It hardly makes sense that I could have equal amounts of fun either skilfully barrelling through a tricky sequence of platforming challenges to a pumping synthwave soundtrack, or repeatedly banging my head against the wall of a particularly tricky enemy encounter and failing north of 30 times over. That’s Ghostrunner though; a game capable of causing me to scream obscenities at the ceiling/family living above me one moment, and then making me feel like a sci-fi parkour god the next. It’s fucking awesome.
Set in a dystopian future where the Earth has long-since succumbed to a cataclysm and humanity lives in the confines of a megastructure known as Dharma Tower, Ghostrunner sees you play as the last of a line of super-soldiers known as, well…Ghostrunners. Pieced back together by a rebel group after a hostile takeover of Dharma by one of its progenitors leads to the Ghostrunners’ destruction, you find yourself in contact with the other half of the tower’s previous duo of caretakers, who introduces themselves as The Architect. The Architect, along with one of your rebel saviours, serves you expository chatter as you make the ascent of Dharma Tower to find The Keymaster and bring her to justice.
In all honesty, Ghostrunner’s narrative won’t shock anyone who’s had any exposure to similar neo-noir sci-fi settings. With lashings of Blade Runner, Cyberpunk 2020, Observer and more, it’s light on new ideas but more than makes up for it in setting. Dharma Tower is simlultaneously immense and claustrophobic, a city within four enormous walls that you’ll only experience in fleeting moments as you spend much of your time behind the curtain, crawling through the tower’s walls and scaling its innermost reaches as you make your way to its core. Though you’re typically zipping through them too quickly to take notice, Ghostrunner’s environments have a violent, industrial kind of beauty to them when you’re traversing its terrifying inner machinations, giving way to some truly striking views in the rare opportunities you’ll find yourself ‘outside’.
For its gameplay inspo, Ghostrunner takes cues from the likes of Mirror’s Edge, DOOM Eternal and perhaps a little Super Meat Boy, where first-person parkour meets brutal combat and a one-and-done gameplay loop where death, and checkpoint restarts, both happen in the blink of an eye. Your Ghostrunner is a very capable human-machine hybrid, but they’re not invincible. The Keymaster’s soldiers all fall to a single blow with your monomolecular katana, but one hit or stray bullet in kind will end your climb in a flash. Luckily, relatively forgiving checkpoints and an instant respawn mean that its less about survival and more about experimenting, honing your skills and finding the perfect line from one checkpoint to the next. Or, in my case, relying on a lot of dumb luck.
I had the most fun with Ghostrunner in its more platforming-centric sections, when you’re barreling down deadly gauntlets where the environment exists either to move you along or send you unceremoniously back to the checkpoint. The game’s brand of first-person parkour plays beautifully whether you’re tethered to the keyboard/mouse combo or a controller jockey, with only a scant few sequences demanding precise aiming on top of the usual wall-running, sliding and grappling hook fare. My only ongoing gripe as I climbed Dharma is the fact that the oft-used grappling points don’t trigger unless they’re in your general focal point, which can be hard to accommodate when you have enemies or other obstacles to keep tabs on, but it’s understandable given that there can be multiple points to tether to at any given moment.
But where I found my groove in Ghostrunner’s brand of acrobatics almost instantly, I struggled a little to get around the combination of quick reflexes, honed motor skill and forward planning required to get through most of its combat encounters unscathed. Well, I say unscathed but what I really mean is with less than a couple dozen retries. That’s not a knock on this aspect of the game though, just on my playing ability. In reality, there’s a lot of really neat design that goes into the game’s combat to make it feel rewarding and addictive, rather than just challenging for the sake of it. While the same basic tools that make traversal possible are still essential here, especially the time-slowing Sensory Boost, the other abilities that the Ghostrunner picks up along the way can transform how you play.
Every now and then, old mate The Architect deems it necessary for the Ghostrunner to take a trip to the Cybervoid, a virtual space that also somehow has an affect on the real world and becomes a de facto training space in which to pick up new abilities (hello, The Matrix). You’ll eventually pick up a range of skills from special attacks that must be switched between and run on a gauge that fills up with enemy kills, as well as more passive boosts that only work if you can fit their Tetris-like modules into a grid that slowly opens up as you progress. It’s a smart design; making special abilities a very intentional choice in the moment helps keep controls simple in an already-overwhelming game, and putting powerful buffs in players hands but forcing them to roll with only a select few allows for more personal play styles that won’t break the game’s flow.
Of course, none of this would be anywhere near as fun if Ghostrunner wasn’t so incredibly fucking cool all the time. Not only is the combination of gritty, steel engine rooms and corridors in the tower’s underbelly and neon-soaked cyberpunk cityscapes a winner, but it’s backed up by some very nice graphical tech including some sexy ray-tracing wizardry. With a bit of tweaking (and DLSS on ‘performance’ settings) I could get it running with RTX on my modest rig at a playable clip, but this is definitely the kind of game that demands a higher frame count so I mostly ran with everything cranked up to max but RTX switched off.
Visuals are only half the equation though, and the true star here is the game’s pounding electro/synthwave soundtrack. It’s wall-to-wall bangers here, and there’s nothing better than that to keep you coming back for more with every new punishment the game hands to you. I quite legitimately might have given up in one particular ‘boss’ encounter that involves a fuckload of that grappling stuff I complained about earlier if not for the phat beats helping to keep my blood flowing and my head in the game. Daniel Deluxe is the person responsible for your future earworms, so might as well get ahead and check him out on Spotify right now.
The whole thing represents damned good value for money, too. There’s a ton of replayability in the game’s 17-odd stages, not least because the embarrassment of taking over 100 respawns to finish a 10-minute level will likely drive
me players to repeat them all at least once. Plus, there are some neat secrets tucked way to unlock lore items and new sword skins as well. All told, it took me around six or seven hours to see it through, which isn’t half bad for a sub-$40 game, especially one this slickly-produced. I can’t wait to see speedrunners cut that right down to ridiculous records though, which should be awesome to watch given the high ceiling for skilled play on offer.
Ghostrunner is the most fun I’ve had being utterly terrible at something. It’s incredibly hard to feel bad about eating shit every ten seconds when you’re so entranced by the thumping score and gorgeous aesthetic, no less because the game is rarely cheap – the tools are there, sometimes you just have to dust yourself off and give it that hundredth go before you nail it. While I do wish the narrative had been a tad less predictable and ended more climatically, it’s delivered with so much confidence that it’s hard not to be on board. That soundtrack though, damn.
Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher
- One More Level/3D Realms/Slipgate Ironworks
- All In Games/505 Games
- PS4 / Xbox One / Switch / PC
- October 27, 2020