It takes a lot of guts for a new indie studio to debut with a running game these days. Whatever advantages there are from a development perspective seem more than offset by the dangers of entering a genre that’s so jam-packed. Nevertheless, the folks at Drakhar Studio have eagerly sprung into the App Store with the simple tale of three bugmen trying to outrun a supernova in their Frantic Flight (Out Now, $0.99). If you read our hands-on preview and developer interview you’d probably guess that the game’s trying to ride on its uber-stylish perspective shift; while that helps, its greatest strengths lie in good old-fashioned trap design and a health system that puts a nice spin on the basic premise.
The fact that Frantic serves up tons of quick sprints rather than one endless marathon is already a point in its favor if you ask me — although an endless Arcade Mode is quickly unlocked if you happen to disagree. Either way, the longer you go on the more spikes, bottomless pits, electric barriers and other traps are thrown your way. Some obstacles are shared – and avoided in different ways – between Frantic’s side-scrolling and third person perspectives. Others are unique to one or the other. The side-scrolling segments make you pay close attention to the background on the offchance a chunk of space debris is about to swoop across your bugman’s path, while the third person sections serve up electric barriers that have to be disabled by running over a sequence of switches.
Since each of Frantic’s perspectives comes with its own traps and controls, the sudden and unpredictable shifts successfully keep the player on edge. There does come a point, however, where the novelty wears off and the depth-seeking gamer wishes for a fancy upgrade system or diverging level paths. An unlockable character – the third awaits in updates – and Hard difficulty mode give the player something to work toward early on, but these are accessed in short order.
What did keep me engaged over the long haul is Frantic’s character health gauge. The gist is, your bugman can shrug off three hits before getting exhausted, at which point he’s forced to take a breather while the giant fireball closes in. Falling into a pit triggers immediate exhaustion, and smacking into a flat obstacle has a similar effect. Once the bugman’s health meter has ticked down to zero, it will automatically be reset to full; the only way to lose is to let the fireball catch up. The genre fan’s first reaction will be to question whether this makes the game too easy, but the sheer number of traps coming in from every angle virtually ensure a couple bouts of exhaustion every level. In effect, failure is something that gradually creeps up, and the fact that the outcome is decided at the margin gives the player the feeling that his or her long-run performance really matters. Videogames have thrown so many one-hit deaths at us over the years, Frantic’s is an approach I find decisively fresh.
So much so that I’d have given Frantic a four on our review scale if a couple hiccups weren’t holding it back at release. It appears that the unlockable character is supposed to have a lower maximum health than the default bugman, but this doesn’t appear to be set correctly yet and that takes some of the oomph out of the already minor differences between runners. Currently the game’s menus appear to default to Spanish, so the English-speaking player has to rummage around for the language setting (that would be under “Ajustes” by the way).
More importantly, lack of a level select or explicit progress reset function leaves the score system feeling wonky. The way it’s supposed to work, I think, is that the player’s score accumulates over the selected runner’s career and is depressed according to the number of retries used during that time span. However, some factors unknown to me – possibly jumping between characters and difficulty levels – cause a score reset to zero without a matching level reset. Therefore, some scores on the internal leaderboard might reflect the player’s performance from the very first level, while others might measure performance from the middle of the game on — could be a big deal if leaderboard competition is your thing. Frantic currently lacks Game Center integration but has its own internal scoreboard.
Frantic’s presentation carries a subtle humor that really livens the mood. Upon successfully reaching the dropship waiting at level’s end, the runner takes some time out to do a little victory jig while the supernova continues closing in; failure treats the player to a fiery, bugman-themed rendition of The Scream. The switches that have to be tripped to open electric gates in third person mode blare out familiar electric guitar notes — I’m almost positive I heard some AC/DC in there, not to mention the musical sequence from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The one thing that’s always deadly serious is a ticking heartbeat that lets the player know how close the fireball is. This is especially important as a replacement of the direct visual on the fireball the player gets in side-scrolling mode, so music unfortunately takes a backseat to the game’s sound effects.
iFanzine Verdict: A solid level-based runner with engaging challenge and a slick two-mode take on the genre. These make Frantic Flight well worth a buck if you haven’t completely tired of the genre yet. Its scoring system could use some brushing up, however, and its formula still has plenty of room for growth. Nonlinear paths and characters with greater variation could really hit the spot in a sequel or major content update!