Ghostrunner Review

Cyberpunk Parkour Action

Dec 15, 2020
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Given more major happenings in the video game scene lately, it’s a bit of an understatement to say that cyberpunk themes are the hotness right now. But given the amount of bugs and controversy surrounding the big release of the last weeks, you might be asking if there are any other titles you could sink your chrome in to satisfy that cyber itch. As ever, we’ve got you covered.

Ghostrunner is a first-person game all about parkour, techno-ninjas, and beating guns with swords. I almost feel like I’ve been here before, but never quite in this beautiful 3D rendered goodness. This game is high intensity and not for the faint of heart. Are your neural synapses calibrated properly for this one? Let’s check the vid terminal here.

ghostrunner header.jpg Ghostrunner

Developer: One More Level, Slipgate6, and 3D Realms
Publisher: 505 Games, All In! Games
Platforms: PS4, XBOX One, PC
Price: $29.99
Copy Provided By Publisher
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You're alive, for now.

Sharpen Your Blade

In this game, you play the titular Ghostrunner, a mechanized ninja who served as a guardian soldier of old in the massive tower that acts as the center of your city, the site of all the action, and ultimately the place of your death. You see, the intro sequence shows you arriving just a tad too late to stop the baddies and taking the short way back down the tower as you’re hurled through a window. It’s going to be a long journey on your way back up, thwarting the subplots of the villain as you make your way back towards the final confrontation. Of course, there will be plenty of enemies to cleave in half along the way.

As you climb, you’ll meet a couple of other characters who will act as both a frame to the story and foil to your protagonist, as well as perhaps the two halves of your conscience. Not that you’ll be given much choice as far as good or evil go. Even if levels provide you with more than one way to tackle them, the story is linear. Still, this game has some excellent voice acting and you’ll find it pretty easy to get behind the characters right from the get-go. I wasn’t expecting the Ghostrunner to talk, but he has a character of his own that comes more to the forefront the longer he chats with his companions. A refreshing change from the silent protagonists we sometimes see in first-person games.

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Be warned there's a fair bit of gore in this game. It doesn't shy away from blood.

Ghostrunner is a classic case of easy to learn, hard to master. Very hard to master. There are only a few buttons, but you will spend hours perfecting your skill with them. You’ve got your standard run, slide, and jump controls, you will parkour along a wall until you jump or hit an obstacle, there’s a grapple hook you can use to extend your movement on special points, and you have a sword swing that allows you to unleash a two-hit combo with a small cooldown. You’ll also periodically earn special moves that allow you to do all kinds of advanced attacks, though they never become overwhelming as they’re bound and cycled through a single key and all share the same recharge meter. Alongside these basic controls is an upgrade system in which you play Tetris to slot in various shapes to your power grid, allowing you to do things like move faster, scan enemies behind walls, deflect projectiles with your sword swings, or have enhanced special abilities and recharge. They’re a nice little bit of variety that helps you tailor the Ghostrunner to your own style of play, and you can flip them at any time, a feature I quite liked.

You die quickly in this game, a single hit of anything taking you down, but you respawn just as fast and can tackle a level over and over until you get it right. In no time you’ll be diving off wall runs, finding the best routes to cleave enemies—wait, you just died. Try ag—oh, you’re dead again already? You’re not even off the tutorial level. Yeah, in the very first stage you will have your hand held just long enough to learn your basic controls before this game throws you to the proverbial cyber wolves. Be prepared to die over and over as you probe a level for the best paths between enemies and cover, learning how to best take on an open room. The path to success will be paved with many bodies, many of which might be your own.

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A new enemy type usually means a new death is imminent.

Take Two

This game has a lot going for it. Beautiful visuals, heart-pumping gameplay, smooth controls, solid voice acting, and the levels are well constructed puzzles in their own right. The music is also an atmospheric and adrenaline inducing caffeine injection that hits you whether you’re enjoying a little down time or flashing steel between bursts of gunfire. This gorgeous game speaks volumes on its presentation! I was just as excited to try it again as I was when I demoed it back at PAX East, but with the list of polished features dangling before us like a shiny new modification comes a big “buyer beware”. This is not a game for everyone. You could argue that about any game, but especially with Ghostrunner there is something major to consider before you drop some holiday money on a purchase.

My first and most major caution is that this game is hard. I don’t usually discuss difficulty as a feature, but there’s no denying it here. Be warned that there are no accessibility options like Hades’s god mode. I’d like to think I’m pretty good at video games. I ran through the demo at PAX, which was the entire first level, without too much trouble. I’m no stranger to games with difficulty curves like Blazblue or things in the Soulsborne vein. But I’m not going to lie here, I have my limits. There’s a death counter after you beat each level, and it’s not uncommon to see it nearing a hundred for even a relatively short level. The longer levels—well we’re not going to discuss my death counter on those. When you succeed in finishing off a particularly tough room, you feel that same rush of satisfaction as with a Souls game. The road to that satisfying payoff, though, can be a brutal, brain-burning slog of death after frustrating death. If you’re the type to throw a keyboard or controller through your monitor after dying to the last enemy in a room, for the 3rd time, that’s taken you the last 20 minutes to learn how to clear, but you’d still like to try this game out, I’d recommend perhaps playing in short bursts and knowing when to get up and stretch a bit.

Of note, Ghostrunner also does that classic video game thing of introducing new enemies with new patterns and defenses as you play, keeping the challenge fresh. However, I found the pace of it a little frustrating given the difficulty, never really giving me the chance to get comfy with slicing and dicing my way through a room before ramping up the challenge yet again. This game screams “play me through more than once,” but if that’s for you, only you will be able to say.

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Don't ask me how many times I died here.

Despite the difficulty, it never truly ruined the game for me. It’s got so much flash and style, it’s so fast-paced and satisfying to get right, and the soundtrack is so good, that I kept coming back for more. Until I met TOM. I’ll stay relatively spoiler free here, but you should know that the first true boss fight of this game, the T-037M unit, is a lesson in frustration that would test even a Zen monk. I spent the better part of half an hour learning the very specific pattern to grapple, jump, hop, and climb to the top of TOM, avoiding a labyrinth of rotating lasers, reaching the top and slicing into the cords that held it aloft—only to be sent plummeting downwards, through a collapsing floor twice as far down as I’d originally started, looking back up at the climb to cutting the second cord. Only a third of TOM’s health bar had vanished. The energy drained from me. “Nope,” I said, and I shut it down for the day. Well, actually I used different words, but this is a family friendly website.

Now before I get too harsh on ol’ TOM here, there are some tradeoffs (I’ve watched a video on the complete fight, just to see how insane it really is). Yes, the climb is twice as far, but there are also half the lasers. There’s also a point up top that the climb suddenly goes from blisteringly hard to pretty much cake (just don’t make any dumb mistakes). And the final stage for the last 3rd of its health is objectively the easiest of the three. My issue with this boss is that the parkour patterns you’re expected to deal with are so specific and finely timed that you’re not encouraged to experiment. You need to just get it right. No room for error. There is pretty much one way through this fight, and if you’re not clever enough to see it in the split-second surge of grapples, ducks, and jumps, it can feel like this is just an “I’m more clever than you” from the devs, despite the polish on the rest of this game’s puzzles. It is absolutely frustrating, to say the least, and this is where I hit my limit. If this still doesn’t bother you, if you crave challenge and don’t care how long it takes you to beat it, then you have nothing to fear. Ghostrunner has nothing worse to throw at you. You’ll love everything this game has to offer. If you’re hesitant after reading this, the silver lining here is that there’s a free demo, so you can still test the waters for yourself.

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TOM climb part two, electric boogaloo.

Free Your Mind

I don’t often say this, as it can spoil a first play through, but after you come to terms with the controls of Ghostrunner, the first time you become really stuck on a level, I recommend you watch a speedrunner for about 10 minutes. It doesn’t even have to be on the section you’re playing. People do some frankly insane things with this game that will give you a new appreciation for the work that went into its level design. I’ve taken what I’ve learned from just a short stint of watching one such video and it took my game to a whole new level. Fights that would have been mind-meltingly angering were bypassed in a blink. You start looking through new eyes when you see what this game is truly capable of. You see paths where before you saw only a linear level or even “obvious” jumps to your death. You see two types of rooms: those that you must fight to unlock doors, and ones where you only need to find the exit.

Efficiency takes on a whole new meaning here. Something I didn’t mention before is that the respawn is bound to a manual key press, but you only get the red screen of death when an enemy hits you or you take a lethal fall. That means early on when you snag on weird level geometry, you get annoyed, but later on you realize it could be used as a feature. You can continue your momentum in interesting ways, and you can build speed if alternating between jumps and slides. Combined with your grapple, you can manage some truly mind bending acrobatics.

There are two phases to this game. The first where you’re a total newbie, learning how to be a techno-ninja and not die every time some enemies fire off their pistols. You’re learning how to use walls and surfaces to parse through the clear path the designers intend for you to take. Then there’s the advanced phase when you realize entire stretches of levels can be bypassed, wall runs can be abused, grapple hooks can be exploited. You’re in a new dimension now, and that dimension is speed. While I’m cautious to recommend this game to folks who will get frustrated at their death count, at the absolute difficulty on offer, I lean all the more on recommending it to people who are willing to be like Neo in The Matrix. You see the code, and you can fly.

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There are some pretty clever Easter eggs hidden around as well, if you have the patience to find them.

Once More Unto The Data Breach

The more I think about this game, the more I think I’m probably going back to Ghostrunner to finish off TOM. It might not be today, but as that sting of frustration fades with time, I’m left with the impression that this is still a very well made game. It’s absolutely eyepopping when it’s not making your eyes pop out. The puzzles are good once you learn to let go of the frustrations of failure. And if you’re burning out, a short step away from the game is all it takes to get your balance back. Or maybe a longer step away in the case of TOM.

While I wish that certain aspects of the game were a little more forgiving, perhaps in giving us slightly more levels to acclimate to difficulty before ramping it up again, I can’t deny that it feels unbelievably good to play this game well. In some ways the game almost seems like it has two halves struggling against one another, one that wants me to sit and play for hours at a time, and the other that says this game is best in 30 - 60 minute intervals. Whichever camp you fall in, whichever way you see yourself potentially playing this game, if you still see yourself playing it after this review I urge you to give it a peek. If you’re unsure but still possibly interested, don’t forget there’s a free demo you can still play. There are precious few games out there that do what this game does, and while as I’ve said it’s not for everyone, if it’s for you, you’ll definitely want to try it out.

Adam Factor