Ghostrunner jumped into action last week when 505 games released this cyberpunk platformer on PC. Now we’ve escaped cyberspace with a review for all you budding cyber ninjas.
Developed by One More Level, 3D Realms, and Slipgate Ironworks, Ghostunner describes itself as a hardcore FPP slasher. It’s an experience that plunges players into the type of chrome-plated neon dystopia that we’ve been patiently waiting for while CD Projekt Red feverishly working away on the delayed Cyberpunk 2077. This future hellscape, however, is far from a rich and diverse open-world RPG. Instead, we found a medley of different genres that weaves together its own unforgiving future with a high energy hardcore platformer that you will either adore or ragequit before the going really gets tough.
Taking place in an unfortunate future where a major cataclysm has left the world on the edge of disaster, humanity has taken refuge in a megastructure called Dharma Tower. Ruled by a seemingly tyrannical overlord, the narrative for this timeline finds you waking into this chaotic city as an archaic instrument of revolution. As the most advanced mechanical blade fighter ever developed, and seemingly forgotten about, you will use your unmatched skills with a monomolecular katana, superhuman reflexes, and a few extra upgrades to overcome the forces ahead of you and take down Mara, the Keymaster.
Mirror’s Edge Again?
While this narrative sells itself as a combat-heavy slasher mixed with a cyberpunk RPG, the core of Ghostrunner is its movement. Unwinding the dystopian tale that very adequately forces you up this tower, Ghostrunner feels a lot like Mirror’s Edge. Where Mirror’s Edge introduced high rise skyscrapers and the crystal clean lines of futuristic skyscrapers, the hellhole that is Dharma Tower is a suffocating environment full of industrial slums, forges, abandoned corridors, and scaffolding. The result is an aesthetic that might be modern but fits the desperate battle for survival that is about to unfold between across Dharma Tower and the inner machinations of the Cybervoid.
Taking a first-person perspective, again just as Mirror’s Edge did, Ghostrunner frantically starts out by barrelling its way through a range of corridors, platforms, and precarious elevators. You’ll overcome these, using your mechanical limbs to run along walls, swing from a handy grappling hook, dash across chasms, slide under narrow gaps, and even speed up your senses. Cobbled together in a metallic body, these movement skills turn the protagonist of this dystopian encounter from a parkouring protagonist into an aerobiotic ninja and regularly finds you traversing much of this tower in the air or along a wall. Gravity is not your friend, yet Ghostrunner manages to keep the core control of these abilities from overwhelming players by keeping the controls relatively simple. With one button used for dashing or dodging, one to jump, one to grapple and single button combat, Ghostrunner focuses most of your concentration on keeping your feet off the ground and out of the grave.
Beginning in the lower levels of Dharma Tower, Ghostrunner quickly throws your shiny player character into a series of conceptually simple encounters. Jumping running and making your way around the obstacles that make up the basement of Dharma should be simple, but this title has other ideas. The team behind Ghostrunner has crafted together a series of levels that, even in their early moments, require fine motor control and precision timing. A simple vault from platform to the platform doesn’t leave much room for error, with a fall down into the lowest regions of Dharma Tower waiting for even the simplest of slip-ups. Save points between levels do provide some respite, but that is only until the thumping synth-wave soundtrack kicks in and combat begins for the first time.
While the retro wave and synth soundtrack that thumps throughout Ghostrunner is excellent on its own, there’s a telling uptick when combat approaches that gives the entire experience a fitting sense of urgency. As Ghostrunner seems to audibly foreshadow enemy grunts, you’ll be glad to know that many of these minions are no match for an enhanced cyber ninja. Unfortunately, you’re not very well protected from these cretins either. Armed with a futuristic katana, you’ll face off against pretty unassuming foes, at first. they do only wield simple handguns but all they need to do is land a single shot and the game is up. A simple series of platforming challenges that are far from linear end up making early levels of Ghostrunner particularly hectic for the newly minted ninja. Initial encounters are designed to challenge newcomers, with Mara’s henchmen dotted in various places, making it move or die time when the EDM break beats hit. As things progress further up the tower, these grunts become increasingly well-armed. Shields, automatic weapons, and more problems all appear while the level design becomes increasingly elaborate. You will inevitably be forced to think in three dimensions as shots rain out from all angles and you spend more of your time of time trying to soar through the air, co=-ordinate your next move, and think three steps ahead of where you land while hoping everything goes to plan.
This seemingly insurmountable set of obstacles is, however, not entirely stacked in Mara’s favour and the Ghostrunner does have some extra options to ease the burden somewhat. Presented as a sort of circuit, the game’s progression system adds a set of skill points for players to spend by slotting upgrades into their memory. These add ons can enhance a Ghostruner’s capabilities by squeezing in extra dash capacity, the option to knock back enemy projectiles, and more. Nothing available in the progression tree is exactly innovative but the flat nature of this system allows players to keep up with the ever-increasing power gap between themselves and the fully automatic enemy cannon fodder that stands in your way, and there is nothing wrong with a bit of extra power and range when taking out enemy combatants.
Interspersed between these combat style scenarios and platforming puzzles are a few significant boss challenges. Just like each of the combat encounters, and just as things start to settle into a solid rhythm, 505 Game’s platformer injects these with the intent of testing everything you’ve learned so far. The T-073-M gatekeeper is a particularly challenging fight against a gargantuan rotating turret that radiates waves of energy and lashes out with deadly security lasers in every direction, forcing the Ghstrunner to swing around in the space between. It’s like the designers took one look at Insomniac’s Spiderman and added a sadistically evil twist to their swinger.
The result of this increasingly difficult gameplay is a core loop takes the basic movement components that made me fall in love with Mirror’s Edge and forces gamers to play with an almost surgical level of precision, all while doing it at a hundred miles per hour. There is absolutely no room for error, even when simply moving around Dharma Tower. Combat feels completely unrelenting. Make one mistimed dodge or miss a landing and it’s unlikely that you’ll have enough time to recover before something deadly picks you off. The thing is, this makes the entire experience utterly enthralling. While veteran speedrunners might want more challenge and fans drawn in by the aesthetic or narrative might leave a little disappointed, I could happily slash my way through Ghostrunner all day.
Death Or Glory
The death tally at the end of each level in Ghotrunenr speaks to the intent of this hardcore run and slasher. With so little room for error, the main obstacle is not the guards that pepper you with bullets but your own meatsack reflexes. There’s a palpable sense of achievement as you cut down the last potential troublemaker in a level and the thumping Edm soundtrack fades off into the background. How many times you die before it happens, is another matter. Mastering each level, understanding the steps required and memorising your movement until the entire encounter turns into a gore-soaked ballet is even a little reminiscent of titles like DOOM Eternal.
Despite the incredibly satisfying core gameplay loop. Ghstrunne manages to be surprisingly simple when it is not intent on gunning you down. Sections that take place in the Cybervoid, an inner space made up of digital information, is a fantastic concept but serves to only slow down and draw out the narrative in parts. Unusually, the final boss that you will encounter also could be more difficult. All of the boss encounters seem to grow increasingly less difficult as the game unfolds.
Despite its flaws, however, Ghostrunner is a fantastic platformer. While we would have loved more lore and a more consistent set of boss experiences, these are small pickings for a game that delivers a Cyberpunk dystopia that we loved tearing down. You can grab Ghostrunner on PC, via Steam, and console.
A code was provided for the purpose of this review