Brian Basco is a young physicist facing all the usual graduate student problems: a mysterious crucifix, murderous mob bosses, and a beautiful woman who’s desperate for his help. All of which means that Runaway: A Road Adventure is a great advertisement for STEM education.
Fortunately, Runaway is also a very good point-and-click adventure. While it is not as well known as Broken Sword or Secret of Monkey Island, it is a minor classic that has been republished several times since its original appearance in 2001.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. This is an port of a game that was built for full-sized monitors and mouse controls. Each scene has several objects to investigate, and most of them occupy tiny slices of real estate. On an iPhone screen, it’s much too easy to grab the wrong item or hit a dialogue option that’s just above the one you wanted. The game won’t let you do anything that permanently blocks your progress, but it’s annoying to repeat actions over and over because you’re trying to hit the middle object in a set of three objects spaced five pixels apart.
If tapping the screen doesn’t drive you mad, and if you’re not bothered by cutscenes that sometimes run for more than ten minutes, then Runaway’s story is a grabber. The mystery plot is easy to follow, but it has surprising twists and turns. It’s not as subtle or responsive to player choices as more recent adventures like The Walking Dead, but it’s complex enough that it would work well as a novel or movie plot.
The characters are what makes Runaway shine, though. Brian is an appealing hero who’s fun to play. Damsel in distress Gina gets a little shortchanged by the “one active protagonist” structure of the game, but when she’s not incapacitated she’s a smart, forceful personality who plays well against Brian. The supporting characters are quirky without being annoying, and a bright young hacker with the improbable name of Sushi Douglas steals almost every scene she’s in. The game is also full of in-jokes and references, from the three drag queens stranded in the desert to the acerbic scientist with the suspiciously Asimovian name of Susan Olivaw.
As for the puzzles, they’re typical for the genre. Brian gets blocked a lot in his journey, and the solution is usually to find nearby item A and combine it in an offbeat way with item B. There are also some old standards like the measuring cups puzzle, and a few annoying tasks like one that forces you to fill a cup of water and carry it through several scenes… five times in a row.
Despite occasional annoyances, the puzzles are fair and make logical sense once completed. The game clearly signals which items are useful, and won’t let you move forward without an item that you need. The clues are a little sparse, though. If you know what the current puzzle is, you can usually find a hint by looking at objects or talking to nearby characters. However, there are several spots in the game where it’s just not clear what you’re supposed to be doing next.
This is where Runaway benefits from being an older game. Walkthroughs are easy to find online, and I would never have met my review deadline without them. If you like the puzzles, you can while away a lot of hours solving them. But it’s a measure of how strong Runaway’s story and characters are that you can enjoy the game even when the puzzles are solved for you.