As game generations pass, different genres become more popular. From the space shooters of the arcade era to the mascot-driven platformers of the 1990s to the military first-person shooters in recent years, there's always a genre ripe for exploiting.
With the explosion of mobile games has come an increase in endless runner games. Pioneers like Canabalt and Temple Run have even inspired AAA studios to bring their own characters into the genre — see Rayman Jungle Run and Nintendo's own Super Mario Run. Does Polara do anything to stand out from this crowd?
The story of Polara takes place in the far future. A civil war rages between the powerful government and the people. During this one worker, Lara, is called to test a suit that will allow innocents to pass through the government's defense systems safely. When the testing is happening, she's contacted by an unknown source who implores her to break out and bring the suit to him. She complies, and that's where the running begins.
Though it's in the 2D endless runner genre, it's not really fair to call Polara an endless runner, as it's divided into bite-sized levels perfect for playing on the go. Lara runs on her own, but each of the ~50 levels only last for a few minutes. Further, the stages are littered with checkpoints, which means you'll never have to replay more than a segment or two when you die. It's a little of like VVVVVV in this aspect; instant restarts ensure the game keeps moving and thus failure is a learning experience, not something to be punished.
Polara's gimmick comes from the suit Lara wears. It can change between blue and red with the touch of a button, which is where the game's plethora of obstacles come into play. Lasers abound in the city — touch a red one when Lara is coloured red and you'll be safe. Hit a laser while wearing the wrong colour, however, and you're toast.
It's a seemingly simple concept, especially when paired with the game's basic control scheme (the directional pad changes colours and any of the right buttons jump) but one that is expanded on well as the levels progress. What starts as a simple case of changing colours to dodge lasers turns into floors that don't show up unless you're the right colour, colour-coded trampolines, and gravity-reversing sections.
These stage hazards work as both positives and negatives — sometimes you'll need to hit a trampoline to make a high jump, but other times a trampoline on the ceiling can bounce you down into a pit. Polara constantly shakes up what you expect to happen, which prevents you from running on autopilot and keeps things from getting stale.
Thankfully, the difficulty balancing here is great. Level obstacles begin to stack together and make more complex work for the player, but those with good reflexes shouldn't have any trouble progressing. Thanks to the abundant checkpoints, less experienced players can mess up as many times as they need to in order to get the timing just right.
Every ten levels you'll encounter a boss to fight. These are similar in gameplay to the regular stages, as they still have Lara running and give you the same controls, but you have to damage the bosses when you have opportunity. The bosses aren't anything incredibly exciting, but they do change up the pace a bit.
After each boss fight the story advances with a few moments of comic book-style cutscenes and dialogue. The plot isn't much to get excited about, but it's a nice inclusion where there could have been nothing. It's worth noting that this dialogue contains some cursing, however, so this probably isn't a great choice for young children. Each set of 10 levels also bring a new area with a new background and music track, which is certainly welcome.
You'd expect a game with so few controls to nail the ones that it uses, and thankfully Polara delivers here. The jumping feels nimble and reactive; you're able to make last-second jumps right on the edge of a platform without a problem. Switching colours happens instantly and skilled players can weave their way around multi-coloured obstacles with ease thanks to this. You're also able to control how high your jumps are by holding the button, which can lead to tricky jumps at times.
For the budget price tag Polara offers a good bit of content. Your first romp through each stage tasks you only with reaching the end, but you can replay each one to complete two optional objectives.
The first is grabbing the six letters of POLARA. These are colour-coded and usually placed in somewhat difficult spots, leading to new challenges in once-mastered levels. The other collectible is a "special" badge, one in each stage, that's usually placed at the bottom of a pit or some other spot that would normally lead to death. Grabbing one warps you back to the last checkpoint.
Collecting these items in enough levels lets you unlock some of the extra modes. These modes are truly endless and random, including a mode made up of segments from the main levels and a mode that has you collect coins in stages that revolve around the gravity-switching mechanic introduced in the story. These are completely optional, but provide good replayability for players who want to beat their high scores and enjoy a reward for going for the optional items.
There are only a couple of problems to mention with Polara. First, the game doesn't include any 3D display, which would have really helped the graphics to 'pop' a little to help distinguish background and foreground. As it is the graphics are a bit murky and dark, but never detract from the gameplay or cause you to die, so it's a minor point.
Additionally, the music, while quite good and appropriate for a sci-fi game, gets repetitive after hearing it for ten levels. A bit more variety would have suited this game well. For some reason, we also found that the music during boss fights played at a low quality — it sounded like listening to a track at 180p on YouTube.
Other quirks detract a little from the experience. We experienced a little lag occasionally, which was never game-breaking but could be felt when jumping and switching colours in midair. Additionally, with a game of this type there's a fair amount of trial and error, such as using a speed floor and trampoline to rocket ahead into the air and flying into the wrong-coloured laser you could have never seen coming. This is rendered significantly less frustrating thanks to the checkpoints, but still feels a bit cheap at times.
Lastly, there are times when you'll be running under a low ceiling and it's a bit too easy to jump too high and hit your head, thus plummeting to your death. This doesn't happen too frequently, but the jumping seems to require a lot more precision when you encounter these moments.
Overall, Polara is easily recommended. The game doesn't do anything particularly innovative to attract those who aren't fans of the genre, but anyone willing to give it a try will find a fun core mechanic, accessible gameplay thanks to the controls and checkpoints, and a good bit of replayability. Some minor frustrations and muddy graphics don't detract much from the overall package here. Give it a try if you're looking for an endless runner that does things a bit differently, as it's perfect for quick gaming sessions.