The curious element of mobile gaming lies in its ability to strip down a genre to a single element and put a unique focus on it. In the case of RPGs this is normally grinding and levelling through combat, as seen in ‘Avengers Alliance’ and other popular titles. Where Rune Raider is different is in that it takes the concept of moving through a dungeon corridor to the exit and turns this into the whole game.
There’s significantly more to it than that however, characters and their positions, choices made on the way and what you encounter in that linear space makes for a series of ever-more complex challenges than makes Rune Raiders feel like a fusion of RPG and Puzzle game (which MBU has classified this title as) and occasionally it’s not what you’ve prepped for, but decisions made on the fly that decide the outcome of entire runs.
Graphically, Rune Raiders employs a vertical one-handed style that enables the game to be easily played with a thumb on the move and has an art style similar to European comics such as ‘Asterix’, with character art used inside small icons that can be easily dragged across the screen. Most areas you’ll visit are essentially stone floors that pan vertically and all monsters and obstacles appear as artwork inside of similar icons. Whilst this is simple to understand at a glance and makes good use of limited visual assets, it does lean into a vanilla looking title (though the areas you investigate do undergo some change visually). The menu for character selection does however show more charm, with a village inn and characters that the player has unlocked posed in windows ready to be added to the current party. The games UI is clean and uncluttered, showing that a great deal of thought has gone into this title’s structure.
Musically, the soundtrack uses a lot of synth spread over too few instruments, frequently relying on just a flute and looping beat to make up its tunes and feeling thread-bare as a result. Sound fares better by having a solid noise reserved for each character’s attack that it unique to them and impacts with enough weight to make the player feel like they’ve triggered something. At times these effects make up for the lack of musical variety, distracting from otherwise dull musical arrangements, but in others (such as the party selection menu) this shortcoming is all too easy to notice.
Sadly the game shows no signs of incorporating a story or even the impression of a cohesive world to inhabit. Whilst you recruit a party from a nicely made inn scene, the world map is instead a long list of identical boxes with numbers unlocking in succession. A little thought to unlock points on a drawn world map would have gone a long way here in giving the impression of a journey rather than one long grind, and though character art and actions are hugely individual, there’s no dialogue to turn any of them into protagonists. This overall feels like a wasted opportunity as the gameplay coupled with an interesting story could have made for quite a gripping campaign.
The big attraction of this title is its gameplay, which does manage to combine tactical thinking with simplicity of play that’s quite addictive. Using a limited pool of gold that is won through clearing missions, the player can hire up to six heroes from a much larger pool to form a party. This party then enters any of the missions currently available from the ‘map’ and earns more gold as they go in addition to unlocking a new area. A new party must be formed for each mission and the variety in characters and what they can do gives a lot of tactical decision making before you even enter a dungeon. The usual fantasy staples are of course represented, with healers able to restore HP to the character directly above them, archers firing at range and barbarians dealing high damage in a small area, but additional classes such as the thief and centaur are more unique. Every character’s unique action triggers when they have something in range to target automatically, and the formation of your party can be swapped out quickly and easily with a finger drag and drop. Arranging the characters allows you to make the most of their powers, dodge enemy attack ranges (because they act in a similar fashion) and proceed around obstacles. Progressing vertically through a level from the bottom to the exit at the top makes use of the buttons at the base of the screen, with one dedicated to moving forward that the other for standing in place, the level acting in a turn based fashion similar to a RogueLike. Killing enemies reveals treasures to tap and collect before you parade past and lose them, such as bonus gold and temporary level ups for characters that offer the player a variety of options to change how your selected character works. Again these are unique to each of them and offer up anything from additional attack effects to increased ranges and enemy drop frequencies. Each character also has their own HP bar that when depleted removes them from the board, but they can be revived at the cost of gold, which can only be done before they vanish off the bottom of the screen. The title offers a good amount of challenge in its later levels and gold is always forthcoming, allowing you to replay levels with different parties to receive a better star rating at the end of it. These short, violent excursions into dungeons work in the games favour and make the whole thing borderline addictive in that ‘just one more level’ style.
Overall, Rune Raiders is a brilliant game marred in dull execution. The gameplay is exciting, fresh and fun but the art style borders on dull and the lack of story makes replay non-existent. In an ideal world a sequel from Retro64 would put more emphasis on this area and turn a short distraction into a sure-fire hit. Luckily as the game is free to download and play with minimal freemium elements it’s easy to recommend that people download and try it for themselves.