The Cyberpunk visual style has been receiving a fair bit of attention recently and with good reason. Everybody knows about the hotly anticipated Cyberpunk 2077 of course, but CDPR’s upcoming RPG isn’t the only game in town. Developers “One More Level” have recently delivered Ghostrunner, a visually beautiful and action-packed hack-and-slash title. Ghostrunner succeeds in giving players a flashy and satisfying combat experience, but not much else.
By far its weakest part, Ghostrunner has players take on the form of the last known Ghostrunner, #74. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic world, where the “Dharma Tower” is humanity’s last remaining shelter. You, the Ghostrunner, are humanity’s last hope to stop the corrupt leader Mara, the Keymaster, and uncover the secrets of the Tower’s history.
The main driving force is the knowledge that Mara is a tyrant that is running Dharma into the ground. Your AI companion, the Architect, pushes you to forget the people that are suffering and focus on defeating Mara. The story is present but forgettable. It keeps the player engaged enough to power through the first stages of the game, which are very difficult.
During the later stages of the game, which require near-perfect execution, I found it difficult to find the motivation to press on. A strong narrative would really help these tough sequences because a desire to learn more about this world would keep the gameplay loop from getting repetitive. The story, however, is obviously not the main draw of the game.
The gameplay is definitely the strong suit of this title, that is without question. To sum the game up very simply, it feels like a cross between Hotline Miami, Mirror’s Edge, and Superhot. That being said, rather than a cheap imitation of all three, Ghostrunner takes the best aspects of each game and smashes them together.
The player has the ability to wall-run, slide, and use their grappling hook to bounce through rooms and around hazards. The parkour sequences are definitely a strong part of the game and allow players to practice traversal to hone their skills and make them deadlier in combat. If Ghostrunner was simply a parkour/platforming title akin to Mirrors Edge, I would be more than happy.
Thankfully, developers One More Level found a way to weave in a satisfying combat style that seeks to complement the mobility of the Ghostrunner, rather than overshadow it. The one-hit-kill style gameplay makes weaving in between bullets essential for survival, and the mobility ensures that you have the tools to do so.
Despite having the tools, dying is an inevitability that players will experience time and time again. I, for example, died 30 times on the first level. To potentially save my pride, I’m going to blame this on my unfamiliarity with the controls. Once you get the hang of it, the fluidity begins to slowly improve. The only time in which the constant death seemed to hinder the game was during boss fights. Without going into too much detail, the boss fights are very pattern-oriented. These force the player to essentially memorize what felt like a Dance-Dance-Revolution arrow set.
Pattern-oriented boss fights have become increasingly common with the rise of games like Dark Souls but usually, come with the ability to absorb more than one hit. The inability to absorb multiple hits gives zero margin for error. One slight miscalculation forces you to start at the beginning of the fight. This return to the beginning will replenish the bosses’ health bar, and increase your frustration. This is only a minor hangup on an otherwise seamless combat system that leaves the player wanting more.
Until you get to the Cyberworld, a digital realm that the Ghostrunner navigates to access powerful upgrades that add variability to the gameplay. The Cyberworld felt like a clunky way to break up the action and progress the story. The Cyberworld, in theory, might be exactly what an action-packed game needs to keep it from getting stale. In practice, the Cyberworld progresses a weak story through simplistic platforming and unintuitive puzzles. With such a strong core gameplay loop, it feels like a last-minute addition to bolster the storytelling.
The world design in Ghostrunner does a good job at patching up the hole left by the narrative. The art style is a jagged, rusty cyberpunk with neon lights, industrial spaces, and alleyways as some of its best levels. Fighting your way through the run-down Dharma Tower, with a synthwave soundtrack pulsing in the background, had me eager to face the enemies in the next room.
The parkour/platforming sections mostly took place in industrial spaces that had things like electric waves on walls, red-hot blocks of metal to dodge, and exposed cranes to use the grappling hook on.
Ghostrunner was a title that seemed to come out of nowhere but was timed perfectly with another delay of Cyberpunk 2077 by chance. In today’s indie development landscape, releasing a fun, satisfying, and bug-free title is definitely something to commend the developers for. What they’ve been able to do in terms of traversal in a 3D space is nothing less than spectacular.
Although lacking, greatly, in the realm of narrative development, Ghostrunner makes up for it by immersing players in a stunning cyberpunk world. Dharma Tower acts as an acrobatic playground for players to explore and traverse as they see fit. The combat feels great and keeps itself fresh by periodically adding new enemies, abilities, and environmental hazards. These give the player more variables to consider while working around or slashing their way through enemies.
For those that enjoy difficult titles that require precision and knee-jerk reaction/timing, Ghostrunner is a great title. If you’re on the fence, there’s a downloadable demo on the Steam page that will give you a good frame of reference to judge for yourself whether or not you’d enjoy it.