by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
This Oneís a Winner
Iím going to cut straight to the point with this review: I absolutely love Ghostrunner. Having spoken to the developers a few weeks ago during the virtual Gamescom event, I knew I was likely to enjoy it, but I didnít expect how enthralled Iíd end up being with just about every part of the experience. If you want to save yourself some time, feel free to stop reading here and consider this my whole-hearted endorsement of this post-apocalyptic cyberpunk slasher.
Ghostrunner doesnít waste much time jumping into the action either. In lieu of a long narrative opening, the game starts with a brief cinematic. The titular Ghostrunner is in the middle of a fight with a woman that bears a striking resemblance to Doctor Octopus, and, failing to take her down, is thrown out a window, falling unconscious after an impact on his way down. When he wakes up, it becomes his task, with the aid of a mysterious AI in his head called The Architect and one of the few surviving rebels left in the city, to climb back up the megastructure and save the city from the woman that defeated him.
Bringing a Sword to a Gun Fight
The gameplay is fast and brutal, a revolving door of combat and platforming puzzles that take advantage of the Ghostrunnerís ability to run on walls and grapple to connection points. The kicker is that both enemies and the player die in one hit, turning each encounter into a puzzle of navigation, ability utilization, and environmental awareness. Itís a tough task, especially given that the playerís only starting tools against gun-toting enemies are a sword and the ability to temporarily pause time, but fantastic level design makes it so everything works extremely well. Itís incredibly challenging, but itís incredibly fun, and I found myself having an equally good time with the arena-style combat scenarios and the inventive environmental traversal puzzles.
Part of what makes Ghostrunner so successful is that it absolutely nails its difficulty curve. Games like these, which ask the player to keep mental track of quite a bit, can too often chuck way too much out there at once in the name of ďchallenge.Ē This isnít the case here. Each time something new was added to the game, I experienced the same progression of ďoh gosh, I forgot how to use my keyboard,Ē ďah, thatís how this is going to work,Ē ďwell, this is kind of cool,Ē ďIíM AN UNSTOPPABLE CYBER NINJA, BABY.Ē The game never sits on either end of the spectrum, making the player feel helpless or overpowered, for too long, which kept things from growing overly frustrating or overly stale.
Hard, but Fair
Speaking of challenge, I expected to get a lot more frustrated with a game that had me dying well over a hundred times each level. I mean, I really died a lot. Weíre talking Super Meat Boy levels of death. Itís tough not to make this kind of game-flow grating. It can boring, frustrating, and just plain un-fun to have to replay the same encounter dozens of times before moving on, but a number of elements come together in Ghostrunner in a way that never really became frustrated with the game more than I was frustrated with myself. The main reason, I think, is that my deaths never felt cheap. The controls are super tight, hitboxes seem spot on, and there arenít many ďgotchaĒ moments that I couldnít see coming, so every time I died I really did feel like I was learning something and getting better. A few other design decisions help, too. First, thereís absolutely no loading time between deaths. When I died, Iíd click the R button and be back at the last checkpoint (which are intelligently and frequently placed) in a literal blink of the eye. Narrative dialogue also persists between deaths, meaning, if one of the NPCs was explaining something to me over comms during a fight and I died, the conversation continued after I respawned instead of starting over. Iím sure there are other games that do this, but itís rare, and it goes a long way towards taking a repetitive annoyance out of death.
A Treat for the Senses
All of this is made even better by the fact that Ghostrunner absolutely kills it in the presentation department. The narrative is far more engaging than I expected to be, boosted by a small cast of great voice actors that bring a lot of life to the dialogue. Thereís a lot of worldbuilding that goes on, and I actively found myself playing for longer each session than I had planned just to keep the story going. The environments look absolutely beautiful, too. Taking place mostly inside of a megastructure city, each room is packed with grungy, industrial detail that looks ripped right out of Blade Runner or Dredd. Interspersed between levels are also segments that take place in a virtual environment. Itís in these areas that the game really lets loose, experimenting with more surreal puzzles and architecture. Itís all a treat to look at and play in, and itís made better by an electronica soundtrack that absolutely bops (the soundtrack is on Spotify, and you should absolutely play it next time youíre going for a drive in the dark).
This month marks my 10-year anniversary writing for Hooked Gamers, and, in that time, Iíve only given one game a 10. With its beautiful visual design, quality voice acting, tight controls, interesting mechanics, and engaging world-building, I have absolutely no hesitation adding Ghostrunner to my exclusive club of top marks. Itís rare to find a game that succeeds so well in everything it does, and the result is a game that absolutely everyone should check out.
Engaging story, tight controls, fair challenge, well-crafted pacing, and beautiful visual and aural design.