2020’s brutal first-person ninja slasher Ghostrunner was a revelation for me. Never have I quite experienced the simultaneous high of adrenaline, dread and accomplishment than as the cybernetic ninja that takes on the oppressive establishment controlling Dharma Tower.
Wall running and leaping over an enemy, dodging attacks in slow motion and then slicing them in two – every frenetic scene felt like you were a cameraman capturing ground-breaking shots in an epic action movie – and to date, it is pound-for-pound the most satisfying and purest gameplay experiences I’ve ever had.
What makes it so unique is its intense – but fair – difficulty. You may have heard that one before with the FromSoftware games, but what differs here is that instead of constantly having the rug pulled out from under you, instead of feeling like the game is cheating, the game makes dying as smooth and comfortable an experience as possible. Every strike is a one-hit death, but the linear levels are divided into bitesize sections, so you can immediately have a 2nd shot at it, and a 3rd and a 4th and a 5th.
So easy is it to continue playing that despite the fact that I died on 2,289 occasions during my 10-hour playthrough, I never felt like rage-quitting, in fact, I’d say the opposite was true, it’s almost too difficult to put down.
With that in mind, when I heard that Ghostrunner was getting some story DLC I knew that I needed to get my hands on it.
‘Project_Hel’ is a prequel chapter to the main game racking up the death count through the eyes of a different character – Hel. There are some new enemies and platforming elements, but it’s a safe addition to the overall Ghostrunner universe, one that expands on a plot point that’s briefly alluded to in the main game – a resistance force slaughtered by one of the bosses – who just happens to be you, before all the slaughtering.
Fighting on the enemy’s side is a fun change of pace and has you suppressing the rebellion in similar environs, even covering some of the same ground from the first level of the main game as you follow in the footsteps of the Ghostrunner back in the past before he does it – you know what I mean.
The DLC’s story itself is not particularly in-depth but it has its moments, adding nice details to the backgrounds of some of the main players in the game’s world. It wasn’t as expansive or as visualized as I would have liked – with the story explained over a communication channel overlayed on top of the action – but this is true of the main game as well, with Ghostrunner‘s 2-min opening cinematic still representing more visual world-building than the game and DLC put together.
In terms of the gameplay, the developers have tried to introduce new mechanics but haven’t quite committed to changing the game’s structure to suit its needs. This, when combined with the very few abilities and underwhelming maps, feels like a different instrument trying to play the same song, unable to hit all the right notes at the right times.
The biggest difference in characters is Hel’s super-powered jumping ability, which allows you to cover much larger distances with huge flee-like jumps in the game’s bigger levels, and packs them with a higher concentration of both old and new enemies. These new enemies are all mobile, adding a welcome degree of randomness to enemy attacks and giving you less time to think on your feet, but are also often twice the distance away, forcing you to double jump.
It is often said that life is about the journey, not the destination, well this one feels like you never reach your destination as you are perpetually halfway through an overexaggerated jump.
Also, I say ‘welcome’, but there was a room where I died nearly 200 times due to the sheer volume of bad guys and their evil positioning. Funnily enough, I didn’t even beat that room myself, and it took an overly eager respawn point change to accidentally transport me to the next room in order for me to progress – or perhaps the game was taking pity on me.
In terms of upgradable abilities and items, most have gone – with no more ninja stars *weep* – and are replaced by a basic ‘rage meter’ which tops up when you defeat an enemy. This meter affords you a one-hit shield or the ability to attack with a long-distance slash move (returning from the main game) as long as you have enough ‘rage’, but it starts decreasing right away, encouraging you to keep up your assault.
Even with this multi-layered addition though, Hel is limited to basically two moves and a jump throughout the 5-hour playthrough, making you acutely aware of how lacking it is in close-quarter fights, which is really where this game should always excel – you are a sword-wielding ninja after all.
In the main game, a poorer jumping ability necessitated smaller spaces, but they were creatively designed for your fast wall run and your quick descents, allowing for poetry in motion when you pulled off kills. In comparison, Hel’s mechanics seem to encourage erratic and evasive jumping and the open environments make wall-running less viable, forcing slower direct approaches, which in my mind, abandons the perfect formula – at least in room-to-room combat.
Conversely, it does actually mean that Hel’s abilities are better suited to the game’s boss fights and make the 2 included in the DLC the most enjoyable parts of the game, but I wish the developers would have committed to its landing, either sticking with the same formula as the game or going all out and focusing solely on large boss battles. Instead, we are stuck with content that tentatively jumps off an edge only to abandon its jump halfway.
How much you enjoy the Ghostrunner’s ‘Project_Hel’ will likely depend on how much you are craving extra content, as the DLC is not only shorter – taking me 5 hours to complete – but it also feels inferior to the main game in most aspects. I did appreciate the ability to experience a world-expanding chapter with good characters and decent bosses, but with Hel’s abilities less than fulfilling to wield, I wouldn’t even be able to recommend this over the free extra content released prior to this DLC (the excellent ‘Wave Mode’ and ‘Kill Run’ modes).