If someone had sat you down in 1982 and told you that a new movie called Blade Runner was about to make big strides in sci-fi filmmaking, your mind may have heard the title and conjured up a colourful vision of full pelt swordsmanship. Assume that your confidant has told you nothing more than the title and the neon-noir industrial setting (and that you yourself have no idea about the book on which it is based), this hypothetical 1980s version of you may well have been slightly wrong-footed by Ridley Scott’s now-classic film. With the release of Ghostrunner, the ‘Blade Runner’ title has been literally realised, as freerunning gameplay mixes bloody samurai swords with futuristic technology for a well-realised rush of tricky environmental puzzles and gravity-defying combat.
The fingerprints of developer One More Level is most evident in the decision to go with a ‘one hit kill’ mechanic — much like their Hotline Miami-style previous title, God’s Trigger — a choice which pushes Ghostrunner into territory which hasn’t generally found much success in first person games. Playing as the titular Ghostrunner, a cybernetic supersoldier, you must travel the lengths (and heights) of futuristic Dharma City to topple its dictatorial ruler.
Let me get one thing out of the way before I continue: this game is tough as hell, and is in no way apologetic for that fact. After racking up hundreds of deaths over the very first couple of areas, I’m not ashamed to say that I dove into the settings menu to see if perhaps there was a lower difficulty option, or if I’d accidently selected a ‘Nightmare’ mode. Nope. There aren’t any settings to tweak outside of control and display options, and so I was left with the prospect of actually being stuck, really and truly stuck, on this game. Thankfully, after another hour or so of trying to understand what Ghostrunner was asking of me, the scales fell from my robot eyes and I was able to get back on track. Now, I think hard games are a good thing. If the gameplay is strong and the challenge is worth rising to, it’s going to find a dedicated group of players to take it on. I only mention the difficulty in case you, like me, saw the trailer and thought “Oh, I like Doom and Mirrors Edge, this looks like a walk in the park!” — because Ghostrunner is a sadistic, perfectionist, drill sergeant who will not let you progress until you get it right.
Initially armed with just a katana, you’re launched straight into the action and are chopping goons to pieces within seconds, before learning the ropes of wallrunning, slow-motion dodging, and swinging from luminescent anchor points to reach further areas. Over time you’ll be able to upgrade your internal systems to gain special abilities to reflect bullets or deal out a projectile attack of your own — but first you’ll need to get the basics of movement down. Sliding gives you momentum and increases your jumping distance, which can then be further augmented by a mid-air dash ability… and when combined with grappling hooks, surfaces for wallrunning, and quick changes in direction, it can be a lot to process. The myriad combinations of manoeuvres called upon by the controller’s trigger buttons in quick succession will see your fingers writing complaints to their trade union — but it all feels worth it once your blade turns the final enemy of an area into salsa.
Ghostrunner is a breakneck puzzle game ahead of anything else, with each encounter putting you through your paces as you die, die, and die again to work out the best sequence of events to dispatch each enemy in an area whilst navigating dangerous terrain. Once you step into an arena all eyes will be on you, and there’s seldom a chance to take a breather once the combat has been triggered. You’ll have to pay close attention to your surroundings and abilities on each run to make it through to the end, as progress (especially early on) is made through tiny incremental improvements on each attempt:
Start. Run down the ramp → shot → dead.
Restart. Slide down the ramp → grapple to the ledge → run at the enemy → shot → dead.
Restart. Slide down the ramp → grapple to the ledge → wall run behind the enemy → shot by a different enemy → dead.
By the time you’re ready to beat a room, you’ll be chaining together dozens of learned actions in the perfect sequence, having anticipated each different enemy’s attack pattern. The exacting nature of this hardcore trial and error gameplay is softened by instant restarts from the death screen, and a checkpointing system which is (usually) on the right side of fair. Less comforting is the decision to limit actual saves to the start of each level. The game is broken up into around twenty segments, but leaving the game loses any progress you’ve made in a chapter unless you’ve completed it. With each portion taking me anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour, it’s a buzzkill to have to guess whether I think I have enough time to get to the next save point.
Ghostrunner’s story is standard fare for the cyberpunk setting, and doesn’t really demand much from you. Beginning the game with no memory after being resurrected by an AI known as ‘the Architect’, you’ll drift through the familiar window dressings of rebellion, betrayal, and computer viruses, alongside everyone’s favourite “CORE MELTDOWN IMMINENT” moments. Dharma City has a bit more personality as you journey through the different economic areas, and definitely looks the part. It’s an alright-looking world, but whilst some rendering leaves a bit to be desired (laser beams are bare-bones cones of light, and wall panels occasionally glitch in and out), the neon/industrial mash-up generates a decent amount of variety in level design.
From Mortal Kombat to Metal Gear Solid, cyborg ninjas are commonplace in video games, but the first person parkour with a samurai sword hits a real gameplay sweet spot. With your times and death count tallied at the end of each level (or displayed in the HUD should you so wish), there’s good scope for replayability as you try to beat your own scores — but keep your fingers crossed for an online leaderboard to be added to the game in the future. Slick and rewarding, Ghostrunner evokes a combination of My Friend Pedro’s agile fun with the frenetic decision-making choreography of SUPERHOT. It’s a gruelling and hard-fought road to success, but if you can look past the odd design decision here and there, there’s a lot of fun to be had with One More Level’s latest title.
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