Ghostrunner’s blend of free-running and action is refreshing because the latter is incorporated into the former. It’s a platformer first and foremost but the action itself remains exciting due to two reasons: most enemies die from a slash of your sword and ALL enemies kill you in one hit. By de-emphasising the combat itself, more importance is placed on traversing the environment to outmanoeuvre the enemy’s attacks whilst closing the distance to them. It’s a fun twist, aided by the responsiveness and rapid pace of the wall running and movement in general, as well as the Sensory Boost ability which allows you to slow down time whilst you dodge bullets and adjust your jumps in mid-air. When the game is at its best, you are sprinting through a beautiful neo-noir inspired city, leaping from wall to wall, swiftly slowing time to a crawl to evade a guard’s attack and then promptly sending them to paradise, or wherever they go when chopped in half by a katana.
Levels contain numerous checkpoints so death is not a big deal. This rewards experimentation with different routes and strategies to clear a room, something the player is more enticed to do knowing they won’t be harshly punished if they make a mistake. These varying routes are a definite highlight of the stage design and it was quite rewarding to see my efforts in finding faster and more convenient ways to clear levels pay off. In some ways, the gameplay loop is so enjoyable that even when the areas themselves started to become a little repetitive, as long as the free running and sensory abilities were available, I still had a great time stylishly dispatching enemies and moving forward through the main game. This was especially the case in the first seven of the seventeen stages, where I was hoping for slightly more variety with the enemies and environments.
The unlockable abilities are incredibly useful and as the game rarely forces you to use a particular one, the player is encouraged to use the ones that fit with their specific playstyle. I abused the hell out of Blink, an ability that allows you to warp toward and instantly kill enemies. Granted these abilities are on cooldown but their immense power means they are always worth the wait and are a useful crutch in the heat of battle. The upgrade system is similarly dynamic, allowing the player to compound improvements onto their preferred abilities whilst ignoring the others, and being simple and non-intrusive enough that the focus remains on the action and not in the menus. The combination of the brisk free running with these slick abilities gives the gameplay a unique flavour and can make for some super satisfying moments, particularly when you replay levels and are able to rip through them with ease, with the prior knowledge of enemy positions and optimal routes to clean house.
The story is forgettable. After being woken by a voice named the ‘Whisper’, the Ghostrunner is given the job of scaling the Tower, whilst defeating the guards known as ‘keys’ and ultimately their leader, the Keymaster. It’s standard uprising fare, the protagonist fights for the downtrodden everyman and a rebellion, rising up against the tyranny of those at the top of the cruel world who have taken too much for themselves and left little for those at the bottom. The characters, with the exception of the protagonist, are pretty one-dimensional; the Keymaster is especially uncompelling and lacks depth, contributing to their middling impact as the main antagonist. The rare highlights come from some exploration of the Ghostrunner’s true nature and backstory in the late game as well as the character Zoe, who proves to be a likeable presence throughout the narrative. I was underwhelmed by the ending, something I can’t discuss in detail for obvious reasons but a more impressive one could have salvaged a few extra points for the story, which is not the case here.
It must be said that the barebones story isn’t a game-breaking negative for me personally. “Show, don’t tell” is an enduring storytelling lesson for good reason and in video games, I have always felt the gameplay is the main method with which developers should deliver the messages at the heart of their vision. In this case, the sheer skill and advancement of the Ghostrunner is conveyed superbly with the dynamic movement and destructive abilities, something I prefer heavily to an alternative like including cutscenes or dozens of audio logs to achieve a similar result.
What is problematic however is the uneven level design. As alluded to earlier, I was content with some repetitive stages that had similar enemies and surroundings but my sentiment does not carry over to the segments set in the “Cybervoid”. In these sections, the player is transported to a virtual cyberspace where most of the core gameplay mechanics including the wall running and action are abandoned in favour of dry puzzles. These puzzles aren’t particularly difficult but they aren’t all that interesting either and come across as noticeably duller than the regular gameplay. As opposed to the segments mentioned above, which were only smaller parts of normal levels, there is also an entire level set in the Cybervoid which predictably, ends up being one of the game’s worst. Speaking of the worst levels in the game, the boss fights are right up there. Each boss gets their own level so of course, these stages are shorter and set in smaller environments, which don’t allow the player to tap into the movement or special abilities (which don’t work on the bosses) that are unique to this experience. The boss fight in the level “In Her Own Image” fares the worst in this regard. The animation is subpar, the design of the stage is bland and the overall fight feels stretched out and predictable, due to the design of the boss and their attacks.
One aspect of Ghostrunner that is consistently impressive is the presentation. The resolution is sharp, the textures are solid and the reflections in the city levels look excellent. The cyberpunk feeling is evoked spectacularly through the design of the environments, from the overuse of technology on the architecture and enemies to the plethora of neon signs and enormous electronic billboards. It also runs at a smooth 60FPS which is a huge help as that extra responsiveness will help you nail those jumps and last second dodges. The PS5 version comes with a mode that enables Ray Traced reflections. Honestly, the non-traced reflections already look quite nice and unfortunately, it crashed a couple of times with Ray Tracing enabled so ultimately, it isn’t the most effective implementation. There are also framerate dips when more of the RT reflections are present, which rarely happens with it disabled. Keep in mind, if you crash in the middle of a stage, while they have many checkpoints, upon restart you will be sent back to the beginning of the level. Risking this loss of progress for the sake of Ray Tracing is simply not worth it.
Summary: The levels vary substantially in quality but Ghostrunner flourishes when it capitalises on the strengths of its dazzling gameplay.
Developer: One More Level
Publisher: 505 Games, All In! Games SA
Genre: Action, platformer, first-person
Platforms: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC
Release date: 27 October 2020 (PS4, Xbox One, PC); 10 November 2020 (Nintendo Switch); 28 September 2021 (PS5, Xbox X|S)
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.