The release of the new live-action Cowboy Bebop reminded me just how much I love the show, and how hard it is to find anything remotely like it. I think it’s just because of how eclectic the show is. It’s got so many different influences, ranging from Chinese action films to space operas to even the Western. It’s rare to see something with the same tone, because of how many things compose its DNA.
Recently, I’ve been playing They Always Run, and I think, for now, it’s actually doing a pretty good job of filling that gap for me. It doesn’t reach those same highs, but it appeals to the part of me that just wants a great Space Western where I can roleplay as an aloof, mysterious guy. You play as a galactic bounty hunter named Aiden, who, along with his partner Jonathan, jumps between planets trying to chase down these bounties. Unlike Cowboy Bebop’s charismatic bounty hunter Spike, Aiden’s given a third arm, which helps to manage the dozens of enemies you run into over the course of the game.
They Always Run does a pretty good job of game-ifying Spike’s fluid agility from the anime, since the player’s always sliding around, jumping over objects or climbing platforms. It’s no secret that Spike’s martial arts are heavily inspired by Bruce Lee, but until a game manages to capture that level of precision and technique, I think Aiden’s third arm is a pretty good compromise. It’s a powerful attack, and you always have to physically move Aiden’s third arm with the right stick, so it makes it feel like you’re thrusting all of your weight towards an enemy. Plus it’s a finite resource, which balances its power out, and it feels like you’re heavily committing every time you throw it out.
Keeping track of resources is another important part of the combat in They Always Run. The management you have to do in your head of watching your health, the charge on your arm, and your ammo, captures the same feeling I get watching Spike spontaneously turn the nearest object to him into a makeshift weapon. It targets awareness in the same way. Considering Aiden’s arm along with his basic attack and counter, it creates this rock paper scissors style combat system, where there’s always a correct option to anything. Just like the fights in Bebop, it becomes a dance. You always have to respond to your enemies in the correct way to keep the momentum going, and it feels terrible when you mess up.
The whole game is based around the same sort of rhythm as Bebop. It’s episodic by design, and all of the levels are self-contained adventures on foreign planets. You have to acquaint yourself with new cultures and characters in every level, and it hits that same fish out of water note that Spike usually has. The odds are purposefully stacked against you every time.
Linking these “episodes” in They Always Run are regular visits back to Aiden’s ship between levels. It’s a bit underdeveloped, but I do enjoy the little tastes of familiarity you get, before having to burst straight into another long stretch. It brings that sort of comfort you get from seeing the Bebop’s crew relax together while selecting their next bounty.
Similar to Spike, Aiden’s an incredibly talented bounty hunter who can’t stop getting in his own way. There’ll be times where he has a genius idea, like activating a giant drill to get through a wall, but he won’t plan far enough ahead to think about how to stop the drill once it’s on. Suddenly, that same drill that was helping you, is now chasing you. It’s that specific blend of planning and improvisation (when the plan inevitably goes wrong), which really makes me think of Cowboy Bebop whenever I’m playing They Always Run. I love that it randomly turns up the pressure with something set up earlier, and also blames my player character for doing it. Flawed characters are more interesting!
They Always Run does a great job of grabbing what Cowboy Bebop does right and trying to convert it into a playable format. It doesn’t get the existentialism and angst though, but I’m not sure any game could do the show justice in that regard, since it exploits so much of the visual medium. You know, the actual Cowboy Bebop games, notwithstanding.