If I were to stereotype I\’d say there are two types of developers on the 3DS eShop: those making casual games and those making games that appeal to a more traditional crowd. (A very shallow breakdown if I ever saw one, because there is plenty of crossover.) When you first come across an endless runner, like 2 Fast 4 Gnomz, you assume it will be lighter, more casual fare. But in this case that would be a mistake. 2 Fast 4 Gnomz is more in line with Super Meat Boy and Bit.Trip Runner. Both of those have colorful, approachable appearances too, but are actually more appropriate to the skill-level of a well-seasoned novice rather than an amateur.

The challenging and sometimes brutal difficulty level of 2 Fast 4 Gnomz is actually what kept me riveted to the screen for the few hours I spent with it, repeating a level tens of times until I mastered it. Does that sound appealing to you? If nail-biting difficulty is up your alley then take the plunge. If you\’re expecting a walk around the park, this is not it.

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The casual gamer will pick up 2 Fast 4 Gnomz and blame the developers for causing the hundreds of deaths that are sure to ensue. The traditional gamer will realize that there is nothing wrong with the controls. Any mistake is due to poor timing and his own reflexes. Luckily, that also means the more he practices and learns the levels, the better chance he has of mastering them. For a gamer seeking a challenge that could be quite an exciting proposition. It was to me, and I spent many hours twisting my body into a pretzel and other compromised positions while trying to master specific levels.

But let’s delve a bit deeper into the mechanics of the game. Once again, this is not your average endless-runner. Typically, you\’d just run in a straight line while jumping and avoiding obstacles. The genre is known for placing a big limitation on gameplay. It’s simplicity is also its appeal. Generally, you don\’t feel you\’ve been given much control. However, 2F4G introduces many new gameplay mechanics that open the game up so it almost feels like a new genre: an endless platformer rather than an endless runner. The level design matters in this game because there are so many other factors taking place besides for plodding ahead mindlessly. When you begin, there is nothing more to do than run, jump, collect socks by timing your jumps well, and avoid obstacles. But, as you continue, you gain new powers. There are four additional powers to collect and each one can play a role in any place in any level. Each ability is mapped to a single d-pad direction. So, pressing up will open a shirt-like parachute to help you glide down chasms to a safe platform. Pressing forward lets you dash at mach-speed so the backgrounds pass you by in a blur, advancing past gates that are about to close. Pressing down lets you use Berserk mode, which will cause you to rage like a bull, knocking over gnarled trees in your path, hurtling down vertical lengths, and keeping you safely planted to the ground as you pass spiraling tornadoes. Lastly, when you gain the ability, you\’ll be able to press left at certain spots to rewind time (ala Braid) and take a different route than you did earlier, as you open up new paths and platforms.

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The complexity and difficulty is always in proportion to the amount of abilities you have to use at once. When you only have two powers, you\’ll be laughing, thinking you\’ve mastered this game. But, as your abilities increase, you\’ll have to learn to use the various powers quite intuitively because you could be cycling between the four powers with abandon as you struggle to stay alive. But, don\’t worry, you will survive in your first play-through. Your real talents won\’t be put to the test until you beat the game and it’s time to complete each level at 100% in order to unlock the secret world. In each level you have three separate challenges: beat the level without dying once, collect every sock, and beat the timer. This offers great replay value because you\’ll go back to previous levels and realize there’s a lot more depth to them once you have all of your powers unlocked. You\’ll really appreciate the intricate level design. And the challenges here are brutal. I\’m ashamed to say there are times my gnome died 50-60 times before completing all the challenges in a particular level. If you\’ve got a \”gamer ego\” you\’ll have a hard time following through with this. But, if you embrace the challenge you\’ll feel really good when you finally beat a level completely. A word of warning: the secret world is practically impossible. Only real masochists should attempt it.

By the end of my time with 2 Fast 4 Gnomz I felt I\’d played a game that had a pinch of Sonic’s speed, a dash of Mario’s level design, and two dollops of Bit.Trip Runner’s difficulty. The only ingredient that doesn\’t fit in this recipe is the casual theme. And here we come to my biggest disappointment of the game.

The trappings of a casual game is what holds back 2 Fast 4 Gnomz from becoming more than just a good game. The developers at Qubic Games are obviously very talented and surely have a long personal history with video games. The level design they achieved is often meticulous and perfectly planned out down to the pixel. These are people who know what they are doing. But, when it came to designing the game’s visual and audio theme, they decided to play it too safe. The theme of the gnomz is safe, accessible, and perfectly suited to a casual audience. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The art is crisp and pleasing to stare at. The colors are vibrant and \”pop\” well in 3D. The story cutscenes are short but humorous with a bit of silliness thrown in for good measure.

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In originally aiming for such a broad audience, they\’ve designed the game safely from a marketing perspective. But, I wonder just how much Qubic Games could have accomplished if they let their creative imaginations free reign. The short cutscenes were almost a tease to the humor the developers could have expanded upon. To contrast, Bit.Trip Runner used atypical graphics and implemented a subtle background story of someone’s birth and maturity through life. It can almost be called art. As a second contrast, Super Meat Boy wasn\’t art or sophisticated thinking material, but it’s premise was over-the-top and bizarre. It was about a boy with no skin, a lump of meat, rescuing his girlfriend, a bandage, from a fetus in a jar wearing a suit. That \”spin\”, those irregular details and premise, are what makes us think of Super Meat Boy and the Bit.Trip series as indie games rather than casual games. The same could be said about Braid, Limbo, VVVVVV, World of Goo, and Little Inferno. None of those games feature extremely complex gameplay, relying instead on retro-appealing dynamics and a creative premise.

This is what I wanted so badly while I played 2 Fast 4 Gnomz. I felt like I was playing an indie game trapped in the shell of a casual game. On one hand, I understand where they were coming from. The way to appeal to such a broad demographic on Nintendo systems is to be as neutral as possible. Keep it simple, colorful, and humorous. On the other hand, I think that if they had gone with their own indie imagination and done something a bit less typical with the design, they could have ended up turning a lot more heads that way. But this shouldn\’t keep you away. If challenging gameplay is what you\’re after, you\’ll get it in full measure.

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All in all, I felt 2 Fast 4 Gnomz was a tough game with lots of replay value, worth the cost of admission. As long as you know what you\’re getting into, you\’ll be rewarded with time well-spent. If you need a quick game for when you\’re on the go, 2 Fast 4 Gnomz offers easy accessibility with a tough challenge to sink your teeth into.

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