It’s not often that I run into a game not conducive to a traditional review, but as Power Lode Runner demonstrates, there will always be exceptions. What’s there to this game to evaluate in any real depth? Not much, honestly. It’s just good, by the books game design. So instead of reviewing this game and asking why the game works, I’m instead going to examine how. I’ll pick it apart from the inside out, and hopefully, I’ll be able to piece it back together in the end to figure out what exactly makes Power Lode Runner work.
Fortunately, there’s not a lot to this game, so it should be a relatively easy task. The game is divided up into small levels, each one always a square room consisting of four screens worth of content. (This will be important later.) Your task is to collect all the treasures chests in the room and leave while avoiding the various creatures wandering about. You do this largely by making certain blocks disappear and playing around with the physics.
But the details aren’t terribly important. What is important is what that design allows the designers to do. Because all your abilities relate to the environment and what you can do with it, the game emphasizes the levels very strongly, meaning they’ll need equally strong design if the game hopes to succeed. Fortunately, this is one of Power Lode Runner’s strongest points. For one, there are fundamentally only five or six pieces to any level (a ladder, a clothesline, various types of blocks, etc.) However, each one is very well defined in terms of how you interact with it. Thus the level designers allow themselves a lot of creative room to challenge the player mentally, design challenging and involving puzzles, and leave the player feeling like they’ve accomplished something for solving them. (Not that the designers always use that room.)
Yet just as important are the restrictions to what levels can do. Without them, both the designer and the player risk losing control over the levels. They’d just become a confusing, disorienting mess. This is where the level size comes into play. On the one hand, the size is large enough to let the designers create meaningful challenges within each room. On the other hand, it’s still small enough to define the mood of the game. This size means that as a player, you never have to manage more than a few elements at a time, and the levels usually only take a few minutes to complete. They allow the player to really focus in on those few elements and really tease out what needs to be done to complete the stage. So we can see the kind of balances that the room size lends itself toward. The game still has that feeling of productivity and challenge inherent to the rules, but now tempers it with a relaxing pace.
So far, so good. We have a compact puzzle game that players will want to engage with. That said, however, it still feels a little flat. As fun as it is, the game’s lacking in tension, due in no small part to the levels letting you set your own pace. Fortunately, the creatures I mentioned before add another layer of much needed depth to the game. Mechanically speaking, they’re little more than another feature in the environment. The only difference is that this feature moves toward you at every moment. But that’s exactly what makes them so useful to the game. They add a hard time limit, and thus, a source of tension. (However, the size of the levels also means that you don’t lose much when you run into them, so the game’s relaxing pace remains unharmed.) At this point, Power Lode Runner almost becomes a mind game against the AI. It’s less about navigating the environment than it is about using it to exploit the enemies’ path-finding algorithms. They certainly makes for a more nuanced experience now than the game would be without their presence.
Finally, we have the narrative and aesthetic to consider. The narrative, at least, isn’t especially important to the game. It’s essentially a cartoony retelling of the Aeneid, as crazy as that sounds. More interesting, though, is the aesthetic, if only marginally. Given what I’ve said so far, you might think to yourself that the game could succeed on the merits of its design alone. That a pleasing art style would just be a cherry on top of an already good game. To that, I counter with Zen Puzzle Garden. That game has the same general focus as Power Lode Runner, but with the same bland, utilitarian aesthetic permeating each of its levels. The art has no personality whatsoever, and it certainly doesn’t make you want to play the game.
Power Lode Runner, with its cute and cartoony visuals, avoids those problems entirely. The warmer colors and the more identifiable character designs are far more inviting than what Zen Puzzle Garden offers. And on top of that, the aesthetic changes thematically between worlds. This may not constitute meaningful new content between worlds, since you’re doing the same thing in each one. Still, as an illusion of new content, it’s pretty effective, no doubt in part because of the already appealing art style. Certainly a better strategy than the new abilities the game rarely introduces. Because of how the levels are structured, the new content they introduce drags out the game without adding anything meaningful to justify it.
Speaking of content, it’s probably strange that I’ve said so much about the game without looking at any of the specific content. That’s because content is largely irrelevant to understanding what makes Power Lode Runner as good as it is. The game derives so much more success from its rulesets and the limits it places on itself. Each one achieves an important balance that makes the game fun, regardless of what the game asks you to do in each level. Understand all that, and engaging content is sure to follow.