Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages was a successful Kickstarter baby from 2012, only finally Greenlit on Steam this past December. Released alongside a companion novel, the game represents a grand endeavor to build a universe, which is frankly an amazing feat coming from the three-person Triple.B.Studios. As a space shooter RPG, it might be best thought of as a combination of Mass Effect and SubSpace – it’s got the best elements of each, but it’s inherited some of their problems as well.
Ring Runner takes place in the very far future, where cities are built in space and humans have branched out into different species across many galaxies. Much like Mass Effect, there’s a great deal of lore tucked away in the details of the upgrades you receive, but it’s simple enough to ignore if you’re not interested. You play as an unnamed, gender-less amnesiac with a peanut-butter-cup-obsessed computer named Nero implanted in your head. As you explore the universe to find out about yourself, you discover that you’re a Sage, which, to avoid going into too much detail, is a magic guy with space powers.
A lesser game would collapse under its own weight with a universe this big, but Ring Runner avoids that fate by keeping the story’s focus small. It’s always just you and Nero, traveling the stars looking for answers (and peanut butter cups). The overall tone is also much less serious, than, say, Mass Effect. You’ll sell Dvorak keyboards to mercenaries by blasting their doors in, fight space zombies in a space graveyard, and… well, it’s really best to find out for yourself. Ring Runner wears its humor proudly, and it never manages to take away from your immersion in the setting.
As mentioned before, Ring Runner’s gameplay is largely inspired by the space dogfights of SubSpace, but on a much, much more evolved level. Ships are split into five classes, each of which has an extremely different playstyle. The Caster, for instance, uses mainly area-of-effect abilities and impulse weapons, while the Grappler goes in for close-distance melee combat. Ships are customizable to a terrifying degree, with over 400 swappable parts for everything from Weapon Bays to Dimensional Arrays and Heat Sinks.
That last point will be either the main draw or the breaking point for many people. Unlike the lore, which is involved but mostly on the sideline, the ship-building part of Ring Runner is involved and mostly mandatory. You’re probably going to have to spend a while reading what items like the Messier-Six Salvo or the NX180-360 actually do. It’s not just the menu management, either–as you might see from the UI, there are some 14 different inputs to which abilities can be mapped, so you’ll have to relearn how to fly for every ship.
To Ring Runner’s credit, the gameplay is extremely intuitive, especially when you manage to get comfortable with your ship’s abilities. Flicking your control stick (or mouse, if you’re a peasant) will allow you to dodge in that direction with most ships, giving you a way around the annoying mechanic of thrusting conservatively to avoid overshooting targets. This, along with the huge number and variety of abilities, causes dogfights to be frantic and visually spectacular. And super, super fun.
It really can’t be said enough how enjoyable space battles are, especially when you’ve settled comfortably into a ship of your design. There’s a high degree of skill involved in activating abilities and dodging, but the pacing of the game allows for a natural progression of learning. There’s almost endless ways to play, from dropping mines and turrets to tethering enemies with grapple beams and hurling them into spikes. Or doing both at the same time, if you can.
Over the course of the game’s 20+ hour storyline, you’ll essentially travel across the entire universe several times over. Worry not about the game wearing out its welcome–there’s a good deal of variety in missions, from gladiator arenas to racetracks to even tower defense levels. Extra content includes a huge number of co-op and versus scenarios ranging from MOBA-style base wars to zombie survival. It’s really a shame that the multiplayer component doesn’t have a great playerbase, though the free demo includes access to all multiplayer modes.
Unfortunately, the game’s greatest strength is also its Achilles’ heel. It’s overwhelming how much there is to learn in Ring Runner–the tutorial galaxy on its own is a good two to three hours long. Getting stuck is a real problem, since if a level is too hard at first, your choices are to hit the difficulty slider or start relearning how to use new abilities. Trying to fly a bad ship can also be frustrating, especially since it takes so long to read through upgrades to change the layout.
And yet despite all that, Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages is a beautiful game. You’ll coast through asteroid fields, the backdrop of a nebula casting shadows over your path. You’ll visit impossible cities constructed in space, ducking between pillars of buildings stretching out to the void below. At times your flight will be defined by the absence of all reference points–dogfighting over the black abyss of the universe’s outer reaches.
Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages is, for all its rough edges, a challenging and thrilling experience. Mastering the controls of your ship is an extremely rewarding process, and there’s a boggling amount of content to smash through with that mastery. If you can get past the accessibility issues (which, for all I’ve written, aren’t all that terrible), you might find the vastness of space isn’t as daunting as it appears.