‘They Always Run’ review: going out on a limb

Joke’s on you, I never run, not even for a bus

If you’ve always liked the idea of Metroidvanias but never had the patience for them, They Always Run might well have been invented just to scratch your particular itch.

It has the gadgets, and the swagger, but none of the exploring and backtracking. There’s no time for that. Thrown into a job gone awry, bounty hunter and Robocop-helmeted protagonist Aidan starts the game in mid-pursuit. Making good on the title, his latest mark is fleeing the scene, leaving you at the mercy of his henchmen. Unfortunately for them, you have three fists, and a personal stake in getting the job done.

The combat is immediately endearing. It’s not what you’d call slick: it’s scrappy and daft. There’s something of the 16-bit era in how it all moves. A chunkiness to its animations and a casual looseness to its hit-boxes that makes it simply delightful to, say, clobber three baddies at once and dart away with a dodge roll to avoid a sniper’s bullet. Aidan’s third arm, an admittedly dubious sounding gimmick, comes into play as an ace in the hole; a defence-breaker, a gun-shooter, and a power weapon that can deal huge amounts of damage when charged.

They Always Run chase
They Always Run. Credit: Alawar Premium.

This extra appendage could so easily have been a simple quirk of character design, inconsequential to the player, but the developers seem to relish finding uses for it.

It doesn’t have any use during platforming sections, though, which is surprising. One can imagine being able to swing from it, or grab out-of-reach ledges, or something, but no. It’s odd that a game stuffed full of jumping and grabbing, and so proud of the fact that its main guy has three arms, would never put the two together. But this, as it turns out, is not a bad call. There’s some tricky parkouring to be getting on with in They Always Run, and nobody wants to fanny around when trying to execute a perfectly timed double-jump. Besides, there’s quite enough fannying around going on in the game’s innards.

Though none of them are dealbreakers, They Always Run has more bugs than a Russian embassy. Animations failing to trigger. Dialogue text containing style tags. Freezing in mid-air. Sniper lasers refusing to appear. On a couple of occasions, Aidan failing to grab a crucial bit of railing, for no discernible reason, at a particularly annoying skill jump.

They Always Run bar
They Always Run. Credit: Alawar Premium.

These annoyances are further compounded by the piss-taking checkpointing. It’s not so bad that it will ever make you replay more than a minute of the game, but being sent back more than a few seconds is frustrating when trying to trial-and-error a precision move, and excruciating in the middle of a boss fight – particularly with bosses like these, which are laborious more than anything else.

Good boss battles are puzzles. The joy is in the analysis; figuring out where to strike, when, and what with. Bad ones are wars of attrition. Hit, dodge, hit, snore. They Always Run is too good for the latter, but gets saddled with it more often than not. Several of them are literally just guys that you punch and run away from for ten minutes. But it all starts so promisingly; that mark you’re chasing right at the start? You can batter him to death, or knock him out and hand him in alive. His corpse won’t get you as much cash, but it’s a lot easier to procure. A living bounty requires deft work with your third arm, and the openings for striking with it are few and far between. It’s an interesting take on a choice mechanic, boiling it down to a tactical decision in the moment. But it’s not really expanded on later, as pretty much all the other boss fights railroad you down one path or another.

Undercooked setpieces and slapdash housekeeping would usually make a game like this harder to recommend, but for all its foibles, They Always Run is a must-finish caper; a grand space western with the fizzing energy of a Saturday morning cartoon. The plot grasshoppers around with the same kind of gleeful abandon. What starts as a straightforward revenge story fans out into a galaxy-wide conspiracy involving space mafias and weird cults. One minute you’re collecting hints about Aidan’s troubled past as a genetically-altered relic of a fallen empire, then you’re pulling off an artefact heist, then you’re kidnapping a crime boss who is also a cat, and so on. It’s genuinely pretty funny too. Almost LucasArts funny, in places.

They Always Run
They Always Run. Credit: Alawar Premium

The overall experience has a wonderfully brisk pace. It batters along between the talky bits, evenly dividing its time between fights and flights. Platforming, for the most part, is exhilarating; there’s little here that isn’t a trope, so none of its ingredients will shock anyone, but it’s fantastically put together. There are some real standout moments; for example, a perilous descent down a mile-long shaft which needs carefully timed bursts from the rocket boots (a late-game item unlocking the double-jump) to get through without dying. Elsewhere, a nail-biting dash along the rails and gangways of a sky train.

It’s also gorgeous, most of the time. Some of the later levels struggle to establish a solid visual identity, but for the most part, They Always Run is a looker. A high-resolution 2D side-scroller with oodles of parallax layering and the kind of dynamic lighting that looks absolutely wizardly in a world made of matte paintings and sprites. More wizardlier (wizardest?) is the quality of the animation. Aidan’s cape swishes with a deliberate heft. Bodies carried on his shoulders will bob convincingly. Trying to imagine how many frames of animation it all requires is, frankly, upsetting. Entire Amiga games must exist in the resources needed to render his trousers.

Despite the few places where it could do with some tightening up, it’s an impressive and eclectic package; it’s modern, it’s old school. It feels a little like Space Quest, and plays a little like Shinobi III. It’s got a whiff of Metroidvania about it, but it’s as straightforwardly linear as you can get.

And it shouldn’t bloody work, but it really bloody does.

They Always Run launches on October 20, available for PC via Steam.

The Verdict

A pleasing genre mix that makes for a solid platformer with an engaging story that you’ll want to see through to the end.

Pros

  • Beautiful 2D visuals and animation
  • Satisfying combat
  • Compelling story
  • Thrilling platforming

Cons

  • Boss battles are a bit mince
  • Bugs and glitches tarnish the experience
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