Canadian indie developer XperimentalZ Games has done the Droid community a solid by developing an ad-free premium port of their massive iOS hit Don’t Run With a Plasma Sword. Cursory inspection reveals that the young company has used a sure-fire success formula: it is essentially a frankengame pieced together from spare pop culture parts with evergreen appeal. From its aesthetics and characters to its diverse genre elements, Don’t Run includes a seemingly endless catalogue of familiar tropes and tricks from vetted game classics, vintage TV, and (obviously) famous movie franchises. This seems like a smart approach in today’s nostalgia-saturated nerd market, but can DRWAPS deliver action fresh enough to save it from simply capitalizing on current trends?
The game’s obsessive pastiching of geek culture elements is reflected in its premise, which concerns comic book store clerk Cornelius. We find our avatar at work, dreaming about new collectibles to buy, when his days of wage slavery are cut short by an alien incursion. Finally that mail order light sab–ahem, “laser sword” he stowed away comes in handy as, glimpsing a big-headed invader absconding with a random damsel. With that, Cornelius is up and running (literally!) after the kidnapper through an adorably apocalyptic city, into the alien mothercraft, and onto the bad guys’ homeworld.
Endless runner games are infamous for their double-edged sword combo of extraordinary addictiveness and frustrating one-dimensionality. The player may feel chained to the app for days on end, but even exorbitantly priced in-app purchases might not improve play enough to keep things exciting. Don’t Run escapes this pitfall by introducing elements from classic formats; it uses a side-scrolling action platformer format, complete with save points and boss fights, and it also offers the ability to upgrade items and power-ups and enhance your skills, as you would in an RPG. Power-ups can shield you from injuries, let you blast out long distance charge attacks, or best of all, magnetize all power-ups and items so you don’t have to chase them down. You can spend experience points to enhance all of the above as well as increase your own agility and swordsmanship, continuously building a better character that carries through each new playthrough.
Generally speaking, one of DRWAPS’ big thrills is the range of special maneuvers its controls allow. Cornelius’ skill set includes dashing, diving, jumping, and slashing with his plasma sword; these sound simple enough, but the player can execute slick mid-air transitions from one move to another that propel the character through space in any direction, helping him escape pit traps and grab items in treacherous locations. Unfortunately, the sensitivity of the controls is insufficiently matched with a feeling of visceral impact. Enemy body parts split apart gently under the plasma sword and slowly bounce away, and even Cornelius’ own deaths lack a satisfying jolt in the sound design and animation. This absence of impact is especially disappointing in the case of the boss fights. Cornelius’ run is interrupted by a flying saucer, a steam punk octopus, a mechanical serpent, and a little alien on a pair of big robotic stilts; the boss will move in close and then dart away, so you have to wait for your opportunity to attack as you continue running. These battles should deliver an impression of bone-shaking blows, but the subtlety of the sound effects and visuals makes it hard to tell exactly which of your strikes have landed and where the weak points are. To confuse the issue further, each time a boss draws close enough to attack, only one of your attacks causes damage no matter how many times you lash out. It is a good thing that the fun of improving your acrobatics and upgrading your items and abilities is so compelling, because Don’t Run doesn’t quite grasp what makes a great action sequence. That said, at least these battles provide the player with mid-mission accomplishments, which is a satisfying alternative to simply trying to beat your distance score.
If DRWAPS‘ amalgam of old school action and RPG ingredients makes the game better than the average runner, this same collaged quality in the narrative isn’t as exciting. The introductory cut scene opens with an “a long time ago in a retro-futuristic galaxy far, far away” title card and a receding exposition crawl, as if the laser sword itself weren’t a forceful enough reference. What starts off as a Star Wars satire rapidly dissolves into a chaotic mix of movie allusions from War of the Worlds to Mars Attacks to Ghostbusters to Psycho, all set to a generic sci-fi soundtrack. There is nothing wrong with a little nostalgia, but here one has the sensation that Don’t Run rests a little too heavily on its ironic laurels. Although the cartoony in-game graphics are satisfactory, the cut scene material is composed of still illustrations with a sketchy texture that feel more like raw concept art than finished products. It seems that the XperimentalZ team hopes that the cleverness of its citations will trump the title’s uneven production values and general lack of inventiveness.
Although pandering to the nerd consumer can feel condescending, Don’t Run With a Plasma Sword ultimately makes up for it with inviting, rapidly changing gameplay. At the end of the day, DRWAPS is an unusually versatile runner whose low-impact battles can be forgotten in the excitement of mastering alien landscapes at breakneck speeds, and the satisfaction of upgrading abilities and accessories. This is the third game XperimentalZ has sent to market and the first for Android, and if this relatively early effort is any indication, gamers can expect great things from them on the retro-futuristic horizon.