Gotta Go Fast
HIGH Perfecting a chamber and getting that slow-motion effect on the final kill.
LOW Unimaginative bosses.
WTF Could they have at least given the character who inevitably betrays us a less evil-sounding voice?
Ghostrunner is about a cyborg ninja doing cool cyborg ninja stuff. That may sound like a lazy description, but whatever image that sentence conjured is probably pretty close to what Ghostrunner ultimately is.
Any thirty-second slice of play is likely to involve wall-running, dodging bullets in slow-motion, deflecting projectiles back at the guys who fired them, cutting every enemy in a room to pieces, and executing all of that flawlessly, without taking a single hit.
Notably, it is almost exclusively about that.
There is a story involving an uprising against a fascist regime, but it unfolds almost exclusively off-screen, communicated to the protagonist through a pair of handlers constantly whispering in his ear. And even when we get out of the industrial corridors of the first act and into the neon-soaked cyberpunk city promised in the opening moments, it never feels like a functional world, so much as a series of spaces built purely to chain wall-runs together. That’s not a criticism – this is simply an action game focused entirely on the action.
In Ghostrunner‘s core loop, a ninja named Jack must clear each chamber without sustaining any damage himself. If that sounds difficult – and boy, it can be – know that rooms typically contain only a handful of enemies, and upon dying, a simple button press brings Jack back to the checkpoint with no loading time. Although players will accumulate hundreds of deaths over the course of the campaign, each one rarely costs more than a few seconds.
Jack eventually unlocks a few ranged attacks, but their cooldown time is so lengthy that they’re essentially used only as last resorts. Jack’s primary weapon is his sword. Enemies die in a single slice, but since most of them sport firearms, players need to rely on Jack’s acrobatic skills to gain the upper hand.
The word “runner” in the title isn’t a misnomer, as players need to remain constantly on the move to stay alive, and levels give them ample opportunity to do so. Frankly, I have no idea how non-ninjas in this universe are able to get around when roughly 90% of the city is composed of suspended wall panels and electronic billboards.
In terms of pacing, Ghostrunner perfectly rolls out new obstacles just as we’re getting comfortable with the old ones.
When faced with a basic gunman head-on, players can trigger a slow-motion effect to dodge the bullet in midair. It’s simple to master, but then the difficulty escalates. Strategic maneuvering is necessary for enemies that should only be attacked from behind, like shielded heavies or machine gunners (since it’s not feasible to sidestep more than one or two bullets at a time). Security droids fire an energy wave that can only be dodged vertically. When enemies are protected by force fields, the nodes projecting those need to be taken out first.
Each configuration of these foes plays like a new puzzle to solve, and what prevents Ghostrunner from being overly frustrating is that there’s never only one solution. Every room is a veritable playground, full of opportunities to wall-run, slide, grapple and zipline, all to find the optimal ‘line’ taking Jack through every target without being hit in the process. Games with zero tolerance for error are too frequently about memorization. Ghostrunner is about familiarization, and there’s a difference, because this method still leaves ample room for player expression.
Still, anyone interested in Ghostrunner needs to weigh whether or not they’re in the mood for such an unwaveringly hardcore experience, as this thing put more strain on my reflexes than probably any other game this year. God help anyone who isn’t playing with a mouse and keyboard, because the combination of speed and precision required to pull off some of these stunts hardly seems possible with analog sticks. (There’s also a Switch version, which sounds like an absolute nightmare.)
However, while Ghostrunner’s frustrations are frequent, the rush of adrenaline after mastering a run is next-level. Fans of action games have likely had the experience of replaying a combat encounter in a game that they love, again and again, to get a better ranking. Ghostrunner forces us treat every moment like we’re speedrunning it.
The campaign only stumbles when it diverges from that terrific gameplay loop. Sequences in which Jack enters cyberspace to retrieve new abilities are generally free of combat or platforming, and instead focus on puzzle-solving, usually in the form of collecting X number of doodads in some sort of maze. They’re dull and seemingly thrown in to give players an opportunity to cool down, when in reality I reluctantly trudged through these levels wishing I could get back to the fighting.
Weaker still are the bosses. All three of them are a letdown for unique reasons, but they all share a common sin – there’s only one way to beat them, and it involves a lot of memorization. It’s during these encounters when Ghostrunner essentially devolves into a series of quick-time events without the button prompts.
The final boss is particularly anticlimactic, because the character in question just stands in the middle of the room while the player dodges the same three attacks ad nauseum, unable to damage her until she arbitrarily becomes vulnerable. ‘Trite’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. Fortunately, Ghostrunner avoids ending on its worst note. The final boss is the penultimate level, after which players are treated to a platforming gauntlet that’s a more fitting final exam of the skills we’ve been accumulating throughout.
By the time the credits rolled, my hand was aching at the base of the pinky finger that operates the Shift key, but I was still sad that there were no more obstacles to overcome. I was in physical pain and still itching to keep going. If that’s not the sign of a damn good action romp, I don’t know what is.
Disclosures: This game is developed by One More Level and published by 505 Games.It is currently available on PS4, XBO, PC and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the PC. Approximately seven hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains Blood and Gore and Violence. Those descriptors don’t lie, as Ghostrunner contains many, many instances of the player beheading enemies and slicing them in half, often in slow motion. What the rating seems to have missed is that the enemy soldiers also spew constant F-bombs. So yeah, this isn’t for kids.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All important dialogue is subtitled, but enemy barks are not. Additionally, since it only takes one hit to down the player, directional sounds can greatly aid in locating threats. Indicators around the cursor will alert players when attacks are incoming, but they don’t communicate what type of attack is incoming, and the action all unfolds at an extremely rapid pace. The layout and enemy placement of each chamber never changes, and learning them is ultimately part of the process of completing Ghostrunner no matter who you are, but anyone who can’t take advantage of the game’s audio cues will likely have to put even more practice in, adding frustration onto what is already a very difficult game.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.
He was born and raised in Amish country and has yet to escape, despite a brief stint in Philadelphia, where he attended Temple University. He took a one-credit course there called "Career Opportunities for English Majors," which painted a bleak picture for prospective writers. Mike remains steadfast in his ongoing role as a video game critic, however, and has recently written for GamesRadar. Most of his work can be found on HonestGamers, where he has contributed over 200 reviews to date.
When not playing games or writing about them, Mike is a rabid indie music fan and ardent concertgoer. He doesn't read as much as he probably should, but his current favorite author is Alastair Reynolds.