Review: Dot Runner: Complete Edition (3DS eShop)

On the dot or a runaround?

Dot Runner: Complete Edition is the latest release from Intense, developer of unique DSiWare RPG GO Series: Picdun. This outing shares the dual perspectives of that title but little else; here you collect dots as a futuristic man-on-a-mission named BOLT in a chase puzzler that's fast and fun, but seriously flawed.

While its predecessor Picdun was an RPG with a twist, Dot Runner is purely an action-puzzle game. It does make an unexpectedly persistent attempt at a story, focusing on an underground resistance to the reign of the Yakkini-kus, but it's rather forgettable and definitely not a selling point. Rather, Dot Runner is all about speeding through tight, maze-like levels, grabbing as many dots as you can along the way. The catch is that these dots only appear once you run over certain tiles in the direction indicated by their arrow, giving you four seconds to scoop them up before they disappear forever. By simply stepping on a pad or running over it in any other direction, you can see a preview of where the dots will materialize, which is helpful in planning your attack run.

The stages start out simply, with only dot-spawning directional pads, but quickly fill up with enemies, allies, power ups, doors and switches, and other elements that make the action-puzzle gameplay decidedly more puzzling. Battles with enemies are handled in an RPG-like fashion, in a nod to Dot Runner's spiritual predecessor. The outcome is always predetermined and based on the relative size of your parties. If your group is larger than the enemies', you'll win outright. If you have the same number of combatants in your parties, you'll win but lose an ally. If your group is smaller, or if you're in a one-on-one battle, you'll lose, and restart the stage.

At their most basic, levels can be cleared by activating all the pads that make the dots appear. Collecting every dot will net you more points, but isn't essential. Most levels have additional clear conditions, such as performing a 10-dot combo, collecting every dot in the stage, rescuing allies or defeating certain enemies. It's a nice shake-up to the standard formula and ensures that each stage feels distinct, and the game never descends into dot-devouring drudgery.

The maze-rush gameplay of Dot Runner is a good bit of fun, so it's unfortunate that it's undermined by a few serious problems. First is the fact that while the game takes place from two perspectives simultaneously — in first-person on the top screen and from a bird's eye view on the touch screen — the top screen is underused to the point that it becomes a complete gimmick, rather than a compelling feature. Aside from the fact that the action moves so quickly and in such tight quarters that the first-person view is almost impossible to use effectively at any point, there's the inexplicable problem of nothing in the world actually appearing on the top screen. Except for dots and power-ups, the three-dimensional view of Dot Runner is totally unpopulated: no switches, no allies, no enemies. They're certainly there, and indicated on the top-down view of the touch screen, but there's absolutely no way of knowing in the first-person view. It makes no sense, feels like a huge oversight, and means that you'll invariably spend 99% of your time staring at the bottom screen.

With any action-puzzler tight controls are a must, and unfortunately Dot Runner simply doesn't control as well as it should. The main issue is that BOLT steers like a tank, or a Resident Evil protagonist; instead of pushing the D-Pad left to move left, you always move forward with up and use left and right to turn your character in place. Presumably this is to accommodate the first-person perspective, but since you'll almost never use it, it only makes the top-down gameplay on the touch screen frustratingly clunky. There's a reason Pac-Man doesn't control like this. The shoulder buttons are used to drift (ie turn while moving forward) when you're in motion, or to sidestep when you're not. This should be a saving grace, but in practice drifting is annoyingly oversensitive and often has you inadvertently slamming into walls, losing all momentum and any chance at a run of dots. The control isn't game-breaking and you'll certainly get better at dashing around corners as you play, but it never shakes the feeling of being slightly “off” and can definitely make it more difficult to evade enemies and reach the dots in time. There's also no Circle Pad support, which is an odd omission.

The graphics on the top screen are bright and each world has its own colour scheme, which adds some nice visual variety and only makes it more disappointing that you'll likely spend all of your time looking at the touch screen; the more useful top-down view sports functional but unimpressive graphics. On the menu side, everything is suitably futuristic and well done, with the tethered orbs of the Skillet (dungeon) select screen looking especially slick. The music is standard sci-fi fare and fits without being particularly memorable, while sound effects are few and far between, leaving the experience oddly silent in places you'd expect sound.

Dot Runner saves your high score and fastest time for each stage, and though there's no easy way to view these outside of replaying a level, besting your previous runs can be fun. While there aren't any modes outside of the main game, there are two different scenarios to play through, “Year 3015” and “Year 986”, which each offer a unique take on the story and their own levels. Each scenario contains eight Skillets with five stages apiece, so there are 80 to conquer overall. All the stages within a given Skillet share the same floor plan, but the different clear conditions and objects within each stage keep things feeling fresh. It's quite a bit of content, and while some stages are easier than others, as a package Dot Runner is likely to keep you busy for some time.

Conclusion

Dot Runner is a fun action-puzzle game with some substantial problems that keep it from being all it could have been. The first-person perspective comes off as a forced addition rather than an asset to the gameplay, and actually drags the entire experience down thanks to a resulting control scheme that's more awkward than it should be and falls well short of its full potential. That said, once you get the hang of it, sending BOLT careening around mazes after dots can be satisfying, and the variety of the level objectives keeps things interesting. Dot Runner provides a decent puzzle fix without breaking any molds, but, like BOLT, cuts a lot of corners along the way.

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