Ghostrunner offers thrilling, knife-edge combat and fleet-footed acrobatics, but in such a crowded genre, it slows down or trips up just as often.
Cyberpunk-style games are on the rise, and Ghostrunner is one of the latest results of that trend. Jointly developed by One More Level, 3D Realms and Slipgate Ironworks, this first-person action platformer exhibits many of the beloved, distinctive, and well-worn aspects of modern cyberpunk. The game’s focus on high-speed acrobatics and one-hit-kill combat leads to a lot of thrilling moments, but it can feel inflexible and tedious just as often. In an increasingly crowded genre that includes CD Projekt Red’s upcoming Cyberpunk 2077, Ghostrunner offers stylish, frenetic fun cut with some plodding problems.
The game opens with its katana-wielding cyborg protagonist, the Ghostrunner, taking part in an assault on the central tower of Dharma City. This humongous post-apocalyptic shelter-state is controlled by Mara the Keymaster, who usurped power over the city and now rules as a brutal dictator. The Ghostrunner slices his way to the top of the tower and confronts Mara, but she quickly overpowers him and casts his body down to the lowest depths of the neon-soaked metropolis. Some time later, he reawakens with a mysterious new arm and a voice in his head, telling him to climb back up through the districts, regain his abilities, and restore the rightful leader of Dharma City.
The linchpin of Ghostrunner is its cyber-ninja fantasy fulfillment, and the ways in which it drives that fantasy home. In its best moments, gameplay is a lightning-quick combination of fluid movement and surgical violence: leaping from wall to wall, darting from enemy to enemy, and countering their different abilities with lethal precision. The game’s impressive graphics enhance the experience of being a lone killing machine in a messy, dangerous world, and the performance remains stable even on the highest settings. Although there’s a relatively small cast of characters, their quality voice acting also plays a big role when there’s plenty of dialogue and most of the story is told by word of mouth.
Ghostrunner‘s core mechanics make it feel fantastic in bursts, but there are a number of things that needlessly slow the pace of the game or show how much more it could have been. The level design doesn’t provide very many approaches to each combat encounter, usually with only one or two optimal paths to take out every enemy in the right sequence. The game is also interspersed with “cybervoid” levels: sluggish puzzle-platforming challenges that take away most movement options and are also used as tutorials for new combat abilities. But those abilities are few and far between, and such a limited toolkit is rarely useful when combat encounters often feel so choreographed.
Ghostrunner also leans hard into its thematic and aesthetic cyberpunk tropes, which can be either compelling or stale depending on the player’s familiarity with it all. There are neon ads for cybernetic augmentations spread all over the ultra-industrial environments. There’s a soundtrack composed entirely of synthwave. And of course, there’s extreme social stratification between each level of the city. The plot doesn’t exactly hold any surprises or subvert the genre in any way, but the game seems more interested in image than substance – but that’s not really a problem. What is a problem, however, is the fact that there’s virtually nothing to do after finishing the campaign. The relatively short runtime also emphasizes the need for a challenge mode, or something more open-ended that takes greater advantage of the game’s sharp mechanics.
Ghostrunner overwhelmingly succeeds at making the player feel like an agile and deadly cyber-ninja. Just as often, though, it feels like the worst parts of an older Sonic game: players want to rip through at the highest possible speed, but the level design slows them down or trips them up too often to keep that momentum. In spite of that, the undeniable satisfaction of a perfectly executed battle is more than enough to make this game worth the effort it demands.
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Ghostrunner is currently available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. A Steam code was provided to Screen Rant for the purposes of this review.
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