was the opposite: we were hyper-involved, as a single failure meant we were whipped back to a checkpoint to start again, or – worse – we had lost our progress as we fell back to the beginnings of a long section.
Which speaks to a nagging frustration that we had as we played RUNOUT, which is exactly the same one we experienced in Space Escape. The formula of auto-running a character, and then handing the player the control of how they overcome obstacles, has some inherent issues. Too often, you are at the whims of the auto-running. Miss a platform, and you are bouncing off it and into a place you don’t want to be, travelling in a direction you don’t want to go, and you will likely not have the wherewithal to immediately understand where you are. Mistakes compound, and the direction-switch is helpful, but often too late in getting you out of a scrape.
You might need to get to a particular platform, but the sequence of button presses, as you change direction and jump in short stints, are extremely challenging and – depending on your tastes – not wholly enjoyable. Something you could do with your eyes closed in Super Mario becomes an absolute ballache here, and we felt like we were Octodad desperately trying to pull off the most basic of maneuvers.
We come out of RUNOUT and Space Escape wondering whether it is actually possible to make a 100% enjoyable platformer where the main character auto-runs and you can change direction with a button press. We land on ‘no’. It’s too ungainly, too fiddly, and we desperately hoped to access a game menu where we could play it conventionally. But of course it wouldn’t be there.
Which is a shame, as RUNOUT oozes love and style. We haven’t even covered the inclusion of a co-op mode (admittedly, only compounding the confusion as you both desperately try to stay in view of each other), and four different characters to unlock and choose from, including a dog called Laika. Which should immediately add points to the score. And levels never sit still, with train sections and chase sections all remixing the formula.
But we couldn’t get in sync with RUNOUT. Try as we might, the screen was too hard to read, the mechanics too quick to come and go, and the basics of the platforming too fiddly, contorting our finger positions into shapes that we haven’t encountered since playing Goldeneye on N64. We dearly wanted to love RUNOUT, because it’s so inventive and endlessly cool, but it kept us at arm’s reach throughout.
You can buy RUNOUT from the Xbox Store