The beautiful pixel-art graphics that greet you upon your first adventure into the cutesy world of Summer Catchers make you desperately want to love it.
The visually comforting world, colourful cast of eccentric characters and detail-rich environments gleam with endearing charm, welcoming you in with a host of warm vistas and a delightfully earnest aesthetic appeal.
It turns out Summer Catchers holds a remarkable similarity to the flimsy makeshift kart its protagonist pilots throughout the game. It’s adorable to look at and feels handcrafted with loving care, but there’s really not that much going on beneath its flimsy hood. To be frank, it’s a simple game. Once you’ve made it through one of the eight different stages, you’ve seen the majority of what this endless runner has to offer.
Every level sees you piloting your craft along an infinitely scrolling 2D environment, dodging various hazards through the use of different tools and power-ups. Big obstacles require you to produce a battering ram out the front of your car; steep hills need you to fire out an explosive boost to climb; while hazardous stretches of thin ice call for a sturdy propeller to carry you to safety. After falling from your cart, you return to a small hub world where you can replenish your tools using mushrooms picked up along the route, before boarding your vehicle and trying again. Bar a few fun optional minigames, it’s familiar stuff. There’s a reason the endless runner genre has become such a staple of the casual gaming market over the years: they’re addictive.
The issue with Summer Catchers is how it attempts to avert all-out simplicity, its gameplay loop favouring luck over skill. Adventuring through the title’s different levels you’ll find that, instead of gaining access to your entire arsenal of aforementioned tools, you receive a random selection of three tools at a time. That means if you approach a large hill but haven’t been lucky enough to bag the necessary rocket boost to reach the other side, your entire run is forfeit. It’s a bizarre mechanic that systematically corrupts nearly every aspect of what is – at its core – a fun endless runner.
While the game seems to want to make you focus on quick reactions and accurate timing, it instead becomes a frustrating instance of Russian roulette, making simple tasks infuriating as your runs are cut short by spates of bad luck. What’s stranger is that most of Summer Catchers aspects don’t even seem to synergise with the mechanic. The level design seems to oppose it completely, with certain obstacles dealing instant kills that require a specific tool to overcome, with others often repeating the same obstacle multiple times in a row. If you don’t have the right gear the first time you’re out of luck, regardless of how hard you’ve prepared.
It gets worse when the game introduces missions: small tasks to complete on your rides out into the wilderness that ask you to collect a certain number of objects or to interact with a specific element of the map. In theory, these are neat little excursions that sidestep the tedium of playing a repetitive runner for a frequent amount of time, but with the random tool mechanic, they turn into simplistic objectives that test your patience more than your skill. This is mainly because completing most of these tasks requires the use of mission-specific tools that are thrown into your already chaotic arsenal. Instead of acting as challenging diversions to the somewhat basic main game design, they act as another luck-centric task that can only be beaten by being in the right place at the right time.
However, no part of the game feels more as at odds with the random tool mechanic than the boss battles that conclude every stage. Putting you into situations that force you to contend with both the hazards of the track and the additional attacks of a colossal enemy, these scenarios should test your knowledge of each stage and push you to react fast. In the end, they just become a complete gamble, the random attacks these huge enemies throw needing to line up with the tools at your disposal and thus leaving your success down to the luck of the draw. While beating these behemoths should make you feel like you conquered a particularly troublesome puzzle, you often feel like you simply won on a fluke run rather than overcame a tough challenge.
It’s sad that this aspect of Summer Catchers ends up tainting so much of how it plays, especially because if it were to focus on its simplicity, it could have been a different, better experience. The fleeting story, innocuous main character and superb soundtrack make for some adorable moments. The main adventure features reams of heart-warming writing and some epic musical numbers, while the small side quests you stumble upon off the beaten path are diverse and entertaining.
Its beautiful maps and locations are a highlight too. From picturesque snowy mountain tops to scorching deserts shimmering with distant mirages, I can only describe the art style as intricately beautiful eye candy. The typical levels themselves even have moments where everything aligns and the game that Summer Catchers wants to come into view, your arsenal falling perfectly into place and your need for fast reactions surpassing your focus on having the right tools.
However, it’s simply not enough to save what is – at its heart – a fundamentally frustrating game. The visuals are there and it exudes charm in everything it does, but it’s hard to deny that the game’s emphasis on luck means it never acts on its incredibly fun potential.
Game: Summer Catchers
Publisher: Noodlecake Studios
Release Date: July 16, 2019