Little comes close to matching the speed and performance high you feel when playing Ghostrunner. The teams at One More Level, 3D Realms and Slipgate Ironworks have created a slick and elegant experience that will push your reflexes to the very edge and then force you to dig a little deeper. For those that want even better traversal mechanics than Mirror’s Edge and Titanfall 2 with the intense and stylish combat of something like Superhot, this is the game for you.
A crumbling society
Ghostrunner takes place in a classic cyberpunk-type of world. The Earth as we know it has succumbed to some kind of disaster and the only safe haven is Dharma Tower. But life inside Dharma Tower isn’t grand as the place is ruled by the tyrannical Keymaster.
At some unknown time, you wake up as the Ghostrunner, an entity others refer to as Jack, and you only know two things: Someone is whispering in your ear and you need to start killing. And so begins one of the most challenging, rewarding, and stylish first-person perspective games I’ve ever played.
The narrative tackles iconic cyberpunk problems such as identity, authority, and what it means to be human. There is also environmental storytelling. The gorgeous backdrop of the game shifts from the grimy industrial level to the bright and neon-lit streets and rooftops of the wealthier distracts and beyond as you ascend the tower. The whole package is gorgeous and never falters, even when things get intense.
While the story in Ghostrunner deserves to be explored, it never dominates your attention or gets in the way of the action. Even when the action does ease up (an opportunity to still your racing heart), you’re never locked in one spot and forced to listen, you’re either solving a puzzle or working through some tightly designed and visually striking platforming section.
Though I will get to the incredibly precise and powerful feeling of the combat, special attention must be paid to the traversal and platforming in Ghostrunner. Simply put, Ghostrunner’s traversal mechanics are pure elegance. Never before has wallrunning, jumping, and grappling around levels felt so second nature.
It all begins with the tools at the player’s disposal. From the onset, the Ghostrunner can clamber up ledges, wallrun for an infinite amount of time, grapple across great distances, and even slow down time when in the air.
But all these tools would be useless if not for Ghostrunner’s environment, which is expertly signposted. Lights shine a different color in the direction you need to be moving, colored power cables and conduits snake around corners, and buttons that move important pieces of the level always have you facing the correct path. All these work in conjunction to ensure that, despite the blistering speed of the combat and movement, the player is never lost on where to go. It takes a talented team to create a game that can achieve this.
What’s more, the platforming never feels cumbersome. Jumping from a crate onto a wall and then wallrunning around a curve and grappling to another point flows together with such grace that it’s easy for this to become second nature.
And when the platforming becomes second nature, which it does almost immediately, your frontal lobe can focus on the combat – the very thing that makes you feel like a true, cybernetic ninja.
Neuromancer katana dancer
Combat in Ghostrunner is raw, it’s powerful and there’s a level of precision here that allows you to teeter between failure and success, riding the high of scraping past death as you dodge enemy fire and attacks.
The only weapon you’ll need is yours from the very beginning: a katana that can kill every enemy in a single hit. This is good, because the enemies will be killing you in a single hit as well.
Each encounter with enemies is set up in a kind of jungle gym of death. You’ll start running, not knowing exactly the layout of the arena, but it doesn’t matter as the signposting and traversal mechanics are so natural that you can focus on the enemy positions. While you can kill in a single hit, the real challenge is getting close enough to land the attack, and this is where the Sensory Boost comes in. By hitting this ability while in mid-air, you can slow down time, allowing you to every-so-slightly glide around bullets or an enemy’s shield. Alternatively, you’ll use it to jump mid-wallrun, dodge a laser grid, and then glide back into the wall.
As the game progresses, you’ll unlock more abilities and skills to use in combat. There’s one that lets you kill three enemies in a blink of an eye, a force-push type of blast, even a long-range slashing attack that can wipe out a group of hostiles.
There’s a constant ebb and flow of acquiring a new skill, learning how to use it, becoming comfortable with it, and then being given a new ability. Just as you’re mastering one aspect, the game will give you another delightful challenge, and you’ll need to work this new ability – or the threat of a new enemy – into your strategies.
Your strategies for each little arena of death will shift and change as the game throws more at you. The enemies start out rather simple: a soldier that fires single shots and another that fires in bursts. But it’s not long before you’re trying to get behind an enemy’s shield, dodge a wall of lasers shot out by a robot, perfectly parry an enemy ninja, or hijack drones and ride them into your foes, sending an explosion of shrapnel everywhere. There’s an increasing difficulty to the game that demands you pay attention and adapt, or die.
And these deaths will come fast and frequently. But, even when you do die, death is but a momentary blip. You’re back and into the action with a Super Meat Boy type of immediacy. This is a relief, especially during the game’s boss fights, where perfection is demanded and a mistake means starting a section again. Though it can be incredibly frustrating to make it almost to the end only to die, it’s all part of the experience and comes with the territory.
Beyond the combat and movement, there are other design decision in Ghostrunner that are unique, interesting, and otherwise add to the overall experience on offer.
One example is how skill customization is implemented. Players can increase the duration of Sensory Boost, increase the range of the force-push ability, and even have enemies automatically outlined to make locating them easier, among many other options. It’s not just a simple pick and choose which ones to equip, the game uses a polyomino setup. Every upgrade is represented by a series of connected squares that must be fit into a grid. Working out what upgrade you want to use and how best to fit it in with your other upgrades feels like you’re hacking or rewiring the inner workings of Jack’s programming. This could have been done with simple skill points or some other tried and true method, but this is clever in its design as it actually fits within the cyberpunk world the team has created.
An original soundtrack by Daniel Deluxe scores every wallrun, every string of movements, and every precise slash and attack you perform. It lifts the entire experience, setting your pulse pounding as the music seems to adapt to your actions, repeating when necessary and moving on to the next beat as you work your way onwards.
While the music does shift as you progress, it doesn’t fall into that design trope of ceasing a certain type of music the moment a battle is over. Instead, the final kill in each fight causes time to slow down as the enemy is sliced in two and slowly peels apart. It’s a unique way to punctuate each fight and affords the player a moment to revel in their mastery of an area.
Though Ghostrunner approaches a flawless execution, there were a couple of issues that cropped up. Some checkpoints are frustrating in their positions. A couple are either too far from the action or too close, which means you spend a few more seconds getting back to the fight or potentially succumbing to the spawn-death loop. There were also times where jumping off a wallrun, specifically where jump pads were involved, didn’t trigger accurately, causing some frustrating deaths.
Part of this frustration was amplified because of my own desire for perfection. You see, Ghostrunner also tracks your time and death count for each level. Speedrunners and perfectionists will be pushed to improve their times and lower their death counts. It’s a devilishly cheeky feature that has me looking at my first boss fight and deciding that I will now allow my “least deaths” counter to sit at 141.
Beyond this, the game also features plenty of collectibles for players to find. Artifacts tell a story of the world that you inhabit, audio logs give a greater insight into people and ideas, and there are new skins for the trusty katana. If the time and death tracker doesn’t appeal to you, then the collectibles may do the trick.
Push the limits
Ghostrunner will set your adrenaline racing and won’t let up until you’ve mastered its systems. And when you do reach that zen-like moment of precision and elegance, dancing on the edge of a blade between life and death, you’ll ask yourself, “Can I do better?” And that’s when Ghostrunner will have you, truly and deeply.
This review is based on a Steam code provided by the publisher. Ghostrunner is available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC via Steam, Epic Games Store and GOG on Tuesday, October 27, 2020.
- Intense and satisfying combat
- Slick and rewarding traversal and movement
- Challenging encounters
- A pulse-pounding soundtrack
- Gorgeous visuals and setting
- Some checkpoints can feel a bit off
- A couple instances of traversal woes
Sam Chandler posted a new article, Ghostrunner review: Elegance, precision, and power