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Free But Worth Your Pennies: Proun

As I'm sure you noticed by the title of the article, I am abusing my column's purview a little bit this week, and writing about a game that is not strictly freeware.  You can download it for free, and at the very least you should absolutely do that, because it's brilliant.  But it's technically a "pay what you want" affair, which means developer Joost van Dongen is hoping you'll like it enough to cough up a few dollars, and if you do he'll give you a little extra content as part of the bargain.  I'm hoping you will, too, and I'm here to tell you why.  So what am I asking you to buy?

...Not a terribly evocative name, I'll grant you, so some preliminary explanations are in order.  Proun is, first and foremost, a racing game.  It is also a pattern recognition game, but the primary objective is getting to the finish line as fast as possible, preferably before your opponents.

You may notice it looks a little different from most racing games.

The method by which you accomplish that, though, is likely a bit of a departure from most racing games you've played.  Gone are collisions with other racers.  Gone are drifting and tight cornering.  You are locked solidly to a predetermined course, and the only task before you is to avoid the obstacles in your way as you speed down the track.

It will still be some of the most difficult racing you've ever done.

Before I talk more about the mechanics, though, I want to gush for a moment over how absolutely stunning Proun is.  Frequent readers of the column know that I'm a sucker for simple, clean, stylized art, and I think Joost's work here is nothing short of marvelous.  The world of Proun is built from entirely abstract structures that never stop being fun and playful while they ruin your perfect run and draw strings of obscenities from you as you hit restart yet another goddamned time.  Everything looks elegant, clean and graceful, as though Joost had taken the aesthetic of Mirror's Edge, stripped it down to its even more bare elements, and crafted a racing game from the pieces.  The little touches and bits of polish aren't skimped on, either, with the way it can handle a near-infinite number of transparent ghost racers for you to compete against on future runs, or the way your racing ball "de-rezzes" a bit when it gets too close to an obstacle.

And the music!  Oh man, the music.  Tell you what, let me just show you some video, because you need to see this thing in motion before I talk about how it plays.

Right, so, the mechanics.  As I'm sure you gleaned from the video, you're locked to a cylindrical track that never branches off - it simply runs straight from the start to the end, with you and your opponents along for the ride.  The landscape / obstacles (one and the same, really) sit attached to the track, forcing you to constantly swing around it to avoid them as you hurtle onwards.  The less you swerve, the faster you go, so keeping to a straight racing line benefits your time... but the faster you go, the harder it is to see what's coming and avoid it.

As I said in the introduction, it does become a bit of a pattern recognition game, especially as you reach the higher speed levels of the game (there are four, starting at "Fast" and going up to "Speed of Light"), but the patterns are consistent, recognizable and fun.  Sometimes, making tight 360 degree rotations around the cylinder will get you past a set of obstacles;  sometimes a tight slalom is required.  Since you can't collide with your opponents, your only real enemy is the track, and beating the track yields immense satisfaction.

Oh yeah, also, split screen local multiplayer.

If I have to knock the game for anything, it's only the things I wish it had that it doesn't.  I'm not sure how online multiplayer would work out in a game requiring such twitchy reflexes, but I do wish it had it.  And Mr. van Dongen's website and highscore servers have been a bit crushed by the game's popularity, requiring him to issue a patch for it temporarily taking out the highscore functionality (and the website linked for the game is a temporary one, being down).

Still, what's here is fantastic, and I haven't even gotten around to trying the user-made levels.  According to the between-level info screen, this project represents six years of Joost's spare time, and he's selling it for whatever people think it's worth.  Including nothing, but really, it's worth a fair chunk more than that.  But don't take my word for it.  Go find out for yourself.

Alec Meer over on RockPaperShotgun has this to say, and I don't think I could put it much better, so rather than the standard bullet list here I'll let him sum up:

It’s (very) short and simple and pretty much only does the one thing, but it makes me want to use silly superlatives such as ‘life-affirming.’ I’ve felt like I’ve been in a bit of a games black hole this last couple of weeks, because I’ve only played the so-so likes of Dungeon Siege 3, Alice 2 and Duke Nukem 4. They’ve all got something to recommend them (and, to varying degrees, the opposite), but they didn’t exactly fill me with THE WONDER OF VIDEOGAMES. Proun does.

Proun is Windows-only and carries a hefty (compared to most things we write about here) 330MB footprint, but it's worth every byte and every penny you choose to give it.  Go race.

"Free And Worth Every Penny" is a column I collaborate on with Mike Bellmore at Colony of Gamers.  This piece also appears there.  If you're done with this one and want more, feel free to browse the archives.

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