DEATHRUN TV: Putting the Glitz Back in the Twin-Stick
Bullet-hell gameplay with a dystopian-future TV show aesthetic is back!
First impressions matter and in today’s crowded, chaotic media environment, if you don’t stand out, you’ll end up buried. On platforms like Steam — flooded with games of questionable quality — how a game initially captures the attention of potential buyers is key for it’s survival.
DEATHRUN TV is one of those rare games that stands out from that endless list, and not just because of the mandatory all-caps. There aren't that many games that leave me singing the title music to myself, but then that's part of the charm here.
I was lucky to find DEATHRUN TV within a day of its release — a rarity on Steam, where I’m lucky to spot anything new and interesting within a few months. So while this game is still fresh, let’s look at what this arcade throwback offers.
Just Play the Game... Not Like You Have a Choice
DEATHRUN TV really grabs you by the face as soon as the game launches. There are racing credits, the crescendo of the cheering audience, the vaguely menacing money-blinded host, and the incredibly catchy song entreating onlookers to just play the gaaaame. The game immediately captures the player in a way that’s rare in video games, let alone indie titles. It’s a preview of the game’s overall style: intense, in-your-face, and morbidly upbeat.
The story is minimalistic, as you’d expect from an arcade-style game. In the future, people have developed a reliable means of raising the dead. What’s the best way to apply this newfound technology? Creating a game show that pits contestants against hordes of mutants, killers, robots, and gruesome traps. After all, if death isn’t permanent, then grinding someone to a pulp for the amusement of a home audience isn’t an ethical problem, right?
Based on the aforementioned song, you have voluntarily signed up for this game show in pursuit of easy money and fame, perhaps not realizing the consequences of your actions. You are now fated to face a brutal death repeatedly to raucous cheers. The notion that this is some techno-futurist version of hell is only driven home by the contract that your character signs in blood (using your Steam handle, which is a cute touch) at the start of each game.
As you might guess, DEATHRUN TV draws more than a little of inspiration from twin-stick classic Smash TV. The glitzy levels and color commentary from the host definitely recall that title. DEATHRUN TV updates things a bit, though, blending the cheesy grandiosity of old-school game shows with some touches and details from today’s overloaded media environment.
You’ll Fight, and You’ll Die, and You’ll Fight, and You’ll Die
The twin-stick shooter is a popular subgenre for indie games for a reason. The central mechanics are simple and universal, which opens things up for experimentation at the edges. DEATHRUN TV is no different.
The central gameplay is standard for the genre - move with one stick, aim and shoot with the other stick. They clearly designed the controls with a controller in mind, but I played the PC version with a keyboard and mouse and it worked very well. It might take a little practice and/or rebinding to master keyboard controls, though. In particular, the protagonist can carry a weapon in each hand, and we can equip each and fire separately. There is an option to fire both weapons with one button and I highly recommend turning this on, as there’s seldom a reason to fire them individually in a game this frenetic.
Developers Laser Dog and Merge Games split the game into a series of studios with different enemy sets and gimmicks. Each studio comprises a series of randomized levels ending in a random boss fight. The non-boss levels come in two flavors: arenas that require the player to defeat a certain number of enemy waves before the exit unlocks and linear areas that task the player with fighting through hordes of endlessly spawning enemies to reach the exit. Besides the enemies, they pepper each area with hazards: spikes, wall-hugging buzz saws, and a rain of mortar fire that strikes the area if the player dawdles after unlocking the exit.
Keeping yourself alive isn’t your only concern. You also need to save your fans. The producers will occasionally hurl blindfolded captives into the arena. These helpless individuals will quickly blunder into a trap or enemy. They will die… unless you get to them first. If you can guide a prisoner to a safe area, the rewards are ‘likes’, which act as the game’s main scoring mechanism, as well as one of the primary means of unlocking new weapons. Rescue enough of them and you’ll earn a mutation that powers you up for the rest of the run. You get more rewards for rescuing more people at a time, but the game can still kill the captives following you, so there’s a bit of a risk-reward consideration at play.
Think of the Fortune, Think of the Fame
There’s one more wrinkle. Every so often, the host will poll the audience and, based on their responses, will give the player a buff or debuff. This is normally random, but if streamer mode is turned on, then the player’s viewers get to vote on what happens. Yes, it’s another game where your audience members can screw you over if they feel whimsical enough. This is why you should treat your fans right!
DEATHRUN TV is far from the hardest twin-stick I’ve ever played, but the difficulty ramps up fast. The roguelike elements, also, mean it is possible to get into trouble in later areas if you didn’t play aggressively enough in the early areas. It is, mostly, fair-hard. You’ll never have enemies spawn on top of you or anything similarly cheap.
The projectiles on the screen, however, might become a problem. Many enemies release bullets when they die, and the bosses in particular can turn into bullet hell grudge matches. The hitboxes are pretty fair, but good luck keeping captives alive while projectiles flood the screen. Compared to Godstrike – another bullet-hell twin-stick I looked at for Indie Excavation – this one isn't so hard, but it might not be what you expect.
One thing that might make the game a little tricky is the visual design. The Dan Paladin-esque graphics and Smash TV aesthetic are certainly nice to look at, but the screen can also get incredibly busy, making it hard to track features such as ammo and health. Or it can become difficult to figure out where captives are landing. The developers seemed to be aware of this, taking steps to compensate. For example, there are lots of audio cues, and the player's sprite visually changes when he’s one hit from death. Regardless, it would be nice to see ammo and health counters where the player is actually looking (such as over the player sprite, a step taken by fellow all-caps twin-stick shooter UBERMOSH).
These are pretty minor complaints, though, when considering all that the game offers to players. Overall, DEATHRUN TV is a fun throwback arcade game, perfect for short bursts of intense gameplay and a fine choice for content creators looking for something a little different.
DEATHRUN TV is currently available on PC via Steam, Nintendo Switch and Google Stadia. A PS5 version is planned, but was not complete as of this review.
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