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Free and Worth Every Penny - Issue 83: Flee Buster

Don’t stop running.  Don’t look back.  That ship is behind you, it’s always behind you and it’s always getting closer.  If you stop, you’re done for.  I don’t know what they do to people in those ships but I know I don’t want to be in one.  Don’t stop running.  Keep moving.  <switch.>  Take those turns tighter, you’re slowing down every time you go around a corner!  How many creatures are chasing me?  It was four, but I think it’s five now.  Can’t spare the time to check;  if one of them catches me it won’t matter.  Don’t hit the spikes.  Don’t slow down.  Keep moving.  <switch.>  The last jump was impossible, yet here I am on the other side of it.  Don’t look down don’t look down don’t look down!  Gotta keep moving up.  The exit is somewhere up there and the fire below me isn’t going to put itself out.  Just thirty or forty more impossible jumps to go.  Easy, right?  Keep moving!

Another Ludum Dare competition (the 48 hour game dev marathon from which we’ve pulled several of our previous featured games) is in the voting stage, this time with the theme of “Escape.”  It was initially my intention to do a round-up of some favorites for you to check out this week, but then I realized that there are almost six hundred entries to this round of Ludum Dare(!), and I spent all morning Sunday playing Flee Buster.  As soon as I’m done writing this, I’ll probably be going back to play it some more.  [Edit: Actually I just kept playing it while I was writing.]  So I guess I’d better just tell you about that one, and call it a success.

ChevyRay’s take on “Escape” is a pulse-pounding tale of three very different characters in terrible peril.  In the first, a man flees from the tractor beam of a giant spaceship, running and jumping through traditional platforming levels as fast as he can.  The second switches to a top-down maze of tight corridors where a tiny ship must navigate around deadly spikes and evade an ever-increasing number of pursuers.  The last mimics the final level of a Metroid game (or, if you prefer your game references a bit more casual, Doodle Jump, I suppose), as a nimble frog leaps higher and higher out of the grasp of a rising flame.

These guys really need your help.

On their own, any one of these three would be a suitable diversion, but probably nothing terribly special.  They’re solidly designed levels with the same sort of muscle memory appeal that games like Super Meat Boy and VVVVVV have - you can feel yourself getting better at them each time you fail and try again - but it wouldn’t be nearly so compelling without the hook.  Flee Buster’s hook is that you only control each of these characters for a few seconds at a time.

In addition to the time pressure of being chased and needing to constantly press forward while avoiding each level’s hazards, a tiny bar at the bottom of the screen measures the time you’ll have to control each scenario.  When it runs out, you’re thrust immediately into the next one, no matter what’s going on at the time.  (It will, mercifully, let you land if you’re mid-jump when it runs out.)  This means that at any given time you’re not just thinking about the character you’re controlling;  you’re thinking about the one you’re about to control.  And you’re thinking about leaving the one you’re controlling in a safe position so that once you’re done controlling the third character and you come back to this one, you’ll be ready to proceed.  It’s a maddening, slightly insane loop, and it’s great.  The need to think contextually about three characters while reacting to the immediate circumstances of one adds just enough complexity that the game feels a bit cerebral as well as reflex-driven, making success that much more satisfying.

I hope you like this screen.  You'll see it a lot.

Of course, success will be hard to come by, should you come by it at all.  Flee Buster is tough, and will sometimes punish you in ways that feel unfair.  A single mistake with any one character means game over for all three, and while the game is short by design it does mean that you’re pretty much going for a perfect run, and only that, right from the start.  There are tokens strewn along the path in all three levels, which serve as a scoring mechanism, but I can’t imagine any but the most dedicated will want to replay the game to get them all after completing it with less than 100%.  There’s also a noticeable disparity in the amount of player agency in the three scenarios:  the top-down ship level has enemies you can “trick” a bit, and power-ups to pick up that buy you extra time, while the side scrolling and vertical jumping levels rely solely on perfect platforming.  That's not really a complaint - they’re designed to be different - but it would have been nice to see more depth in the precision platforming sections.

Still, for a free game designed over the course of 48 hours, those are absolutely negligible issues.  Flee Buster is a tight, addictive experience that requires nothing but your web browser and some free time (though I did end up using a gamepad, as my skills with the arrow keys aren’t what they used to be), and you should definitely check it out.  The aesthetics are effective but very simple;  this one’s all about the gameplay.  Congratulations to ChevyRay for knocking out a very solid little game with a clever concept in almost no time at all;  I wish him luck in the competition!

Flee Buster is...

  • a tightly controlled, clever mix of several classic gameplay styles.
  • extremely unforgiving, but fast and short enough that it usually doesn’t feel punishing.
  • stressful;  it develops a surprising amount of tension in a very short period of time.
  • a game I will probably never 100%, but I will beat it.  So help me, I will.

Maybe you will too.  Flee Buster works everywhere Flash does, so head on over to ChevyRay’s website and find out!

"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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