“Make no mistake, this fight won’t be easy. But at least it will be fair.” – Architect
Developer: One More Level
Released: 27th October 2020
Engine: Unreal Engine 4
With numerous developers showcasing their vision through various game iterations, the cyberpunk genre has recently attracted a lot of attention. However, nobody has ever made a quick-paced neon-platformer that would live up to the fantasy of becoming a cyborg killing machine. For our benefit, Polish ingenuity has once more shattered the bigger scenes by releasing Ghostrunner, a superb platforming experience.
Dharma Tower: the future of humanity’s survival is sheltered inside this vast skyscraper. Yet in the backbones of this ambitious construct lies a deeper purpose, a deeper meaning shattered and twisted by people valuing their own progress by any means. The Ghost Runner protocol was made in hopes of countering such inadequacies in the system—a sort of firewall that would protect Dharma and its citizens from harm. Only one remains! Its mission? Kill the Keymaster…
In contrast to its more sophisticated gameplay approach, the main plot is very straightforward. You are the last surviving Ghostrunner, and your main objective is to bring back order. With no recollection of previous events, the game’s linear structure allows you to piece together its lore gradually, primarily through internal dialogue. Despite the fact that I find the presentation to be somewhat lacking, the plot is very promising, adding many layers of speculation that can personalise the experience. Sure, some things can become quite predictable, especially when the narrative cleverly hints at certain events, but overall, they fulfil their purpose by both setting the atmosphere and the tone without killing the mood.
The acrobatic routines and lethal manoeuvres serve as the foundation and the icing on the cake of the entire experience, making Ghostrunner unique despite its minimal storytelling. To put it lightly, combat shines like a bright star, and every detail surrounding it works according to the needs of the glorious dance of death.
Promenade of blades
Dharma Tower is a maze full of obstacles that can become brutally unforgiving if you do not pay attention. The structures of every level are carefully placed in a way that encourages boldness, skill, and strategic thinking. There is more than one path to follow, each with different restrictions and difficulties. You may, for example, choose the safest approach that offers more cover but less fluidity or simply dash through the most challenging sections, which require fast movements and a little bit of luck. The tango of swords and slashes becomes even more difficult with the addition of a minor but significant mechanic: elegance. The game is about movement, and what a perfect way to encourage platforming precision when there is a sense of danger in the mix! Ghostrunner is extremely fragile, as even one hit can lead to his demise. Consequently, the high-reward encounters become even more satisfying, and every section feels tense. Fortunately, should you screw up that one jump that could lead to a perfect execution, the game blesses your soul with frequent checkpoints and almost negligible loading times. Death is, after all, a frustrating yet fundamental loop. If you want to overcome it, you need to embrace it.
Cabaret of sorrows
In hopes of balancing the learning curve, the game slowly introduces new enemy variants. The higher you climb the Dharma Tower, the stronger your adversaries become, with unique buffs and certain weaknesses that can be exploited. The most memorable of the bunch are the katana warriors, deadly henchmen trained in the ways of the sword, or the kamikaze spiders that explode the moment you enter their vicinity. Once you have gotten the hang of their attack patterns, the developers spice things up by adding even more variety, mainly through environment alteration. There are some sequences, for instance, where you need to navigate through moveable objects or time your jumps carefully since the interactable surfaces rotate ninety degrees every few seconds. On top of that, the Cybervoid was a very welcome addition to the flawless formula, where the player can experiment with different abilities and solve puzzles, all while helping the story and gameplay unfold. The only thing that I found extremely underwhelming were the boss fights (excluding the first one), as they become rather flat when you figure out their main mechanics.
Cyber ninja toolkit
When the streets of this tower city are full of violence, the trusty sword is nothing more than a stick with a sharp edge. In order to even the odds, the Ghostrunner is equipped with special abilities that allow you to enrich your arsenal. On one hand, we have the in-game powerups that enhance your performance either by slowing time, offering a jump boost, or unlocking shurikens through which you can reach tough places. The permanent upgrades, on the other hand, come in the form of Tetris-style blocks that can be arranged in a unique grid with constrained spaces. Every block is a different passive improvement, ranging from enabling the ability to deflect projectiles to adding an extra dash. Since you cannot possibly equip every available upgrade that you unlock automatically throughout your different runs and sessions, you need to prioritise certain builds that favour specific facets, as each amplifier can vastly alter your playstyle. While the premise opens the door to countless opportunities, its execution is beyond perfect. Even though Ghostrunner is a fast-paced game that heavily relies on pinpoint precision, sometimes it overwhelms itself and some carefully executed manoeuvres may not be rendered properly, leading to infuriating moments.
For an indie studio of such scale, the visuals should be praised. The animations are fantastic, the graphics are stunning, and the overall combat feels satisfying. The sometimes colourful, sometimes grim dystopian ambience will instantly itch that cyberpunk fanboy feeling as it checks every box on the wishlist. It is by far among the most trippy and engaging environments that I have ever witnessed, with many secrets and hidden areas to explore around every corner.
There are numerous reasons to praise Ghostrunner; the audio direction is one of them. The electronic beats sprinkled with techno pieces add lots of charm to the environment that fits perfectly with the speed and power of the post-apocalyptic city. As far as voice acting is concerned, the Architect’s soothing voice and charming persona steal the spotlight. In hindsight, the audio approach provides some seriously excellent content, but it is nothing compared to the nearly flawless gameplay components.
Ghostrunner is the pinnacle of fast-paced combat that stands out from the crowd thanks to its stunning visuals, excellent gameplay design, and beautiful soundtracks, making it a constant joy to play. It’s the kind of experience that bridges the indie genre with many AAA mechanics that appear to work well within the cyberpunk framework. A punishing but fair adventure.