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Wot I Think: Runers


Runers is a top-down, roguelikelikelikelike/shmup hybrid which plays a little like The Binding Of Isaac, but without the nightmare foetuses and with DIY spells instead. It's out now, and I've spent a little time fiddling with its fireballs. Here's what I made of it.

Runers is a [non-controversial term for dungeon-running RPGs which have something but by no means everything in common with Rogue] with a big dose of twin stick-esque bullet hell, but not as unforgiving as either. The deathless Binding of Isaac is the obvious touchstone, but while Runers' meat involves getting pew-pewed to death by swarms of enemies in dark, enclosed rooms, its sauce is player-driven remixing and upgrading of their offensive capabilities, rather than poo and evil Catholics.

Spell designing is a great system, not least because it means I spent plenty of time taking a breather on the inventory screen, and in turn a more measured approach to combat than simply charging about and spraying death in every direction. Though there is a hell of a lot of charging about and spraying death in every direction.

Runers is one of those games that I very nearly bounced off immediately, due to its plain appearance, ugly fonts and unappealing menus. Even soldiering on past a missing apostrophe in the developer's logo on the loading screen ("Lets Get Kraken") required superhuman willpower. Such snobbish tendencies do me no favours, however, so I persisted and I'm glad of it.

I don't want to get into the debate of whether humble origins and a low pricetag should mean presentation issues are waived, but for the record those two factors are the case for l'il Runers (it's £7, and was created by two people). More importantly, it makes up for its aesthetic shortfalls with its engrossing spell design system.

This combines the core RPG thrill of random loot with a vaguely strategic aspect. Do Earth and Fire combine into a useful attack, or are you going to hobble yourself by finding you have two short-range magicks equipped at once? Should you save that Light rune to upgrade an existing spell, or hang on to it in the hope you stumble across a Combination Rune that will enable you to fuse it with something else, and thus create a whole new attack?

Some odd terminology aside (e.g. you can 'Combine' a single rune into a single spell), it's not at all complicated: really, it's a variation on agonising over which of two found swords you're going to keep in Diablo, but with a far more ostentatious effect. Like a hammer made of fire that swings around you, or a deadly fairy that dances around the screen in lethal spirals, or a mini black hole which sucks enemies towards it.

None of this looks particularly dramatic, due to an art style that's likely shooting for lo-fi but winds up looking a little placeholder (gosh, it feels mean to say that), but the effects are. You can wield four spells at once, though minute-to-minute it's really two (one per mouse button) spamming bullets/bubbles/lightning/magic missiles/fireballs/hammers/death-fairies constantly and slower, more targeted attacks or buffs from the 1 and 2 keys.

Key to survival is having the right balance of powers in those four slots. Fill everything up with long range zappy attacks and you've got no ability to defend yourself from anything that sneaks up close, while if you're dependent on whites-of-their-eyes spells you're going to get mobbed. Ideally you'll want some defensive spells too, and these require delving deeper into the combination system.

Practised specialism and precision movement will dig you out of many holes, however, but it's fair to say I'm not at that point myself as yet. This wants to be a game for long-term play, as Isaac is, and very much falls into the easy to learn/difficult to master category.

For me right now, the joy's in the discovery. What does X+Y do? What does X+X do? What does X+Y+Z do, and what do I do with my existing X+Y and X+X if it turns out to be really good? Never knowing quite when you'll get a new rune and what it'll be when you do, as they're only dropped by 'boss' enemies or very occasional crates, keeps things delectably random, so there's always a slight excitement when one does pop up.

I'm also a fan of the initial character/class selection, which offers up a wide range of fantasy archetypes - from Barbarians to Mummies, from Wisps to Highwaymen - each with their own passive or active special ability. You pick one character type (passive ability) and one class (active ability), and that's going to be your play style.

For instance, I like Dryad, which passively heals, paired with Mummy, which can be invulnerable for 5 seconds every minute, because I'm not very good at this and tend to get hit a lot. Someone with superior hand-to-eye co-ordination might prefer something like Orc + Duelist, which means more damage when wounded and a targeted charge attack.

There's 20 passive character types and 20 classes, so 400 different combinations - I can't imagine I'll ever have tried them all. The variations are minor rather than major in practice, plus the lovely character screen art is sadly reduced to dumpy, somewhat nondescript mini-sprites in the game proper, but there's more than enough to grab hold of in terms of establishing personal preference.

Runers is cute and clever, despite its uninspiring surface, and I can well imagine it occupying the same comfort gaming berth that The Binding of Isaac did for me a couple of years ago, and Realm of the Mad God before it.

Runers is out now. There's also a demo, like in the old days.

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