Platform(s): PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One
Genre: First-Person Action Game ala Mirror’s Edge
Missing the days when games were just time trials and speedruns in disguise? The past Sonic the Hedgehog titles on the Megadrive emphasized linear design and speed so that the hardcore can challenge themselves with better scores, better times, and better pathways to success.
Developers One More Level, 3D Realms, and Slipgate Ironworks are attempting to recapture that gameplay loop with their latest called Ghostrunner. It’s identical in scope with your 90s score-based titles but with a sleek sci-fi coating and a first-person perspective ala Mirror’s Edge. And also said “screw it” to ascending difficulty curves and unhinge the safety brakes. If you don’t mind a challenge, Ghostrunner will oblige.
Ghostrunner’s story of taking back a futuristic city from a sci-fi dictator is just window-dressing for the true meat of the game: to run to the finish line and experiencing the aural and visual candy doing so. The obstacles & challenges in your way? Loads of platforms and wall-running, enemies with guns and other sorts of weaponry, and the fact that you die in one hit. Fortunately, you have the power to slow time down and do sick dodges, one-hit-kill enemies with your katana, and a few key skills like hacking, blink dash attacks, and a force push to even the odds. You also can grapple onto hook points to ascend higher or just get to an area really quick.
Within your 6 to 7 hours of playthrough, you’ll die attempting to get through Ghostrunner. A lot. But the reloads are super-quick and the game reinforces the tough love approach; get through it or die a million times finding the correct way to tackle each segment. Ghostrunner’s tools and controls are spot-on and perfect for you to do this with slick perfection. They also teach you not to muck around and keep running. Hell, in some cases, you aren’t required to kill every enemy in a section, thus emphasizing the “run” in the game title. If you can make a dash for it, you should.
When you’re stationary, you probably will die in a second. My finest moments include parrying enemy attacks and projectiles, wall-running and jumping from wall to wall using your “time-slowing” dodge ability called Sensory Boost, and learning how to chuck shurikens to activate switches while on the move, because stopping even for a second will close the barrier I’m trying to get past. There’s also a pretty harrowing “boss fight” involving a tower and lasers; you just need to dodge & grapple to avoid them and reach the cables to slash them. It’s harder than it sounds, trust us on this.
Remember that force push power-up I mentioned? You get a few more tools like a horizontal projectile slash attack that can hit multiple enemies at one go, and a blink dash-and-slash move that goes through enemy projectiles. You can also turn an enemy to your side with the Overlord ability, but you get that pretty late in the game and the other power-ups are a tad more useful. While you can get through the entire game with just your sword, your speed, and your wit, these power-ups do help in case you need a “smart bomb” tool; you can only use them once your energy meter is filled up via passive recharging or combo-killing foes. You can also add in passive buffs to your abilities via an upgrade screen that makes you play “fit the blocks” to use up the space given.
Your upgrades are essentially Tetris pieces; you just fit them into slots to either widen your Blink radius, or let you do a “two for one” special with your Tempest force push. The pieces are pretty large and complex so that you don’t abuse the optional upgrades; the devs know too well you need to complete their levels with actual skill.
Still, the game throws you a bone and adds in some simple puzzle bits after these frenetic bouts of combat and sprinting. These range from turning pipes to charge up a power source to finding orbs to open a door while the platforms you’re on are rotating. They don’t outstay their welcome and they look pretty good showcasing the bright cyberspace insides of the game’s world.
Once you get the hang of each stage and finish the game comes the fun part: doing a better run than before. With all your powerups available, you can aim for a better time or less deaths while also finding shortcuts, though there aren’t much more incentives than that for replayability’s sake. In other words, Ghostrunner is perfect for speedrun aficionados and perfectionists willing to show off their skills on stream.
A Cut Above
However, Ghostrunner’s demand for precision is also detrimental to its controls and for folks looking for a lighter sci-fi fare. You need to aim perfectly for a grapple, lest you fall to your death for the billionth time. You can overshoot your dashes, meaning you’ll be a tad disoriented and then realize you didn’t kill the enemy you were supposed to dash to, and then get a cheap death out of it. Jumping behind shielded enemies is also super-tricky; even when you just land above their heads, you somehow still get hit by the shield that pushes you back, putting you in neutral with your opponent. And they turn really fast.
I’d go far as to say that the shielded goons are the toughest enemies in the game, especially in small enclosed spaces. You’ll find these segments late in the game that are beyond aggravating and may probably make you break a controller or 10.
In addition, I also find it strange that the game conveniently makes some hitboxes skewed off. This means when you want to jump atop a flying security drone and ride on it, you REALLY need to be precise with your jumps. Also, I seem to be receiving more headshots from enemies with guns because our titular hero may be taller than advertised.
It’s bad enough that depth perception is really tough to sort out and perfect in a first-person perspective action game. Ghostrunner isn’t doing anyone any favours by making its platforming harder than usual. If you’re turned off at the prospect of moving fast in this viewpoint and tend to get nauseous with first-person shooters, Ghostrunner isn’t going to change your mind.
Still, these missteps do not destroy the core cyberpunk ninja FPS experience. If you want a surprise entry in the action genre, look no further than the fast and frenetic Ghostrunner. Granted, its difficulty curve will frustrate you not unlike a Souls-like game, but once you get to the rhythm and groove of it, you’ll ace it and aim for a better run.
It’s what a true Sonic The Hedgehog game should be like. Except this one’s R-rated and has you slicing people with katanas instead of robots with your spiked back. A hearty recommendation for those looking for the Dark Souls of linear first-person action games.
- Beautiful sci-fi aesthetics.
- Fun & challenging first-person run-and-slash gameplay.
- Taxing-yet-fair cyberspace puzzles that break the monotony.
- Controls are a bit too precise, leading to unnecessary difficulty.
- Endgame features a ton of cheap deaths & segments.
- Light on plot.