Ghostrunner Review: A Masterclass Slice and Dice Puzzle
**DISCLAIMER: Review copy provided by All In Games**
I’ve preached a lot of praise above but there are some issues. As mentioned before, the parkour mechanics can be finicky and in the heat of battle, falling off a wall ends up being more frustrating than a lesson learned moment. Additionally, this game is very hard, with no difficulty options. Sometimes dying on a level feels more like a chance death rather than actually messing up, and that's because of the high difficulty. In this game, everything including you die in one hit. I get the developers had a vision, but there should have been a slight buffer when first engaging so the chance kills right at the start of a battle arena don’t pick you off unfairly. Additionally, some accessibility options would be nice so others can experience this amazing game.
Ghostrunner quickly became an indie darling, touting fast action, seamless combat, and tight controls, ever since its debut at Gamescom 2019. Just after the first trailer, people got interested in the flashy gameplay as well as the high difficulty threshold to create a fun and interesting experience. But, while it sounds like the description of Doom, Ghostrunner stood out even more by having a single weapon to be used, a katana. I was put off at first because the gameplay was so fast paced. It seemed hard to understand what was going on as an observer. All that changed when I got my hands on the controls, and jumped in head first. This game changes focus so quickly. It’s advertised as a fast paced action game set in the cyberpunk world. But it's more than just that. It’s actually a really well crafted action puzzle game that may be one of the greatest made this generation. Let’s delve into why.
Welcome to Dharma Tower, the last bastion for humanity far in the future. After an event only referred to as the “Burst”, the entire globe has fallen, and every remaining human lives in one part or another of the Tower, and completing tasks for the greater good. Naturally, something goes terribly wrong and this attempt for a final bastion is on the brink of destruction. But, you are the Ghostrunner, a guardian of the Tower, put back together just after a coup, to stop Mara from trying to end Dharma’s society just from sheer disinterest in the goings on below her.
As the game opens up, Jack the Ghostrunner, wakes up at the bottom of the Tower with his memory wiped and a mysterious voice only introduced as the Architect talking to him. The game quickly kicks off as you take control of Jack. All In Games has found a very good balance for story and combat. See, it is all delivered by the dialogue between Jack, the Architect, and a remaining member of the organization that attempted to rebel against Mara named Zoe. Over time, you learn that Zoe and the other Climbers (get it?) attempted to repair Jack who is the only Ghostrunner left. Additionally, you learn about the history of the Tower through collectibles like old items found throughout your ascent and audio logs, and the chatter between Jack and the Architect just chatting about Jack and the Ghostrunner’s past. It’s the little moments between all the characters that change this game so much. Instead of a senseless slaughter to get to the top of the tower, it’s a mission of hope and to right wrongs/ correct mistakes one last time. I don’t want to delve too much further into the story because there are spoilers that may change what you think of the game. It is a basic story, one of the quick rise and fall of a final dream for humanity, but it still works. It fits so well into the beautiful setting brought to life throughout the 7-8 hour experience.
Climbing the tower ends up being a really difficult endeavor that involves a lot of try, try, trying again until you get it just right. The levels are broken out into 2-3 parts, that are mixed really well to create an experience that never feels stale. The first part is parkour. Between battle arenas, there’s a linear path that connects them. This involves wall running, ziplining, grappling, and sliding your way through traps and just not messing up. This may be where my biggest gripe comes into play. The parkour mechanics are very finicky. When you pass through a parkour area, it feels fantastic, but I got several headaches and had numerous frustrating moments when Jack just… fell off a wall as I was wall-running. Additionally, jumping is a little too precise so jumping between walls may end up with you just missing something just because you weren’t looking at the right angle. Thing is though, the checkpoints are very generous. When you die you can just press Y and be right back in the action. There is never a load screen after you die. Again, this game feels so much like a puzzle game for this exact reason. When you make a mistake, the game just resets you and tells you to try again without any consequences. This fast reset to get back into the action almost feels like a training montage. You mess up, and back to one. Get back at it until you get it right. This carries over to the combat as well.
As mentioned above, the Ghostrunners fight with a sword. But that doesn’t mean every enemy does as well. Most enemies carry laser guns on them that are very accurate. Battle arenas are very diverse. Some are very small with a couple enemies while others are tall and wide with a small battalion ready to take you out along with traps everywhere. Again, All In Games has found a formula that keeps this game really fresh without feeling repetitive. There is a wide variety of enemies that feel tough to balance, but they absolutely nail it. The battle arenas feel perfectly fitted for the enemies you fight. For instance, a type of enemy can use swords, another can use an LMG, and another is a walking turret that shoots a wide line of energy that is difficult to dodge. The battle arena in mind found a way for this type of combination of enemies who attack you on sight and have pinpoint accuracy is actually fair. But this is really where the puzzle aspect comes into play. There are several paths to take out this group of enemies but hacking and slashing isn’t it. You need to pay attention to each of their attacks, their placement on the map, the walls and maneuverability mechanics available to you to succeed. To top it all off, there occasionally are special orbs that shield enemies that need to be taken out first as well and these tend to be in “harder to reach” places. But you don’t just have your trusty sword and maneuverability at your disposal.
Very early on, the Architect gives you the power to have hyper focus. It is a fast dash ability that when held down lets you slow down time and maneuver more flexibly. Think of it like Neo being able to dodge bullets, because that’s very much like what you’re doing but on a more exaggerated level. With upgrades, to be explained shortly, you can increase the amount of times you can do this dodge move. Even further, there are special abilities that charge with getting kills that can really change the game. The first one you get is a dash-and-slice attack that can go through several enemies at once if lined up. Another lets you hack into an enemy and make them fight for you for a short time. There are 4 of them, and they do not have separate cooldowns. In summary, it’s all just one big giant puzzle. If you take away anything from this review, it’s just that statement. Even the elaborate boss fights are puzzles that play out in different over the top ways that feel really epic once they are triumphed.
In addition to everything explained in the previous paragraph, you can upgrade your abilities... to a degree. With pieces that look like tetrominoes (the Tetris pieces), you can place them in a grid to upgrade Jack. Some examples of upgrades include detecting collectibles on your mini map, others increase the range and recharge rate of your abilities, and another is the ability to deflect bullets back at an enemy to take them out. But the point isn’t to fill this grid. The more you do, the slower your dash/ dodge ability recharges. It’s milliseconds and in a game as fast paced as this one, those half seconds make all the difference.
I’ve preached a lot of praise above but there are some issues. As mentioned before, the parkouring mechanics can be finicky and in the heat of battle, falling off a wall ends up being more frustrating than a lesson learned moment. Additionally, this game is very hard, with no difficulty options. Sometimes dying on a level feels more like a chance death rather than actually messing up, and that's because of the high difficulty. In this game, everything including you die in one hit. I get the developers had a vision, but there should have been a slight buffer when first engaging so the chance kills right at the start of a battle arena don’t pick you off unfairly. Additionally, some accessibility options would be nice so others can experience this amazing game.
Ghostrunner is a masterclass in linear action games. While the difficulty may feel over the top, it is outmatched by its guise as actually being really complex and fast paced action puzzles. Deaths are mostly fair, and finishing an area will make anyone feel like they’re nearly unstoppable. Not only that, All In Games may have found the perfect formula for enemy introduction and level design that basically eliminates any feeling of repetitiveness. Other developers need to take note. Besides missing accessibility options, the only major downside is the campaign should’ve lasted a little bit longer with more balance TLC to make Ghostrunner a truly perfect game. Also, a level creator would just be icing on the cake.