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Ghostrunner Review: Runner’s Paradise

Content of the article: "Ghostrunner Review: Runner’s Paradise"

Ghostrunner is a 2020 first person cyberpunk action game set in a post-apocalyptic world developed by the one more level and slip gate ironworks, published by 505 games with all in! games.

The game runs on unreal engine 4 and it shows. It’s weird how this rather small, almost indie game is showing me what this engine is capable of but I’m not complaining! You’ll see crazy big areas with sprawling cities and neon signs, dust covered industrial complexes and tunnelled laboratories. You’ll be exploring as varied of locations as this setting allows, while you fight your way atop dharma tower. Only when you stop to actually take a very close look at the environments do they seem a bit pixelated. Not that they are uninteresting, but the game rewards you for exploring the locations by giving you small artifacts as a reward. I mostly ignored this, however. I didn’t really want to slow down the breakneck pace of the game. Because fighting and platforming is what it does best. The game is a spectacle to look at during combat, with laser bullets and particle effects everywhere as you dash towards your foes to deliver swift and gruesome justice by slicing them in half. Oh also, despite me making it sound rather gory it never really revels in its violence. The gore is merely there to sell your efficiency as an assassin. Which shows me that the developers understand the fantasy they are trying to portray here. The performance remained absolutely buttery smooth all throughout, although certain puzzle levels were a bit much visually, and felt jittery and distracting to look at. I get what they were going for here, but with the environments looking so samey and even the walls constantly moving, I couldn’t but feel nauseous at times.

Onto sound! Firstly, the music is incredible! The soundtrack by Daniel Deluxe hits you with classic and heavy synthwave tunes that fit beautifully into the futuristic setting. The tracks are memorable too! Making them immediately recognizable when repeated and creating a strong sense for the characters and world. I’ve described the music as driving, and that’s exactly it’s function. In a way, it constantly motivates you to keep playing and get in tune with the games’ unique rhythm. It works as a form of reassurance, since the music goes uninterrupted by your deaths, so you’ll always be able to listen to it without interruption. What works just as well is the narration taking place mostly over voice-comms inside your head. There seem to be a set amount of lines planned in for each section of the game that don’t get repeated and simply continue to play once you respawn. This usually takes place during platforming sections which is the perfect time to be listening anyway. And no matter if you struggle with a section or not, the narration will be interesting to listen to. Importantly for this, the voice acting is really well done! There are only a few characters, but even the enemies have some fun lines that makes putting an end to them more gratifying.

Alright so I’ve already mentioned gameplay a few times, but it’s time to really get into the meat of things. The game wears all its influences on its sleave. It masterfully combines elements from games like doom, hotline Miami, Mirror’s Edge and even personal favourites like my friend Pedro. Your goal is to run along walls, vault through the air and swiftly manoeuvre by slowing down time through your dash and cyber-agility. Crucially, you die in one hit of…well anything. Anything looking slightly spiky or dangerous will beam a red tinted screen in front of you. So you’re a one-hit wonder, but so are your enemies! Well, almost all of them. The intent is for you to smartly recognize the layout of the combat areas, as well as where your enemies are positioned, and what weapons they wield. Since this is a first person game however, this often meant I would make my rounds scouting my opponents and the combat area a few times and dying, before deciding on what approach I would take. This makes it sound a lot more frustrating than it actually is however. Especially in your first deaths in each encounter you’ll always respawn with new information on what you will have to watch out for and how the enemies will react to your behaviour. In many ways this is a modernization of the trial and error game design that has lost popularity ever since the nineties and is only now getting revived because of the popularity in the hardcore gaming sphere. Once you decide on which route to enter the fight from and which enemies to take out first, execution is all that separates you from victory. Except not always. Because you’ll soon notice that split-second decision making is just as- if not more important. If your plan of attack fails, but you’re still capable of reacting to your enemies and exploit the new situation you’re in you’ll get an even more satisfying result. Often I knew that my strategy wasn’t really working out but I couldn’t come up with an angle that could make it work, and while brute forcing my way into it, found a surprising new path that I could take. These windows of opportunity will even pop up in the platforming sections, although not as often. The enemies will do their absolute best to keep you on your toes. Even the most basic enemies, just wielding pistols, have near perfect aim and will surprisingly often remind you to not underestimate them. Even they need to be countered by specific usage of the slow-down dodge. You’ll be facing off against all kinds of crazed militia. From machine-gun wielding foes that will spray their entire clip on you, requiring you to wait for them to empty their magazine. From enemies with shields that can only be attacked from behind, to sword wielding…uh…Japanese people that will test your reaction speed as you need to counter their dashes with your blade. Near the end the game will introduce even more powerful mutants. Including one enemy class of extremely fast exploding crawlers that I still have no idea of how I actually survived against them, always narrowly escaping from them with my heart pounding at full speed. Because these enemies are so varied, the game often does a good job at giving you challenges of varying degrees of difficulty. It’s clear when you’re just meant to feel badass while mowing them down, but it makes for a satisfying break from the usual self-carnage. I sometimes found the AI a bit odd however. For the most part, enemies seemed to always know about my position even behind walls, and I thought this was intentional. Only for the game to clearly signalize that in some encounters I would get a chance to kill them from behind while going completely unnoticed. While the sword and dash is all you need, they aren’t the only tools in your arsenal. You can also deflect enemy fire as well as equip one skill. These abilities are powerful, but require you to be charged up to use. There’s blink, allowing you to swiftly dash towards an enemy, cutting through everything in your path, tempest, a kinetic blast that will knock enemies away, smashing them against each other or walls, or knocking them off ledges, surge, a very videogame-y blade slash projectile, and lastly the ability to turn one foe against the others. My personal favourite. As mentioned, although powerful, these abilities usually take form as a sort of last reserve or ace in the hole, and are best used that way, in order to surprise enemies. All of the Runner’s move set can be upgraded, which is unlocked naturally by progressing through the game. You’ll be slotting these upgrades in a sort of Tetris style into a grid. With more powerful upgrades taking up more space. Unused room won’t go to waste however. As it’ll go into charging your skills faster.
That’s it for the combat, but a surprisingly large part of this game is composed of platforming sections. These mostly utilize the grappling hook at your disposal, but also require you to use your dash just as creatively as the fights do. Here however, it was often apparent that a last bit of polish was missing. The wall running will often just not work, causing you to fall straight to your death, as well as the physics working in unpredictable ways, especially regarding momentum. You’ll suddenly slow down or loose speed entirely while trying to land in a certain place or vault over an object. Nowhere is this as noticeable as in them ore challenging sections near the end. Where you suddenly have your abilities in a place where you didn’t before. It shows the flaws of this momentum system by requiring you do wall-run and jump between walls for an extended period while desperately trying to avoid falling to your death, with the dash being less and less of a help because it will often just completely take away your speed. There’s also a bullet hell section that was just a straight-up nightmare for someone like me who hates that sort of thing. Especially because the way the hitbox of the Runner works, you’ll often be hit by objects when you think you shouldn’t have. I get that they can’t just make him extremely small and slim, but it’s annoying nonetheless.

Story-wise the game doesn’t really break any completely new ground. In many ways, it reads like a sort of introductory tale to the cyberpunk and post-apocalypse genres. You play as one of, once many cyber-enhanced Ghostrunners deployed by the architect of the tower, a giant structure harboring millions of humans after humanity went nearly extinct and the outside world became inhabitable. Mara, the architects former Partner betrays him however, killing both him and you in the opening of the game. You are later repaired by rebels trying to get atop the tower to take out mara and guided by the architect who is now an AI. Soon you notice that while the repairs of the Rebels were rather dodgy, they set your mind free, giving you free will and power to defy the architects orders. You help out the almost extinct rebels on the way to kill Mara, whose plan it was to forcibly create a species of mutated humans, capable of living in the outside world. Just as you do this however, the architect tries to take over your body, revealing that his own plan ofr humanity is to replace them with almost entirely cyberized beings. After defeating him aswell, the residents of the tower are finally set free to decide their own future. And create anew and democratic system. What I like about this story is not only the atypically hopeful ending, but also the fact that it doesn’t shy away from making actual statements. On the surface, it could be seen as the “both sides are actually bad” story it seems to lead upto from the start, but it’s actually more than that. Both villains had much more complex motives that fed into each other, as well as the fascinating web of lies the architect tells to the runner who repeatedly questions him. In theend, the people reject being led by egomaniacs deciding their future, and finally take matters in their own hands. Which , oh my, that’s quite *POLITICAL*

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So let’s talk about the elephant in the room. The difficulty. This game is kind of known for being difficult. And while I personally can definitely see the issue with some sections, I had a relatively smooth ride through it. I found it tough and challenging but rarely frustrating. My problem is rather the lack of options regarding this. I usually avoid games that pride themselves on their difficulty because I think that’s just unnecessarily frustrating. Maybe I’m not the right person to speak on this, since the only Dark Souls game I’ve completed is Dark Souls 2, which is arguably the most frustrating of the bunch, but I really don’t get the point of games giving you no control over their difficulty. An option to make the runner take at least one or two more hits would do wonder for the accessibility of the game. It’s a shame because I truly believe this is a game that as many people as possible should get to play and enjoy. It fully transmits the essence of the cyberpunk genre. And, different from other cyberpunk games this year it actually has wall running. As well as, you know, having come out on its release date.

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