With the bluster of another polish-developed Cyberpunk title stealing the headlines in 2020, you’d be forgiven for overlooking hardcore FPP title Ghostrunner, where, as a freerunning katana-wielding ninja robot, you attempt to slash through your enemies faster than they can shoot you in a one-hit, one-kill adrenaline-pumping slashathon.
Despite being similar in origin and appearance, Ghostrunner could be said to be the antithesis of Cyberpunk 2077, whose focus on a pure gameplay experience contrasts with that of one promising the world, and it comes out all the better for it. This may have been dictated by indie developer One More Level’s budget rather than their ambition, whose studio is so small they needed co-developers to help them with the project, but the end result is a masterclass of a singular focus producing highly addictive and stylish gameplay.
The story places you in control of the Ghostrunner as you wake up in a futuristic world with a sword in your hand and a voice in your head telling you that you are being chased. The voice is the Architect of the Dharma Tower, a huge monolith of a building made as a safe haven for humanity in preparation for a cataclysmic event that would destroy the world. In the following years, those in control became tyrants, oppressing the tower’s citizens and threatening humankind once again. Initially created as a tool for peace, it’s your job to defeat the oppressor, key master Mara, and allow humankind to flourish once again.
Armed with your katana and a slow-motion ability that allows you to dodge bullets and extend your jumps, you use the environment around you to kill everything that moves. Grapple hook devices, ziplines and wall-running become your best friend as you search for the best location to launch off, slow-motion around your foe, and slice them in half to quite literally hand their ass to them, or alternatively, chop their head off and watch it roll past you as you paint the neon-lights red.
With excellently designed environments built to facilitate the best possible string of moves, the game dangles success in your face before unceremoniously ripping it from your grasp by introducing new challenges and different elements in each new area that require you to adjust your approach. As split-seconds are the margin of error afforded to you, learning how to attack a room from scratch results in more than a few missteps that cost you your life.
This is what makes managing to pull off a succession of perfectly timed moves so immensely satisfying to the point where you’ll consider intentionally dying just to repeat certain sections. The first area that introduces the time-restricted but unlimited ninja star power-up was one such moment of badassery, where wall-running across the length of a room and killing the entire populace with ninja stars before your feet hit the floor is so amazing that I recorded it and died numerous times just to experience it again.
Death occurs as often as you draw breath as the game wants perfection, or beautiful chaos, to motivate your progression. Amusingly your character is referred to as being ‘special’ but in reality is about as robust as a wet paper towel, dying with every single attack.
‘Harsh but fair’ is often used to describe hardcore games without a difficulty setting, with enemies so difficult that only a very specific set of actions can be used, learned by dying over and over, but this can’t be said for Ghostrunner. In fact, it’s near on impossible to say that the AI is playing fair as enemies track your movements through obstacles and will commence firing as soon as you are in their line of sight.
Rather than these overpowered enemies being a negative, it forces you to use your abilities and the map, which provides numerous potential strategies, wisely. The generous autosave feature within each stage also helps ease your pain, meaning that you can focus on the area in front of you instead of worrying about clearing the entire stage from the start.
I died on 2,289 occasions during my 10-hour playthrough, which embarrassingly works out to giving up the ghost about once every 15 seconds – I grant you permission to laugh – but with no loading time between you and your next attempt and the promise of more satisfying slicing and dicing ahead of you, there’s little opportunity for frustration to build.
A nice addition to the action is the introduction of long-range abilities and existing ability upgrades that add further variety to your attacks as you progress. The upgrades use a small Tetris-like puzzle that forces you to choose from a selection of those upgrades, making you consider the best options to use in certain situations. Adding extra dashes to your repertoire for dodging and jumping is certainly as astute choice, but my favorite gives you the ability to deflect enemy projectiles back at them with your sword, requiring perfectly timed strikes. It’s like playing ninja tennis and makes you feel even more like a badass when you string more than a few together.
Ziplines and vertical platforms act as your path to the next area, but with nothing but a gaping chasm to break your fall, the leaps and dashes have very little room for error. The first-person view that puts you at the center of the action, works great for swordplay, but when it comes to leaping between vertical platforms, not being in third person makes your learning curve a little steeper as you’re never 100% sure of the exact moment of contact and where your movements will end you up.
With its arcade-like replayability that can be counted in speed runs and fewest deaths, gameplay is king here. The remaining elements are therefore less important in the grand scheme of things, but even so, deficiencies with the narrative and gameplay variation do exist.
The story, unfolding through conversations overlayed on top of the action, infuses a sense of mystery but is given little opportunity to shine over the game’s short runtime. This is also the extent of the title’s world-building with no cutscenes, and 2 non-enemy NPCs representing the only interactivity outside of the action and some unnecessary tempo-slowing puzzles.
With the release of some post-release game patches, issues that existed with the PS4 version have now been fixed, with the unreal 4 engine providing wonderfully desolate and futuristic visuals and running at an impressive and buttery smooth 60 fps (bar a few enemy heavy sections).
With the requirement of clearing each room of enemies in order to progress up the tower, plus its dark atmosphere and breakneck action, Ghostrunner has some Doom vibes about it. While its inclusion may have contrasted too greatly with its theme, one aspect I wish Ghostrunner further borrowed from the popular FPS, is its heavy metal soundtrack as Ghostrunner‘s 80s synth audio feels like one looped track from the menu to the end credits. Concentrating is hardly made easier with it playing in the background, so I turned it off entirely and only checked in occasionally to see if it ever improved, which unfortunately, it didn’t.
Ghostrunner is an unexpected triumph, whose highly addictive gameplay boasts some of the most satisfying moments I’ve ever experienced in video games. Outside of the highlight reel action, there are some underdeveloped or unnecessary inclusions, but other than the difficulty potentially scaring off some fans, there’s almost no reason not to give Ghostrunner a try – it’s a cut above the rest.