I reviewed a few infinite runners a couple years ago, but this one is utterly charming, if unwieldy for me. I do nonetheless appreciate the innovations and experimentation FaceIT took to mix up the formula in Summer Catchers. First time I’ve ever played an infinite runner that has deck-building in it? Well sort of, Summer Catchers is an adorable pixel art game that has very chill vibes. It’s about a young girl traveling alone to meet up with her brother across several mystical forests and magical lands, though as to whether or not there’s some innate symbolism remains to be seen by me as of now. The art and music really carries the experience, so do the very cutesy dialogue and dry humor deployed by the eccentric talking animal personalities that guide you through each ‘level’.
Before you start what the game calls a race, you get to visit a shop to stock up on various tools that will aid you through various obstacles during the race. And before each race, you select from a list of errands on a job board to complete before moving on to the next zone. The deck-building comes in as you need to play around with the ratio of tools so that when you randomly draw from your “deck” you have the flexibility to outlast the onslaught of enemies and hurdles during each race. On top of that, each of the job board errands can populate your “deck” with cards that are used for your objective. I will explain some problems I had with this novel system further ahead.
Sadly, as a whole, the gameplay has me torn on what would have been a very obvious recommendation from me. There is a lot of trial and error and on the spot decision making involved in Summer Catchers, but the emphasis on planning that the game pushes never made me feel cunning or truly rewarded for what I did. I felt like I brute forced through every portion of the game, or progression felt like an inevitability rather than something earned. I think if Summer Catchers leaned less on the resource management portion, because for the most part it is offset by the sheer amount of runs needed to grind, and just doubled down on the inherent puzzles that emerge as runs continue, it would strike the perfect balance. Other than some frustrations with queuing up several actions in a row and feeling unfairly punished for back to back identical hurdles that were procedurally generated and impossible to avoid, I can get into the system as you deftly string together tool after tool to make your runs last.
I find it funny that the game calls each “level” a race as the majority of the time I view levels as “survive until you meet the challenges from the job board, then go to the menu and quit”. There are some events and bosses that do feel like races but, yeah, a bit of a misnomer in my opinion. The gameplay loop is very tight and simple, and I really appreciate the minimalist style. That being said, when the gameplay issues show up it is so volatile and frustrating, it really hampers the experience. I REALLY, REALLY want to love this game because it gets so much right with the cute aesthetics, charming dialogue, and some surprisingly, compellingly, dark creature designs. But gameplay often feels like a coin toss whether or not things will line up for an enjoyable experience. The main root of my problem with Summer Catcher’s gameplay is how it tries to merge planning with quick reaction gameplay, which makes it feel like a “jack of all trades, master of none situation”. When it works it’s pretty exhilarating, especially the boss fights and timing things JUUUUUUST right while frantically rummaging through your bag for the right tools.
Sadly, more often than not, I’d find myself having the exact tools I wanted, but none of the obstacles or “quest items” spawning, making the rest of the experience deflating. After all, there’s basically zero incentive to stay in levels outside of finishing your tasks which carry on from run to run. Most of the time I just found myself screaming for a “FUCKING RABBIT TO SPAWN! C’MON!!!”, only to get bombarded by two spike pits and a frozen pond death combo. That’s the issue with the level design, and look, I get that the uncertainty is intentional, but it just makes for so many feel bad experiences because it never feels like you can properly plan for anything. Some runs I may never see a totem for a long time, while others I see like 3 within 10 seconds. I do like that when you’re planning, your tools update with the types of obstacles they can dismantle, which helps learn the layout. And on its own, figuring out proper ratios and essentially being able to control the size of your “deck” of tools is interesting on paper. And certain tasks, like catching the aforementioned rabbits, encourages you to have rocket boosters handy so you can capitalize on that elusive little shits’ appearances. For me personally, managing money in any capacity was entirely uninteresting because you can always just grind out levels, and there’s really no pressure not to take your sweet time with the game. It just felt like busywork whenever I had to go to the shop, though I did enjoy collecting cosmetics. Instead, I might suggest each area just starting you off with a certain maximum number of each tool before you start a run, making designs feel a bit more puzzle-like and hand made. It may be hard to hear that I’m trying to sterilize the procedurally generated component of the game, but I think it may be a necessary evil. The other thing is whenever I try to put on a designers cap to tackle this “problem”, I find myself utterly baffled on how I would approach a rework. It would require a good amount of play-testing and iteration, but my go-to philosophy would be to add more consistency or information so that players can feel more rewarded for careful planning instead of just getting lucky. Besides this detail, everything else is so charming, but I’m so sad to say that this is a “bad apple ruining the bunch” situation for me.
Man, fuck me if I don’t feel like I’m setting up for a breakup. It’s not you; it’s me, Summer Catchers. I love your looks, your adorable little sounds, how musically gifted you are, even the way you sometimes frighten me out of nowhere. But ultimately, I just can’t keep up with you, and I don’t want you to have to dumb things down for me to feel happy. I know deep down we might grow and change, and I might learn to truly fall in love with you for the first time, but for now, it’s for the best that we went our separate ways. Plus I’ve got my big tiddie dom Ghosts and Goblins: Resurrection who knows how to treat me wrong JUUUUST right, the safe word is “Capcom”. I just made it weird, didn’t I? [EDITOR’S Note: Yes, yes you fucking did.]
Received a reviewer’s copy from the devs.
With a heavy heart, Hellfirebam has not awarded Summer Catchers the Indie Gamer Seal of Approval.