Ring Runner is a top-down space shooter with RPG qualities. An ARPG set in space then? That doesn’t sound quite right because I spent precious little time clicking on things and waiting for them to die. It’s more action than RPG, but it does contain more than 300 weapons and gadgets with which to customise its ships. In short, it’s an enormous, bewildering game. In long, here’s wot I think.
I haven’t quite finished Ring Runner, which could be slightly problematic. Anything could happen. By the time it ends, it might have become a point and click adventure. It’s a game that begins with a trench run, a battered spaceship fleeing across the surface of a larger one. A massive one. That one has been battered too. More so in fact. It’s as battered as a confectionary in a Scottish takeaway. Flames paint the starscape, weird blossoms and stains, the behemoth is dying and I am escaping, weaving through turret fire and attempting to outrun the wall of death that has erupted from the dying engine core.
It’s more Uridium than Death Star assault, this initial taste of Ring Runner’s world, a top-down, old-fashioned space shooter, albeit with graphics that wring every drop of goodness out of a modern machine. They’re the rare visuals that rely mostly on subtlety to impress. Example - the gas that trails from a ship, exhausted, as the pilot adjusts its flight path, perfectly describing motion and control. While its scope is galactic, Ring Runner is a devil for details, describing its world with individual particles, drifting debris, necropolis backdrops, quips and jokes.
All of that may sound unusual or even impenetrable, but the reality is simple. Mostly. Through a series of missions, the player evolves from a runaway pilot trapped in a strange ship to a captain with a choice of equipment, hulls, armaments and approaches. The ships vary in weight and elegance but they all feel suitably cumbersome, requiring precise and strong handling (best with a controller, I found, though satisfactory without) to pull off the impressive tricks they’re capable of. The road between the stars is winding, however, and Ring Runner’s approach leads past and through all manner of unexpected destinations.
This isn’t really a grand tour of alien civilisations and lonely corners of the universe, although there is a great deal of fantastical sci-fi introduced via conversations that range from the bewildering to the comedic. Ring Runner has great gobbets of mythology that it would like to introduce you to, from junk robbers to sages and spacefaring warrior tribes, but the exploration of the unusual lore often made me feel like a stone skipping delicately across the surface of an ocean planet. There were depths and I could feel their inhabitants uncoiling toward my underbelly, but apart from a brush with the occasional flesh-frond or tentacle tip, I was untouched.
That’s the game’s intent, glib and self aware, the voices encountered are far more concerned with their comedic mode of delivery than the payload itself. There is backstory aplenty but for much of it you may have to look elsewhere. I found it refreshing to engage with alien cultures who didn’t bludgeon me with exposition warheads upon first contact, and even when Ring Runner does decide to talk at the player for a while, the action doesn’t freeze. It’s entirely possible to take down an entire fleet before its leader finishes threatening, cajoling and bragging. That’s provided you’re a dab hand with the wide range of tools that are used to obliterate foes.
How pleasant to play a space shooter that mostly avoids lasers that go pew-pew and photon torpedoes that drift like silent hunters. In Ring Runner, I grappled with ships, grabbing them with a gravity cable, spinning, building momentum and hurling them into walls of spikes or the corpses of other ships. Sometimes I would yank them toward me and then fling them into one another, a space pinball wizard capable of pinging a wingman off his companions and destroying both. There were guns as well, but often the game put me in the position of unarmed scavenger, forced to defend with the tools of the trade.
And that’s the thing. Despite its similarities to Sub Space, Space Rangers and even Star Control, Ring Runner is far more bizarre and unwieldy in a structural sense. While I was waiting for the game to open up and allow me to start spending the resources I’d collected, or to choose from the various ship designs I’d encountered and controlled, it repeatedly confounded my expectations.
After being taught how to collect scrap and switch out one piece of equipment for another, I found myself thrown into an arena, barely more than a screen tall and wide, fighting a progression of enemies. It was an entirely different experience and one the previous hour hadn’t prepared me for, in terms of pacing or plot. Not only had my scavenging and survival experience become an enclosed arena, it had become a top-down shooter in which I had no guns. Gravity hooks and the kindness of strangers were my only means of survival.
Like a giddy and knowledge-hungry child after the first day of Big School, Ring Runner has so many ideas that it delivers them in an excited babble. It’s a dense and beautiful game but it deals out its tricks somewhat erratically. It’s a conversation that rarely remains on one topic for more than five minutes – while mostly intelligent and engaging, it’s also equally exhilarating and frustrating. I want the freedom to explore this spectacular sector of space and when Ring Runner releases the shackles, it is sublime. An ARPG of sorts, with abilities aplenty and diverse methods of destruction.
The weapons and gadgets are plentiful and hugely varied, which can make proceedings overwhelming, particularly given the game’s frequent swerves from exploration and discovery to claustrophobic combat. I had the distinct impression that over years of development, every ideas was thrown at the wall and if it didn’t stick, it was hammered into place. Most of what’s here is well designed and would have stuck anyway, but discovering a favourite part and then finding it rapidly obscured by other aspects, no matter how decent, can be distracting.
Scudding between abandoned hulks in a machine cemetery between the stars is such a joy though, waiting for an ambush with a set of bizarre weapons primed and engines ready for evasive manoeuvres. At its worst, Ring Runner is needlessly erratic, restraining the player in its eagerness to change the rules of engagement. At its best, it takes the very idea of a twin-stick shooter, shakes it by the collar and shrieks, “Space is enormous and deserves more than lasers and lightshows – let us strive for the beauty and variety that the stars deserve.”