Review: ArcRunner

15 Apr 2024
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Am I allowed to be… like… kind of tired of roguelikes at this point? Don’t get me wrong, that is a rhetorical question; I’m allowed to be tired of anything that I am authentically tired of and I don’t really need to ask permission. But it feels like people have reached a point with roguelikes where they’ve realized that these games have technically infinite content and still haven’t realized that an infinite amount of unseasoned rice is technically infinite food. You won’t starve, but that doesn’t make it good.

To be absolutely clear, I am not saying that ArcRunner is an infinite amount of unseasoned white rice. But I am saying that at this point, any roguelike kind of has to surprise me. It has to do something different, invite different gameplay. It has to really kind of have the sauce. Does ArcRunner have the sauce now that it’s coming to PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 (the version played for this review), Xbox Series X|S, and Nintendo Switch?

CurveSprinter

Here we are, welcome to the gigantic space station the Arc. It’s home to about 10 million robots, humans, augmented humans, we’ve got shops and markets, and… wait, why are you already groaning? I didn’t say it got attacked, you just assumed that… okay, yeah, it gets attacked and the core becomes evil and now all the robots need to have the living circuits beaten out of them. Oh, stop acting like you’re so clever.

This is not a game that is primarily concerned with plot, of course; it’s a roguelike. The point is that you have been uploaded to a robot body, and your gender-unspecified protagonist can be rebuilt as many times as it takes to cut through to an access elevator, get up to the top, and hard reboot the system core. Of course, in the process you will probably have blown up a sizable portion of the station population, but we’re not supposed to think too hard about that. Yeah, those are your enemies. You knew that was going to be the case.

It is, of course, about as video game as a video game premise can possibly be. You have a bad guy (the core and whatever caused this to happen) and a good guy (you). Go from Far Away From The Bad Guy to Where The Bad Guy Is. Film at 11. It works, and everything else is window dressing to explain why things are drenched in a neon robotic glow.

EdgeJogger

Obviously, this is a game that is going to live or die on the strength of its gameplay. That’s not a failing, that’s not a case of falling back on “well, it’ll have to live or die on gameplay,” that was always the point. And so the real question is… how is the gameplay?

Unfortunately, the answer is “fine.”

“What do you mean that’s unfortunate?” Just what I said. You start out getting to choose one of three classes, although it’s only one of two at first. Neither one feels all that substantially different, though. You can pick between your starter weapons, and then you head out into the larger game world and fight through numerous arenas. Shoot enemies while free-aiming with the right stick and moving with the left, or unsheathe your melee weapon to hack at stuff. Your left shoulder button activates your unique ability, the left bumper activates your secondary gadget. All of it feels kind of underwhelming, especially early on.

There are things here I do like quite a bit. It’s nice that you unlock new starter weapon options by, y’know, killing a bunch of enemies with a given weapon; it both incentivizes you to keep diving if you get a good weapon (it might be a while before it drops again) and lets you feel like you’re making progress instead of constantly upgrading. The shooting is responsive and the controls feel reliable enough. I also kind of like that it takes a moment to swap between melee and ranged; it’s a little awkward, but I really like that you have to make a meaningful change and can’t whip back and forth. Melee range is a choice and a commitment.

But it always feels… fine. Like, the guns feel fine, there are definitely ones I like better, but I never felt like one gun was suddenly a satisfying moment of “oh, that’s mine, I am having fun with this.” The classes feel different without feeling substantially different. The random upgrades after each stage feel underwhelming. Everything felt all right but never compelling.

Put more simply, in a roguelike game the whole idea is that addictive sense of trying for just one more run, and if you’ve been reading reviews there are games that absolutely nail that. But ArcRunner doesn’t nail it. Sure, you’re getting a theoretically random level, but I didn’t even feel like they were substantially different from one another. They were new, but I was always using the same tactics and encountering the same basic fights.

WeldTripper

Graphically, the game is big fields of black and grey with high-contrast neon lighting to separate things. To the game’s credit, it would be absolutely possible – easy, even – for this to melt into visual soup, and that doesn’t happen. I may have felt like some indicators were a little harder to see than I liked, but I did not feel like they were not there and not well-intentioned. Marks to the team for this, the game looks solid.

Unfortunately, the font is… a little harder to excuse in that regard.

I don’t want to believe that the font being used for the game was literally just recycled from the game’s PC version, because that is a horrible thought, but it sure reads that way. Or more accurately, it doesn’t read that way. Much of the text in this game is flat-out impossible to see on a television screen sitting a reasonable distance away. This is not a common problem I have with a lot of games, but with this one I could literally never see the differences between weapon stats as I was trying to pick them up without getting up and walking to the television. Which is kind of a problem when the game has no hard pause function for doing that! Not ideal! You need to make decisions quickly and that’s tricky to do when you cannot read half of the information on the screen!

The fact that some of the decisions in question are timed just makes it way worse.

As for music, it’s… eh. The worse side of fine, utterly forgettable, like someone was trying to copy Vangelis’ soundtrack for Blade Runner so like basically every science fiction exercise. I kinda stopped hearing it pretty early on.

Running Low

I’m told from other people who’ve played ArcRunner on PC that the game is a lot better in multiplayer. I believe it, but I don’t really consider that a saving grace. Any game is more fun in multiplayer; the whole point of a game that is not always online is that it can be played solo. That’s part of the point.

As it stands, ArcRunner is not a bad game. I don’t think it’s truly dire by any stretch of the imagination, even with the font being kind of awful. But it’s just not a very good game either. It’s fine. And just fine doesn’t get much more than a tepid recommendation. There are a lot of games in this genre, and a lot of those are more fun to play with.


~ Final Score: 6/10 ~


Review copy provided by PQube for PS5. All screenshots courtesy of PQube.