I'm saying this up front because I'm guessing the difficulty in Runner turned some would-be fans away, and I want those people to keep reading. If you liked the simple rhythm-platforming gameplay of Runner but hit a metaphorical wall after hitting so many literal walls, this will be more your speed. I think I got through about 8 stages in a row of fast-moving, autoscrolling, jumping, sliding, kicking gameplay without dying.
In fact, a lot of the game is designed to welcome lapsed or new players. The retro look has been replaced by a polygonal style that co-director Alex Neuse describes as "whimsical," with a rounded, cartoony CommanderVideo and cute creatures bouncing happily to the music. Cutscenes in a Saul Bass art style act as both exemplars of a popular style and, as co-director Mike Roush explained, a "stepping stone between the old style and the new style." bridges between the 2D Bit.Trip look and Runner2's in-game presentation. As an XBLA/PSN title, it's also available to people who couldn't play the WiiWare-based Runner. "So this is like, hey everyone, this is our fun little gameplay thing, rhythm music platformer, and we can all play it," Neuse said.
Even if you're a bad enough dude to enjoy the insane difficulty of Runner 1, there's plenty in the sequel to capture your interest. Like choices.
Last week, as GDC was coming to an end, I played an early version of Runner2 in Gaijin's San Francisco office, and was surprised by the amount of variability the team has added to the game. In Runner 1, there is always one correct move for every situation, and one perfect path through each stage. If you get all the gold bars and reach the end, you can do no better. But in Runner2, there are several new ideas implemented that allow you either to experience a level differently, or simply augment your score for better placement on the leaderboards.
On the "easier" front: there are checkpoints now, so you don't automatically go all the way to the beginning of a level if you hit a single obstacle. You can choose to jump over them if you don't want to activate them, which gets you more points, but they'll be a welcome crutch to most, I'm sure.
Hey everyone, this is our fun little gameplay thing, rhythm music platformer, and we can all play it.- Alex Neuse, Gaijin Games
Levels will frequently have branching paths now. You can choose to go high or low, for example, by bouncing on a springboard or passing it by. If you pick up a key in certain stages, you'll be able to get past a gigantic owl-shaped padlock and access a new part of a level. No key means you just bonk against the lock. (As I quickly learned, "bonk" is the official term for a player death). Some levels even have alternate exits that lead you to different paths on the world map. Oh, and there's a world map now. Sometimes those alternate exits lead to items, allowing you to unlock new clothing items and new playable characters.
New work-in-progress footage posted on the Runner2 development blog
Other changes do less to affect the shape of the level, and more to give you stuff to do within the level. You'll periodically come across loop de loops and "square de squares" that you can choose to enter by hitting the right trigger, and which have little minigames within. For example, a square de square will have a button prompt on each corner corresponding to a face button, which you have to hit with proper timing as CommanderVideo runs by, in order to earn points. Loop de loops will require you to trace a circle with the right analog stick, but that was not yet implemented in the demo I played. The implementation of the squares was incomplete in my demo as well, but I played along anyway, because it felt good to do that little flourish in a level.
Speaking of flourishes, CommanderVideo can now dance. By pressing the right trigger at any time, the Commander busts out a sweet, randomized dance move, which augments your score. There's a trick to it, though. "It lasts a full beat," Neuse explained, "and you're locked in." So you have to be certain you won't have to avoid another obstacle for the next beat. I didn't do this much, because it was my first time through all these levels and I'm not that much of a daredevil. "The reason we have dance is, one, it's really fun and cute," Neuse said. "Two, it's a way to augment scores for the online leaderboards. So if you get a perfect, and I get a perfect, and I can dance better, then my points are going to be higher than yours. It's a way for people who have gotten perfects to still compete."
That dance is about it for new moves mapped to buttons. Existing Runner 1 moves can now be combined where they previously could not, so you'll be forced to slide-jump through narrow spaces, or slide-kick to destroy a small obstacle at foot level. But there are no fully new button commands. "More than five is just too much," Neuse said. So instead, Gaijin added the combination moves and new "passive" moves, like multiple levels of super jumps, which vary depending on what kind of springboard you hit.
Elements I didn't get to see in detail (because the game is still super early) include rails from which CommanderVideo can either grind or hang. I saw this very briefly but it wasn't quite working right. A cannon minigame is set to end each level, allowing you to aim and shoot CommanderVideo into a target for extra points.
Early screenshot originally posted in January
A much bigger element I didn't get to see at all is multiplayer -- couch-based racing for "at least" two players. "It's kind of a race to try to make it to the end, but there's also a co-op aspect, where if you play perfectly in sync, then you get multipliers on your points," Neuse said. "You both run at the same rate, but if you bonk, or if I bonk, you go back to the beginning of the level."
Gaijin also promises a hard mode, for those of us eager for another painful challenge. "Hard mode is probably going to be like Bit.Trip Runner 1 hard," Neuse told me, "or harder. We wanted fans of the super difficult games to have their super difficult challenge." Checkpoints will not be present in this mode.
After a solid hour of uninterrupted playtime, I was hopeful for the future of Bit.Trip Runner (one of my favorite games). Though the Gaijin staff repeatedly assured me the game was in an early state -- bugs and missing art assets periodically popped up to remind me -- and that the new additions weren't exactly set in stone, every new element felt like it fit to me. It all works together to let players have more personalization in the way they play, without compromising the deliberately rigid timing-based mechanics.
I was going to end here with a discussion of the music, but it turns out I'm not great at describing music. Luckily, Gaijin posted some audio from a playthrough of a stage in world 2. Just listen.