Cyberpunk is a genre I’ve always been particularly keen on. My favourite film is Blade Runner, I’ve always had a soft spot for Deus Ex, and transhumanism in general gets my noggin joggin’. Games are getting back into the cyber-swing of things, with the excellent visual novel VA-11 HALL-A being released last year. Twin-stick shooters go back almost as far as cyberpunk titles, but the genre received a revival in the Newgrounds flash days and even more recently with Hotline Miami in 2012. Developer Reikon Games – a studio with talents from the Witcher, Dead Island, Dying Light and This War of Mine series under its belt – has been heavily inspired by ‘cult cyberpunk anime’ and Hotline Miami in the development of their first game: RUINER.
From this love, they’ve bought us a truly great piece of violent bliss.
RUINER is a game that’s as cyberpunk as Ghost in the Shell or Akira and every bit as awesome. This comparison isn’t simply made in passing; RUINER emulates the feel of these grim future experiences to a cybernetically-enhanced tee. The environments are dark and dirty, the combat is brutal, and the writing is undeniably ‘working class’. The story itself is simple: a man is looking for his brother. A simple story, however, allows other aspects of the game to shine even brighter – and they have burned so very, very brightly.
You play as an unnamed man with a Daft Punk-esque cybernetic head, complete with flashing images on his big face. After being hacked into by some dude who becomes semi-important later, and then un-hacked by a girl known only as ‘Her’, you’re given a lead to your captive brother. You spend the game following this lead alongside Her, in the dirty and dingy cyberpunk city of Rengkok. RUINER is a game where the plot is put out subtly, like the back palette of a fine beer, and you don’t have to pay attention to what’s going on to have a great time. Perhaps that’s an indictment on the game’s overall narrative impact, or maybe I’m just getting older and less likely to notice these things.
RUINER is a game that’s as cyberpunk as Ghost in the Shell or Akira and every bit as awesome
pew pew pew pew pew pew pew
You can do push-ups by holding the X key. YOU CAN DO PUSH-UPS BY HOLDING DOWN THE X KEY.
Rengkok and its surrounding levels look and sound amazing. The streets look straight out of Blade Runner’s back alleys and are lit up by spotlights and bright advertisements. The crowded robot-maintained factories emit loud hums to match the shadows and harsh colours, and concrete parking garages are littered with rubbish and crazy people. Reikon Games’ love of cyberpunk shines brightest here. The music sounds almost exactly like Katsuhiro Otama’s Akira score one minute, and reminiscent of Pertubator’s synthwave the next. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the latter did do some work for the soundtrack. The writing too, is harsh and unfriendly. Characters constantly berate you with apathetic abandon, and are only in it for themselves. Even Her, the person who’s meant to be helping you, calls you a pussy every time you die.
At the heart of the gameplay is the movement offered by the twin-stick shooter. One control for movement (in the case of my experience, the WASD keys) and another for aiming (the mouse). Fans of Hotline Miami or Geometry Wars will fit right into these boots, but the genre isn’t unwelcoming to newcomers. In fact, the twin-stick shooter is one of the more accessible genres in video games. What is unwelcoming to newcomers, and everybody else, is RUINER’s laid on thick difficulty. You’re going to get angry at just how much RUINER throws at you during combat, but that makes victory taste much sweeter. It’s punishing of mistakes, but death is merely a setback. You die, you swear for a bit, then get straight back into the fray with some finger waggling from your background companion. It’s the type of game that less professional critics would compare to another reasonably difficult game. You’re lucky that I’m not that short-sighted.
Tech trees are here too, a noted departure from the simplicity of Hotline Miami. However, RUINER has done the impossible: It’s implemented a tech tree that isn’t limiting or frustrating. Abilities can be used in combat to spice things up and give yourself the edge. Energy shielding, aim assist that slows down time, an injection that’s basically the ‘Berserk’ powerup from Doom, or even something as simple as grenades all co-exist on this tech tree – and many more abilities besides. Experience, or Karma as it’s known here, is collected through physical currency that you can find in the world. Levelling up unlocks more abilities and nets you more tokens to purchase abilities with.
You’re hearing Vangelis right now, aren’t you?
Even weaboos become jaded by cyberpunk.
RUINER’s catch is that you’re not locked into your choices along this tree. In fact, you can pause the game and swap your points around at any time…even during combat! This allows these abilities to not sit idle for an entire playthrough, and opens new possibilities for getting out of tough situations. Can’t beat a boss? Try not using energy shielding and go with health regen instead. A mob of baddies got you down? Swap out that holographic barrier for energy pulses. It’s touches like these that make RUINER’s combat so fluid.
Actual combat, besides being difficult, is a straight-forward affair. You enter a kill zone, enemies appear, kill them all, get a rating, travel to the next temporary arena and do it all again. It differs from Hotline Miami in two respects: RUINER gives you more downtime in between fights, and RUINER’s enemies don’t die in one hit. In Hotline Miami, you’re allowed one, maybe two, seconds of rest in between spectacles of violence. In RUINER, longer quiet moments punctuate the bits where you smash heads in. Both work extremely well, but RUINER uses this downtime to simply let you soak in the atmosphere. Hotline Miami’s enemies (and you) all die in a single hit (except for when they’re simply melee’d to the ground), but RUINER’s can take a moderate beating before finally dying – and so can you. One approach isn’t necessarily better than the other; I prefer Hotline Miami’s more do-or-die method of health-keeping, while RUINER’s more spiked approach to action fits more with my love for good atmosphere.
It’s the type of game that less professional critics would compare to another reasonably difficult game
Non-combat parts of RUINER are no slouches either. One side quest has you hacking into spyware cats called…well… C.A.T.S, others have you collecting coins that are devilishly hidden, and some are just ways of getting back at some scumbags. These side quests usually take part in Rengkok itself, but that doesn’t mean you have to do them. Rengkok’s NPCs have plenty going on, even if it doesn’t impact the game. Sometimes, characters will simply talk to each other and you can eavesdrop to your heart’s content, naturally. Most of it is petty personal issues that you won’t give two shits about, but it may just grab your attention as you walk past. Even ‘Her’, for all the crap she gives you, still manages to have some humanity through her down-to-earth attitude and scattered use of old IRC emoticons. For me, that’s the sign of truly realistic writing.
I wonder what’s on his mind.
Orange blur! My worst enemy!
Both games have a wide variety of guns and melee weapons, and both games also rely heavily on weapon durability for balance. Hotline Miami’s are limited in variety and ability, but consistent for the 80s aesthetic. They get the job done in a brief and bloody manner, which fits the game’s narrative. RUINER’s weapons have more variety, yet it still retains that consistency. Plenty of bombastic firearms will grace your hands, but none of them feel out of place. They’re simple in their function, whatever that may be; freezing your enemies, melting them into puddles of acid, or just some ol’ fashioned ‘Pumped with Lead Syndrome’ are all available to you…but your enemies have them too. I often found myself bobbing up and down in my chair when I got to try out a new toy. I don’t get that feeling often, much less after getting tensed up from RUINER’s dynamite combat pacing.
Picking up a weapon during combat will make you enter a brief slow-motion reprieve, allowing you to pull off moves you only saw in movies. Enemies are constantly moving to create lines of fire, while smoking you out of safe positions with grenades. The banging soundtrack pumps your blood as hard as the bass. When you’re done and the battle is yours, you’re duly rewarded with experience and a high heartrate. RUINER’s combat set pieces never grow monotonous or boring, and that’s something truly special. Combat never gets any less tense, never pussyfoots around, and never lets up on the difficulty. If I had to nit-pick, the AI was downright broken in parts. I defeated a boss – oh, oh, the bosses!
The bosses aren’t particularly memorable as characters, but they’re some of the most satisfying victories I’ve had in years. They throw the book at you and then some. One had raining grenades and a dangerous sword, one was fluent with a buzzsaw launcher, and another was literally a giant laser weapon. These are the least hardcore bosses in the game, and I still felt like a fucking pro after finally achieving victory. I wish the game was longer, so it could have more bosses.
Leg Before Creep, back to the Pavilion with you.
Anyway, the combat AI could use some polish. I beat one boss by hiding off-screen and sniping him from afar while he didn’t move, and the regular enemies made some ‘lol, what?’ decisions, albeit infrequently. These problems will probably be fixed before or during launch, but it’s still something to note. The non-combat AI ran smoothly. On the note of running, RUINER is well-optimised for the PC, with plenty of graphical tweaks available. The game ran fine, but the options being there was a lovely safety net. Keys are unfortunately not rebindable, but the default controls didn’t feel uncomfortable on keyboard ‘n’ mouse or controller.
I often found myself bobbing up and down in my chair when I got to try out a new toy
One gaping flaw that RUINER simply cannot be forgiven for is its length. It’s only about eight to ten hours long, and that’s a goddamn crime for a game that’s this good. If Reikon want to put out any DLC, I’ll be first in line to buy it. I need more of this game, which is a feeling I haven’t gotten since Papers, Please way back in 2013. If that’s not a sign that you absolutely need to play this game…
RUINER is going to be a cult classic cyberpunk game. From incredibly tense combat to unforgettable atmosphere, it’s a title you’re going to love. If you don’t, I’ll eat my robot arm.
Reviewed on Windows.