Review: TRON RUN/r

There’s a few things going against TRON RUN/r we should probably get out the way first, not the least of which is that, well, it’s a runner game. Hardcore players especially might scoff at the idea of a big-budget endless runner, one that dodges their phone and instead jumps onto their consoles with a minimum $20 asking price and microtransactions. It’s a lot and it’d be tough to blame you if that initial pitch left a bad taste in your mouth. But that’s also where we’d implore you to reserve judgment and keep reading just a little longer because TRON RUN/r, for as bad as it sounds on paper, is actually a fantastic, focused game that’s much more complex and satisfying to play than you might expect.

Like most runners, the core gameplay in TRON RUN/r is getting from the start of a given level to the end, be it on foot or by lightcycle. On foot, the game starts out simple, only asking that you move left or right, jump over obstacles and throw your identity disc at enemies. It’s not especially challenging and you might feel like it’s exactly what you feared it might be: a big-screen mobile game. But the game begins layering on the complexity quickly, adding mechanics like sliding under gates, gliding long distances, running on walls and grinding on rails to your repertoire. It’s not too long before the game starts demanding some serious twitch reflex skills from you, and by the end, your actions are nearly unrecognizable from where you began. There’s a lot to keep track of in TRON RUN/r, and while it’d be easy to shrug it off as yet another blown-up runner game for phones meant for “casuals,” it’s quite simply not true. Similar to the way OlliOlli managed to take its more complex predecessors like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and EA’s Skate and focus them into a technical, punishing 2D sidescrolling skateboarding game, TRON RUN/r does the same for Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. RUN/r strips away all the mechanics surrounding the core tenets of that game until all there’s left is a concentrated dosage of The Sands of Time‘s acrobatic style of platforming. If you enjoyed the more intense sections of The Sands of TimeTRON RUN/r is your kind of game.

RUN/r‘s on-foot sections perfectly skirt the line between demanding and overwhelming. The game is at its best when it’s throwing a constant stream of obstacles in your way: dodge, jump, dodge, slide, throw, jump, jump, glide, wall run, glide, wall run, glide, throw, grind, throw and so on. You fall into a rhythm and never need to think about your actions thanks to the easy controls. There’s no context-sensitive actions to keep track of here; buttons are reserved for one function and one function only, so you’ll instantly know what button you need to press. Again, it’s the kind of thing that sounds simplistic on paper, but it’s simply satisfying in practice. The on-foot levels flow intelligently and manage to stay challenging without ever getting frustrating. Every platform and obstacle feels purposefully placed to require something new of you. One level might space its platforms far apart and you’ll be holding down the jump button for long stretches to gauge the exact moment you need to let go. Another level might place its jump pads extremely close together to force you to tap the jump button for the shortest possible hop. Often, levels will switch between the two styles on the fly to make sure you’re paying attention. Keeping up with RUN/r‘s pace is extremely fun, especially by the end when the levels are at their most demanding.

The lightcycle sections, on the other hand, take a little while to warm up before they get hot. These are point-to-point races to the end of the level. You’re racing against the clock, and to stay alive you’ll need to pass through gates that each add a few seconds to your time. Along the way, you’ll be contending with other programs on lightcycles as they try to cut you off, block you in or tag-team to narrow your pathway. True to the fiction, every lightcycle leaves behind a hard trail that others can crash into; while we never died from one of these crashes, we did manage to “de-rez” a few enemies with our trail. Every track is filled with ramps to do tricks off of for points and sharp turns that require you to drift around them. The handling on your lightcycle will likely take a little time to get used to (tip: start drifting a little earlier than you think you’ll need to) so initially these levels feel a bit lackluster in comparison to the more tightly designed runner levels. Once you get a handle on controlling your lightcycle and the game starts ramping up the challenge with unpredictable barriers that materialize out of nowhere, alternate pathways, tighter turns, smaller time gates and more aggressive enemies, the lightcycle levels get exhilarating.

The final mode in the game is called “Stream,” and that’s where the game’s best potential — and most crippling flaws — come in. Stream is your classic “endless runner” mode: it’s randomly generated, goes forever, but stops the second you get hit once. Every Stream level starts out with an on-foot section, then quickly you’ll run into an open space and jump forward to make a lightcycle appear under you, an action reminiscent of Tron: Legacy. Then suddenly you’re playing a lightcycle section. Eventually you’ll reach a point where the road narrows and your character jumps off the bike and begins running again. There are also weekly challenges, but it’s hard to tell how good these will be just yet. The first one simply tasks you with keeping a run going for in a specific level for nearly two minutes without dying to complete it for a badge as a reward. It’s too bad that developer Sanzaru Games didn’t take a page from OlliOlli and include daily challenges with set levels you can practice over and over but must eventually commit to your one-shot official run to submit a score to the leaderboards for the day.

Stream mode is a great idea, but it needs work before it can prop up RUN/r‘s long-term value. While the transition from a running section to a lightcycle one is undeniably slick, transitioning from the lightcycle back to running is sloppy. There’s an awkward skip where it goes from canned transition scene back to gameplay where the screen shifts a bit and the character has to go from full stop to running again as though you just started. There are also severe frame rate and hitching issues in Stream mode that make the game borderline unplayable on occasion: a game that relies on quick reflexes and has harsh penalties for any lapse simply isn’t afforded the leeway to have frame rate issues and hitches the way it might be forgiven in a more relaxed game like Firewatch. The biggest problem with Stream, though, is that it fails to offer enough variety to make it worth playing more than every once in a while. Randomly generated levels are a great idea for longevity and value in a game like this, but the sections here are recycled too often and it’s easy to start picking out the same patterns over and over — even in the same run — which makes the mode more of a test of patience than skill.

Apparently, more variety is coming to Stream mode, but this is where we need to talk about the parts of TRON RUN/r that are bound to turn some players off the game entirely. TRON RUN/r is a $20 game with both microtransactions and a season pass. The season pass (billed as a $15 “deluxe edition upgrade”) promises to add a ton of content to the game over time, with 34 additional levels planned (the game ships with 32) as well as new light cycles to choose from and 28 new Stream “elements.” You can buy the “deluxe” version of the game at the outset for $30, and that’s the version we recommend for any player who hasn’t been turned off already. The deluxe version of the game will opt you out of buying the $15 season pass later, which will eventually more than double the number of levels in the base game; it’ll also add much more variety to Stream mode, which has the potential to be something you’d legitimately want to pop in and play for maybe half an hour every few days or so. As well, it stocks your digital chest with in-game currency, effectively buying you out of any worry that comes from the word “microtransactions.”

The microtransactions in TRON RUN/r are a real misstep by Disney, but not necessarily for the reasons you might immediately expect. The problem with the microtransactions here isn’t that the game isn’t fun to play unless you buy in; it’s that the game is more fun if you don’t buy in, so it’s ultimately a move that will accomplish nothing more than turning off many players even though the microtransactions here are an easily ignored non-issue. There’s an in-game currency called “bits” that you can use to buy one-time-use power-ups and companions before a level. Power-ups can be anything from temporarily doubling the number of bits you collect to making your discs do more damage, and companions can perform functions like giving you a shield, automatically firing at enemies or doubling your score. That last one, “doubling your score,” sounds a little dicey, like the kind of “pay to win” monetization we’ve all been dreading in our games, but unless you’re planning on devoting some time to become the world’s #1 ranked “TRON RUN/r – Cycle Level 12″ player, it shouldn’t bug you too much.

Doubling your score is really just a shortcut if you’re having trouble getting all three stars on a given level. The amount of bits required to use any of these power-ups or companions is so low that it’s tough to imagine anyone ever needing to buy additional bits with real money. You’ll earn plenty of bits through regular play, and as stated earlier, the game is more fun to play when you don’t have a companion auto-shooting everything or have to worry about tapping the triangle button at the right time to activate the bit doubler you bought without screwing up your rhythm and dying. The only mode where it makes sense to care about your place on the leaderboard is Stream mode, and that’s entirely time-based. Spending your bits to buy a score doubler companion in a mode that doesn’t care about your score almost feels like a meta-joke from Sanzaru.

Closing Comments:

TRON RUN/r is a weird — but exciting — proposition from Disney given that the company saw fit to revive its long-dormant movie franchise after 28 years with 2010’s Tron: Legacy before apparently killing it again. It feels like the company is gauging interest in its neon-infused techno-dystopia again to test the waters for a third movie, and curiously enough, it chose to do so through an endless runner game for the hardcore crowd. TRON RUN/r stumbles in a few spots and is a little too expensive for its own good, but it’s beautiful to look at, incredibly fun to play and offers the perfect sense of challenge for players with good reflexes.

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