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Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: All in! Games
Developer: One More Level
Release Date: Oct. 27, 2020

About Andreas Salmen

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PC Review - 'Ghostrunner'

by Andreas Salmen on Jan. 14, 2021 @ 1:00 a.m. PST

Ghostrunner is a hardcore cyberpunk adventure where you become a cyber-warrior and experience dynamic fights.

A bunch of similarly themed games released in 2020 around the former GOTY contender Cyberpunk 2077. The game's release was all but smooth and, to my surprise, it was overshadowed by a completely different cyberpunk-themed experience: Ghostrunner. The games don't have much in common, but if I had to choose one to play right now, Ghostrunner is a surprisingly satisfying experience, especially on the PC.

Ghostrunner is a first-person combat platformer, which puts it in a (very) general ballpark with Doom Eternal. Both games have an almost archaic but satisfying design philosophy that hinges on tough encounters, skillful play, and good level design. We start the game as the titled Ghostrunner in Dharma Tower, a skyscraper and last refuge for humanity.

Without any memory and severely damaged, an AI called The Architect awakens us and asks us to kill Mara, who is the current ruler of Dharma Tower. Also known as The Keymaster, Mara had previously betrayed The Architect and killed all other Ghostrunners. We are also introduced to a rebel group that initially repaired us to stand against The Keymaster and hopes we are the key to retaking control of Dharma City.

It's a competent enough story with some good voice acting if you pay attention. Sadly, the tale is almost exclusively told through voiced dialogue during missions, so it's difficult to follow along while you're jumping and slicing through enemies at breakneck speeds. You could find a good spot to stand still and listen, but since stages are timed, that is at odds with the game experience. Since the story is an excuse to stylishly slice enemies in half, you won't likely miss much if you ignore it, but it is a decent enough tale that merits some attention.

Where the game shines is in its actual gameplay. Ghostrunner consists of 17 stages that took us about seven hours to complete. If you're skilled and familiar with the game, you may be able to finish it in about four hours. While that may be a deterrent for some, the content is enjoyable and keeps players engaged and on their toes for the entirety of the experience due to a variety of stages, enemy types, and platforming options.

As the Ghostrunner, we rely entirely on our katana, with a few special combat skills on the side. We are the idiot bringing a knife to a gunfight, since almost all of the enemies shoot at you. Levels are linear, with a few open areas in between where combat situations can be addressed in different ways. There is a critical path that's usually obvious, so there is not much deviation to be had. With the exception of two boss encounters, we can kill enemies with a single hit from our katana, but the same rule applies to us. Being hit by an enemy or running into any environmental hazard means an instant game over, so it's vital that we are constantly in motion during combat.

Ghostrunner is mostly a platformer, but it smartly layers new challenges on top and pushes the player to adapt to constantly changing threats. With wall runs, anchor points to grapple, and rails and ramps to slide down, the movement system is similar to Mirror's Edge in that it requires chaining several parkour-style moves to get through a level. It's a speedy game that demands split-second reactions when in combat and while traversing the stages, since there is always an abyss, laser, or other hazard that can spell your end. It has a decent learning curve, and when it clicks, you'll never want to stop running and jumping. Flying through the air feels incredibly fast and fluid, and it's exhilarating to propel yourself from wall to wall. It nails the platforming, and precise jumps are needed to get through a level. There is an encounter that I'd call a platforming boss fight, where you need to jump and grapple through a wall of moving lasers. The movements become more advanced as you progress, further adding power-ups and turrets that make it difficult to move through a level.

Mastering the movement is key for combat encounters, and Ghostrunner does a good job of slowly easing players into it. Early enemies fire a single shot, while later enemies fire salves of bullets, pressure you with jump attacks from afar, or are invulnerable until you block their attacks. It's a combat puzzle that needs to be solved by moving around the area to avoid gunfire while taking out enemies. When engaging an enemy, your dash ability is useful to evade attacks. If you're in the air, holding the dash button slows down time, so you can make an evasive maneuver, at the end of which you're propelled forward for the killing blow. The evasion tactic is important for early opponents, with later enemies requiring evasion and well-timed parries. On the battlefield, you'll need to assess who's attacking you, move to an advantageous position, and take them out while minimizing your exposure. It's a tough game, and you can expect to die hundreds of times during your first playthrough.

You can use one of four special skills that can help you take out one or multiple enemies at once, but it needs a few kills to recharge. I didn't need to use these skills too much, except in tight encounters where I couldn't get a particular enemy to die. Otherwise, it was more satisfying to jump on anything that moved with my blade.

Ghostrunner has a basic upgrade system for abilities. Some levels take place in cyberspace, where we collect a certain number of orbs via light puzzle-solving, which in turn upgrades our systems. While visually distinct, the puzzles are a welcome change of pace but fairly forgettable; they're not difficult to figure out, but the payoff usually makes them worth it. Our Ghostrunner has a little circuit board that expands over time, so we can slot in Tetris-style upgrade shards to improve our abilities, such as additional dashes, pick-ups lasting longer, and marking enemies. They can be swapped in and out at any point, and it's interesting to figure out the best way to get as many shards on the board at once. It's a very simple system, but it works well within the linear story.

The game felt mostly fair, but there are a few gripes. Without an upgrade to highlight enemies, encounters can be extra tough. Enemies keep moving around, and it's easy to lose track of where to go or who is attacking. This can be intensely frustrating when a single hit means death. There were a few instances when an enemy was so well hidden that I could not figure out why I was dying. Similarly, there were a few rare moments when the game didn't point me toward my next objective. The game world has signs to direct you, but there are some areas where I got lost for a few minutes because the game didn't do a great job of outlining the best way forward. The precise platforming can be a detriment. Little bumps in walls sent me flying in incorrect directions or got me stuck, so I couldn't evade a projectile. Sometimes, I fell and got stuck on a crevice that left me alive but unable to reach the actual stage.

I alluded to this earlier, but Ghostrunner is best played on the PC due to its reliance on reaction times. Well-timed jumps and attacks are very important, especially in later stages, so the more frames your machine can produce, the better your experience will be. Ghostrunner is well optimized and offers some decent RTX and DLSS options for those with an RTX card. Even on older cards, you'll likely be able to reach triple-digit frame rates without too many visual compromises, making the game a blast to play on most machines. It looks the part, too. It's a pretty and colorful cyberpunk dystopia that changes things often enough to not feel stale. While early levels can feel similar, later stages in the city look stunning as you run and jump through flickering neon signs and billboards while you cut down enemies. It even takes on a slight horror vibe toward the end that I didn't see coming. Add to that a good, thumping soundtrack that mixes well with the game vibe, and Ghostrunner pushes you through levels in a rhythmic, almost hypnotizing pace.

Ghostrunner was a pleasant surprise. It's a short and fun action platformer that keeps you busy with challenging but fair stages, while smartly mixing things up throughout the experience. It's not quite as great in telling its story as it is with its movement and combat, and it can be frustrating at times, but when everything works well together, it's a satisfying and fun skill-based action game. If you are looking for a linear and challenging game, pick up Ghostrunner.

Score: 8.5/10

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