As we all wait patiently for the next true Serious Sam game (are we really actually waiting?) we all want to play the next title that allows us to destroy almost everything in site and have fun doing it. Unfortunately, I Hate Running Backwards brings all the destruction but leaves behind the fun.
This is a 2D indie game from developer Binx Interactive. The title of the game says it all: you pick from a slew of characters, which you unlock as you complete achievements with each run (except the game doesn’t tell you what you need to do to unlock these characters), from a roster of Devolver Digital games all with different starting attributes. You run backwards up the screen in procedural generated environments, much like a SHMUP except more like a SHMDOWN, shooting and destroying everything coming up the screen as you try to survive as long as possible. Your goal is to make it all the way to the end to defeat the big bad boss named Ugh Zan and, well, there isn’t really a good explanation as to why you are doing these things. Actually there isn’t even a great on boarding process to help you figure out what you need to do at all. Even though the idea is simple in concept the game is poorly executed as it grinds its way to the end.
It’s really interesting that they decided to mix the Serious Sam world with this title. The high-level concept seemed like it would work because bringing in enemies from the Serious Sam games, like screaming guys and skeletons, brings familiarity. Other opposition such as missile launching mercenaries and guys that throw grenades (they actually stay at the bottom of the screen until you go directly to them and kill them) add to the vast amount of obstacles you will encounter. There are moments of frustration when beginning a run because you never know how many enemies are going to come at you. Sometimes there will be a small trickle that will easily allow you to get through the first section and sometimes there will be hordes of enemies almost killing you instantly. The environment is also an obstacle so be careful where you step, whether it is a poison trap or a pit you didn’t see until last minute. This is where the frustration really sets in.
You can either spin and do a melee kill or use your vast arrangement of weapons you collect along the way to take foes out from a distance. You start with a slow pistol as default but there are enough pick-ups on each world that you will find yourself barely using it. The interesting element of this game is the kinds of weapons you can eventually find. You can use a witch’s wand to shoot a one-shot kill beam. You can have a drone hover above you and shoot a machine gun. You can also have a refrigerator that freezes enemies or a flame-thrower that burns them all. Don’t forget about the power-ups as well. As you automatically traverse the scenery you will see health, shields, infinite ammo and even a Serious Sam damage increaser. Defeating mini-bosses (yes, there are mini-bosses) grants a perk upgrade that you can choose. Enhancements such as an increase to invincibility frames while spinning or better weapon drops are some of the choices that can really help you along your journey. The amount of weapons is a great addition to this game giving it life with some truly hectic moments.
The controls are simple once you get the hang of them. Since there is no tutorial and you have to learn it all yourself it takes some getting used to. Thankfully you only have to shoot in front of you and this game doesn’t act like a twin-stick shooter. The gameplay can get hectic and needing to control the direction of your shots would have been too much for this type of game. This is why the two-player coop option is another great addition. Blasting through the environments is a lot more fun when a friend tags along.
Sounds like a pretty decent game so far, right? This is where it starts to stumble: the level design. Since it’s built around Serious Sam it is only logical to have the environments carry an Egyptian aesthetic. Every time you defeat a mini-boss the level will change and you will need to rethink your strategy in terms of set pieces and where you can actually move. The bosses take time and strategy that is nowhere to be seen in the rest of the game. You will end up just memorizing patterns after multiple attempts. Sure once you beat a boss you activate a shortcut for the next run but it’s only temporary since quitting the game resets all your progress. Why was this implemented? This removes every ounce of fun and there ends up being no want to continue. When you die you are finished and you have to start right at the beginning. Sure there are some instances where they change the flow and throw your character into a vehicle such as a car with a turret or a helicopter but this doesn’t change the awkwardness. You can never truly feel comfortable with the game because you never know what to expect in terms of obstacles, pick-ups and placement of destructible/non-destructible pieces. The vastly different level construction each and every run made is nearly impossible to get any rhythm down.
Another issue is the pace-of-play. I find SHMUPS to be hectic and fast and that is what makes them so good. This SHMDOWN is hectic but at a much slower pace. I found that the scrolling speed became frustrating and the areas were so tight that deaths came quickly without much effort. This made the game way more difficult than it needed to be. I knew when death was coming and I hated it. Some enemies move faster than your own character and getting away after you have already used your melee attack can intensify the annoyance.
Lastly, the integration of Twitch chat as a means to spawn enemies is a neat idea on paper (done before with Warhammer: Vermintide 2 recently) but once again only heightens the idea that crazy amounts of enemies can leave you frustrated when you die so fast. The ‘get good’ mantra doesn’t mean much to a game like this because the game doesn’t give you a chance to be good under these circumstances.
I Hate Running Backwards has some upside with the various weapons, power-ups, enemies and unlockable characters but loses all aspects of fun with the level designs and pacing. The game gets way too difficult and doesn’t allow you to feel like you are progressing in an engaging way. You get to a specific spot only to find that you ran out of ammo and there are too many enemies to handle because your character is so slow. There isn’t much value here for anyone looking for something worthy of a SCHMUP, or should I say SHMDOWN.