They Always Run game review: Bounty killer

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Key notes

  • Chase galactic bounties and uncover an epic interstellar conspiracy
  • Use three arms to jump, climb, punch and shoot your way across the galaxy
  • Feast your eyes on stunning, high-resolution 2D graphics

At first glance, you’d be forgiven for mistaking They Always Run for a Metroidvania. It certainly looks like one, and at times it almost pretends to be one. But despite slowly drip-feeding you new abilities and powers throughout the runtime, it’s a much more linear experience than a Metroidvania.

I hasten to add that this is not a bad thing. I’m certainly not criticizing a game for setting out to tell a cohesive story and actually telling it. And in actual fact not having to constantly backtrack through areas is oddly refreshing. It also makes more sense in They Always Run, since your prey is always going one way and you’re always chasing their tails.

Eat, sleep, prey

Well, tails and claws and mechanical arms, since few of your marks are ordinary humans. They Always Run takes place in an almost Star Wars-esque universe, where multiple sentient species live in an often hard-fought peace on the fringes of the galaxy. You’ll frequent bars and settlements with more than a hint of Space Western about them. There’s nothing quite as dense or colorful as the Mos Eisley Cantina, but you get the idea.

Our protagonist is Aiden, a three-armed bounty hunter who may or may not be one of the last remnants of an ancient civilization. Generally regarded as a mutated freak, Aiden spends his days seeking out the worst scum in the solar system, bringing them either to the police or to private investors with more nefarious intentions.

The story begins with Aiden on the hunt for The Rat, a mechanized criminal with a small private army. Ambushed and imprisoned in the opening moments, you’ll soon be using a combination of Aiden’s abilities and guidance from his ship’s AI, Jonathan, to escape.

They Always Run: Hit counter

Combat is clunky and weighty and ridiculously fun in They Always Run. Aiden has three arms with three blades or three guns, and so you can engage up to three enemies at once. A blue glow indicates that you can perform a counterattack, which will insta-kill an opponent. There’s a great variety of animations for these counters, and each one is equally cool and satisfying to execute. Being 2D, enemies can only really come at you from the front and back, or occasionally from above.

With the right timing, you can dodge bullets, leap behind your enemies, insta-kill several goons at once, or shoot up to three cyborg killing machines in one hit. Aiden will unlock more skills and abilities as you progress, such as rocket boots to allow double jumps and an environmental scanner to highlight hidden switches.

You can also find out which seemingly random enemies also have bounties on their heads, and you can then beat them senselessly and activate a teleporter to send them to the nearest cop shop. It’s an interesting system, but one that feels kind of underused. I’d have preferred something other than currency for this, and seeking out particular bounties could have rewarded things like rare cosmetics, for example.

Wanted: Dead or alive

Currency is used as XP at the black market, where you’ll unlock and upgrade Aiden’s various gadgets and gizmos. Bullets can over-penetrate foes, or you can increase the range of your scanner, etc. It’s nothing terribly unique or fresh, but it all works in context with the world you’re in. But all the time I was playing I couldn’t help but think of Dead Cells. With this gameplay and that gear system, you’d have a masterpiece. 

Another particularly cool element is the way you bring in bounties. Important marks can’t be teleported to the cops, see? Criminals pay better and often set the bounties Aiden follows. Instead, you’ll need to render your prey inert and physically carry them back to your ship. You can either kill them, which reduces the payday, or use Aiden’s third arm to knock them unconscious.

This third arm has a variety of uses, such as breaking hard-to-reach switches or smashing through a guard’s defenses. Build up enough energy and you can also use it to unleash a powerful attack. The fact that it can be launched in any direction is pretty cool, but it makes you wonder why it doesn’t feature more in the platforming. That said, you can get a grappling hook and the ability to slide upwards on ropes and pipes, but the third arm doesn’t feel super necessary for that.

Galaxy of outlaws

It really doesn’t matter though, because what’s here is more than enough bang for your buck. Add in the fact that it’s also quite well written, with some genuine humor and a few decent story twists, and you’ve got a recipe for a great little indie game here. The music is just exceptional all the time, a combination of synth and strings that feels perfectly at home among the retro-futuristic factories, sewers, and junkyard planets. 

They Always Run also looks gorgeous throughout.  Yes, the combat is a little stilted, but this feels deliberate. The traversal is sublime, chaining slides and jumps and hook shots. During the chase sequences when the music is up and the chips are down, it feels unmatched by other side-scrolling adventure games.

The animation style works well with the high-res pixel art, and little details in the environments and characters make a subtle difference that you would only notice in their absence. The worlds you’ll traverse are nothing we haven’t seen many times over, but they work within the context of the story.

Grim future

There are some bugs hidden in the code though. Mostly they relate to the animation, but there are little annoyances with the collision that can be irritating. Once or twice Aiden completely missed a ledge or pipe despite obviously reaching it, though thankfully the checkpointing is pretty lenient. 

Boss battles are the only issue here, as some can go on for quite a while. They’re usually a variation on hit-and-run tactics, without a great deal of nuance. They’re not overly common, but compared to the moments where you’ve just got to run from or chase after something, they can feel limited.

Completion and achievments

Being a PC exclusive (so far) They Always Run doesn’t feature trophies or achievements. Its linear nature also means there won’t be any replaying of chapters for secrets and collectibles. As a result, a straight playthrough will take around 10 hours and there’s not much of a reason to go back.

Final thoughts on They Always Run

Looks amazing
Soundtrack is great
Intriguing and compelling story
Some minor bugs here and there
Occasional difficulty spikes
Boss fights aren't great

Final Score: 4/5

With so many titles at the moment vying for attention, it’s easy to overlook something like They Always Run, but it’d be a shame to do so. With a compelling story, an interesting main character, and a familiar but exciting world, it’s worth checking for any fan of 2D action games.

Don’t confuse it for a Metroidvania, though. This is a more straightforward adventure with little backtracking and a fairly compact skill tree that focuses on gear rather than intrinsic abilities. Despite a handful of minor bugs, it’s a well-made romp that feels fresh and familiar at the same time.

They Always Run is available now on PC and costs $14.99. There is currently no word on a console release. You can check out the system requirements on Steam.

*Disclaimer: Reviewed on Windows 10. Review code provided by the publisher.