The Stylish Totem Runner is a Worthy Savior in a Dark Time

Forgive me, this will sound like damnation by faint praise, but I almost didn't know what to do with myself after completing a level in Totem Runner. I can't remember the last time a new mobile game didn't use the intermission to sell me something I didn't want. Most importantly, Totem Runner is good on its own merits, and is well worth a look from platformer fans with a buck to spend.

Totem Runner isn't an infinite runner—there are discrete levels to negotiate—but it is an auto-runner, so you're focused on the actions your shaman takes as he tries to save a world darkened by an evil spirit. You won't leap or jump, you'll transform into a bird to soar over the pits and weave between hazards. Golem archers may bring you down, though, so you must charge through them and other ground hazards by turning into a rhino (with a visually satisfying slow-motion finish through your adversary.)

Of course, it would be too easy to remain in bird and/or rhino state through the entire level, so developer Yagoda wisely introduced the need to sow flowers back into the dead land, which you may only do in human form. This is crucial to increasing the star count in your level, and you will unlock future levels by acquiring a certain number of stars in the ones you already have.

The sow-flowers control illustrates the only real quibble I have with Totem Runner. If you're in human form, you've got to keep your thumb clamped on that flower button, and it can get cramped up in tense or prolonged gaming sessions. I'm not sure why this task has to be manually triggered; auto-flowering the land in human form would still provide a check against abusing the eagle or rhino forms (or the dragon, an uber-state which speeds you to the next checkpoint.) One other piece of advice: the tilt-controls for the eagle's flight are very responsive. Make small gestures, you'll quickly get the hang of it.

But the controls on the right side are also a little small, especially on an iPhone, but still manageable. My biggest problem there was accidentally summoning the dragon form (the first command in a two-stage process, fortunately) as I slid between bird and rhino. Your timing between your totem forms will become more critical, and the window for doing so smaller, the further you run in this.

Still, with persistence, Totem Runner is a rewarding game that is worth the effort, and its stylish presentation deserves praise. So many mobile titles have chosen to be cartoony, cute or ironic, where Totem Runner is earnest without being self-important. I adored the visual style, and tribal music that was soothing, not aggressive.

But like I said, the best part was not having power-ups and buffs and bonuses peddled back to me a la carte through some cynical marketplace. The power is in you all the time. And I'll be keeping Totem Runner on my iPhone for a while.

Totem Runner [$0.99, iTunes]