Urban Runner review

Urban Runner
Urban Runner
The Good:
  • Enthralling plot
  • Solid B-movie writing
  • Likeable (if clichéd) characters
  • Great FMV with effective direction
  • Captivating musical score
  • Some good puzzles
The Bad:
  • B-movies simply aren’t for everyone
  • A lot of timed actions, some of which require fast reflexes
  • Often frustrating trial and error
  • Very brief
Our Verdict: With its continuous timed actions and puzzles, Urban Runner isn’t for everyone, but it’s a solid thriller worth playing for fans of interactive movies.
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Perhaps more famous for its brain-teasing Goblins series, French developer Cocktel Vision also produced two FMV adventures that today are almost forgotten. The first one, Lost in Time, was released by Sierra in 1993 to a lukewarm critical reception, and was followed three years later, at the apogee of the short-lived FMV popularity, by a spiritual sequel originally known as Lost in Town but renamed Urban Runner before release. The working title clearly shows Coktel's intention to tie the games together in a cohesive "Lost in…" series, but the project was ultimately discontinued when Sierra was sold off. The two games still show many similarities, however, especially in terms of gameplay and graphical presentation, and both were publicized as “Interactive Action Adventure Movies”. This label is strikingly accurate for Urban Runner in particular, since the title blends together classical adventure investigation and timed sequences to create “a breathtaking thriller calling for sharp reflexes and fast thinking”.

Urban Runner casts the player in the role of Max, an American journalist in Paris. Max has a flair for scoops, and as the story begins he enters a steamy sauna to meet Tony Marcos, a drug dealer whom he wants to blackmail. A few days before, a paparazzo photographed Marcos together with Paul Lagrange, a young and ambitious politician, and now Max, who paid through the nose to obtain the film, wants to know what’s going on between the two of them. A remote Turkish bath seems the perfect place for a secluded meeting, but as soon as Max enters the sauna he discovers that someone has murdered Marcos, cutting his throat with a sharp knife. Panicked, he tries to run away but Marcos’ nasty bodyguard, mistaking Max for the killer, starts to chase him through Paris’ rooftops, down into an underground, filthy sewer and then to an old, abandoned factory.

This is only the beginning of a frantic race against time: hunted by a corrupt police detective and a dangerous gang of thugs led by the gigantic biker Eraser, a raging killer in the pay of Lagrange, Max has only a few days to prove his innocence and save his very life. When he finds a cryptic clue during an investigation in Marcos’ office, Max starts following a trail leading to a mysterious organization known as the Elite, which seems to connect both Marcos and Lagrange to a Russian criminal and a certain Dr. Dramish. Luckily for him, Max isn’t alone in his perilous task, since he can count on D.D., his longtime hacker friend, and Adda Wertmuller, a ravishing and dangerous German student of Ecology, who became the lover of the late Tony Marcos to spy on his illegal activities. Nighttime break-ins of highly protected offices and clandestine facilities, hot pursuits in the streets of Paris and deadly ambushes inside ultra-technological laboratories are only a few of the obstacles Max must overcome to find the truth about the Elite, and perhaps even about a certain woman who is hiding more than one secret from him.

Cheap? Tacky? Petty? Well, the story surely doesn’t shine for its originality, but the plot is so full of unexpected twists and sensational developments that it enthralls from beginning to end, thanks to a cracking pace and a series of (mis)adventures that are as challenging as they are captivating. The writing, with its strong reliance on hard-boiled stereotypes, is often cheesy and suitable for a good B-movie from the ‘60s, where the director was always searching for a new gimmick to scare or amaze the viewer. Nevertheless, the script remains both incisive and entertaining through the whole game, and the tasty pinch of sci-fi elements – mindful of Tex Murphy’s masterpiece Under a Killing Moon, with which Urban Runner shares more than a few plot similarities – adds an undeniable pep to the espionage setting. The characters, clichéd and often over-exaggerated, don’t show any real depth or development, but despite their paper-thin personalities they form a disparate, colorful and amusing cast (some would say “a mess”) of femmes fatales, ruthless policemen and savage killers. These are all brought to life by an ensemble of actors that won’t be receiving an Oscar any time soon but still brought to mind pleasant memories of old, campy spoof movies like Vincent Price’s Bloodbath at the House of Death.

The over-the-top acting is due to the fact that, apart from a few directly spoken lines, the whole adventure is solely narrated by a continual voiceover by Max, leaving the actors to overdo every facial expression and gesture to compensate for the lack of personal communication. This will certainly be a controversial point, but though the off-screen voice will become annoying for some players, I felt this particular choice greatly improved the atmosphere of the setting, calling to mind the days of silent cinema and the old Sam Spade films. This feeling is strengthened by the peculiar direction of the FMV sequences by Philippe Lamarque and Silvan Boris Schmid, who chose to use hand-camera movements to enhance the player’s direct involvement. Years before the likes of Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy, many sequences are even presented in a sort of split-screen mode that amplifies the suspense of these segments: at the beginning of the game, for example, while Max is running away from Marcos’ bodyguard, a second, smaller screen shows the movements of the henchman searching for him. The player can see the guard approaching Max’s hiding place and knows that he has only a couple of seconds to dash off. The music also does a great job of emphasizing the tension in these kinds of situations, with gloomy chords and sudden heart-pounding percussions, whilst providing a soft piano accompaniment during the more relaxing investigative sequences.

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