Sprinter comes from Light Step Games to remind us what games are all about. The player is presented with a series of goals one-by-one that all must be completed as they run through a top-down line art scene. A minimal art style paired with powerful sound design and a tangible story makes for an experience that seems at first like a stop-and-smell-the-roses indie title, but quickly turns into a challenging game that is as engaging as it is meaningful.
I make the distinction between engaging and meaningful because Sprinter almost immediately reminded me of Super Meat Boy, with its quick restarts and layered level design (do all these things properly in succession to win). But while Super Meat Boy‘s moment-to-moment game play is extremely engaging, its story is not meant to be meaningful. Sprinter has a connection to the real world – quite a feature, considering its simplicity and lack of voice-overs – through images that portray difficult moments in the lives of three family members. These are times when hardship caused them to run away from their problems as well as people they love. Seeing continuity in this family’s beautifully-drawn story between each level provides much-needed context to the otherwise unexplained motivation for running through the game, and proves that the minimal art in Sprinter is present on purpose rather than out of necessity.
Now to the nitty-gritty. What makes Sprinter so fun is its unique meshing of several mechanics in a fast-paced but forgiving environment. Many games aim for the level of fluidity that this one achieves, but their lack of proper instruction and on-screen communication often dooms them. In short, Sprinter‘s tutorials are its greatest strength. Each chapter has a prologue before the actual levels that shows the player what new mechanic(s) will be present – via text and an NPC demonstration – and every time a new ability appears, it’s an added requirement in most levels for the rest of the game. This makes for some wonderfully tricky scenarios where the player might run through a part of a level with layered mechanics and know what to do but do it in the wrong order, or not quickly enough. Because deaths are soft and restarts are quick, getting caught up in these scenarios often made me a smile a little and think, “Oh, that’s clever!” and I only approached frustration a few times.
Movement is trivial compared to the challenge of getting every sequential button press just right. Opening doors, distracting guards, disabling security cameras, stealing keys – they’ll only serve the player if done at just the right time. If you slow down at all during a play-through, you certainly won’t make it through fast enough, as the time requirements for each level provide just the right amount of difficulty without presenting too big an obstacle by themselves. In my play-through I was typically a tenth of a second or so ahead of the time limit, with a few exciting exceptions placing me hundredths of a second away from losing. Because the character has somewhat “lazy” rotation, no play-through is the same, and there’s always room for improvement.
And then there are the cherries on top. Sprinter repeatedly motivates the player to keep trying the level they’re on, and keep exploring new ones after that, by way of its sound design and story. While it’s a short story, the game shows powerful, hand-drawn scenes of convincing characters encountering real-life issues. The way that the game makes it seem like beating levels moves the story forward is simple but very effective. All the while, a pleasant soundtrack works alongside individual notes corresponding to in-game actions – all in the soundtrack’s key – to create an encouraging sense of player involvement in the game’s environment and progression. This also helps to subtly reinforce memorization of action sequences that the player needs in more complex late-game levels.
For just $4, Sprinter is a must-have – but only if you enjoy a challenge. What it sets out to accomplish, it does so with a refreshing amount of cohesiveness, direction and polish, and for the hardcore speed-runner it features shorter “gold” times that require perfect runs. I only wish there were more levels to enjoy!
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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