Demo Driver 8: Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages (#206)
Let’s hear it for the crazy ambitious indie game.
I’m not talking about indie games that come down to “examining a new idea,” that’s just a thing. No, I’m talking about indie titles that see a big idea and just go for it, ones that say things like “let’s mash together space exploration, sim flight elements, and RPG gameplay into a single space.” I’m talking about games that bite off way more than they can chew or even fit in their mouth at once.
Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages definitely falls under that header. It is, in many ways, a mess – but it’s a mess because it’s pulling in a bunch of disconnected genres and doing the best it can to try and make all of them work together. I shan’t scorn it for the parts where it falls down, because I love how enthusiastically it tries. There are a lot of games all going on at the same time here, and while I’ll be the first to say that it doesn’t seem to quite congeal, boy does it ever try hard. Which is pretty keen.
When you start out in Ring Runner, you find yourself lying on a bed with a piece of your brain removed and an AI in your head, along with no memory of what you were doing here or how you got to this point – and may I just say that at this point we have officially reached the point where “snarky AI companion” can join the list of storytelling devices we need to get rid of. Yes, it’s a computer sassing you as you do things, we get it. The idea is to give you that much-needed bit of backstory while also building an endearing sidekick, but the net result is that it feels like a lazy way to drop you in without exposition.
Leaving that to one side, you dart to the nearest hangar, jump in a ship, and start flying away at top speed. Your ride doesn’t last for too long before it gets blown up, at which point you need to salvage a new hull and start building yourself up… and, you know, it keeps going from there. The plot jumps straight past the obvious questions of “who am I?” and “what’s going on?” and “where can I get a bath and possibly a face portrait” whilst going straight to what would usually be the tedious middle part of a plot… but I don’t want to spoil too much of it. It’s dense, it’s complex, and it suffers a lot from the fact that there are no facial portraits or anything to be found, just symbols and dialogue along with a variety of ships.
The point is that it’s kind of dense and obtuse. You get the sense that the writers have a clear picture of how all the moving parts fit together, but they’re not great about communicating it to the readers. Which is… problematic, but the sort of thing that can be worked through.
But what about the actual game? Well, it involves a whole lot of flying around with a top-down interface that borrows the control scheme from Asteroids and points related. Pressing left and right on your analogy stick simply spins your ship in that direction; you need to press a trigger button to actually accelerate in a given direction. Another button allows you to slow down or stop, the right stick allows you to quickly spin in a given direction with ships that support evasive maneuvers, and the various face buttons let you use the assorted weapons and systems on your ship.
Straightforward enough in theory. In practice… well, either you’re good at this control scheme or you spend a whole lot of time spinning about and trying desperately to actually aim precisely at something. As per usual, the computer opponents you’re facing don’t have that problem, so you’d think I would just write this one off as a fairly standard case wherein too much time is spent wrestling with the controls.
And, to be fair, that’s a major mark against the game – or it would be, if there weren’t people who are in fact good with these controls. The problem isn’t that they don’t work, the problem is that I wouldn’t say they’re particularly elegant. And while you might do a bit of fussing with them, you won’t find yourself slaughtered by perfect computer opponents. Sure, they don’t have the problem of being unaccustomed to the controls, but they’re just as vulnerable to the same tricks you are. There’s a sequence in which you’re fighting while piloting a cargo-hauling ship, and you take advantage of that momentum and fiddly nature to slam trash into your opponents until they blossom into satisfying explosions.
Meanwhile, you’re also granted a fair amount of fine control over your ship. You have a given hull that allows you to mount stuff on it, and – yeah, you get the idea. Fiddle with weapons, fiddle with engines, fiddle with systems and so forth. You also seem to get a bit of a boost as you tear through enemies in combat, moving a little faster, dealing a little more damage, and so forth.
This is one of those games that, quite frankly, is going to scratch someone‘s itch in such a base fashion that it could be compared to a dog kicking its leg in pleasure. For me, I find the controls too technical, the story too plodding, the customization too lacking – but someone else will dive into this with an unrestrained joy. Because this is a game that aims at a big dream, and while I don’t think it comes together to be great, it comes together well enough to be exactly someone’s breed of rocket-powered joy.
So I’m a little torn. On the one hand, this isn’t like Defender‘s Quest, in which two great tastes turn out to taste even better together, like some sort of collective taste explosion. On the other hand, it’s going to taste just right to a portion of its audience, and while it does a lot of things not terribly well it does all of them the way it wants to. If you like the idea of heavy customization in a rather physics-heavy space shooter, you’ll be in heaven. Otherwise… well, not so much. But at least you’ll know why.