Review – Ghostrunner

Jack be nimble, Jack be quick!

Overview

Developer One More Level, 3D Realms, Slipgate Ironworks
Publisher 505 Games, All in! Games
Genre Action, Adventure
Platforms PC (reviewed), PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S
Release Date October 27, 2020

Once upon a 2009 ago, a certain company that deals in the arts of the electronic kind blessed the gaming industry with Mirror’s Edge. Not since 1995 with Jumping Flash! on the PSX had I experienced the tingling feeling in my unmentionables while playing a video game for it dared to defy gravity with vulgar insolence. But with Mirror’s Edge, the main character is not a semi-invulnerable robot, but a human appropriately-named Faith, as she, too expresses a disregard for the laws of physics with mere flesh and bone. Notably, she showcases how freerunning, also known as parkour, can be terrifyingly fun in video game form. Franchises like 2003’s relaunch of Prince of Persia, Tomb Raider and Uncharted feature aspects of parkour, but they lack Faith’s sheer velocity as experienced in Mirror’s Edge. It is curious to me that few games have tried to replicate what Faith brought to the table (Coilworks tried with Super Cloudbuilt and are now disbanded). 

Thus, when Ghostrunner popped up on my Steam Discovery Queue, I could not help but to chuckle not only at how initially, its mechanics reminded me of Mirror’s Edge, but also its timing. A first-person cyberpunk game dares to tempt fate with a release date so terribly approximate to the Cyberpunk 2077? Bold, indeed! Though one would like to think that a whole basketball team starting lineup of developers and publishers—One More Level, 3D Realms, Slipgate Ironworks, 505 Games, and All in! Games—knew what they were doing. 

Content Guide

This is from the CGI intro, but this cut-in-half animation frequently happens in real-time too.

Violence: Bloodshed is undeniably the most prominent hallmark in Ghostrunner that gamers might find offensive. With a single swing of his sword, the Ghostrunner mutilates and maims his enemies in a single blow. Every enemy is scripted for decapitations and similar patterns of dismemberment. Blood floats in the air, sometimes temporarily staining the screen, but it never stays for long. 

No kill takes place sans flying body bits.

Language: Enemies do swear, though rarely. Usually this happens when they spot the Ghostrunner right before dying. Expect to hear the f-bomb at least once, along with s***t, G-d d**n, and the like. 

Positive Content: Ghostrunner elevates a hamfisted narrative concerning the importance of FREEDOM!

Review

ROLL CREDITS!

I had not realized how much I had missed CGI introduction sequences until Ghostrunner opened with one. While I cherish the fact that graphics have evolved to the point where developers animate setpieces utilizing real-time graphics, the nostalgia that extant CGI provides is apropos for the fusion of high tech and retro grime that the cyberpunk setting promises. CGI also eliminates the grainy video effect that I abhor for multiplatform releases such as this, an effect of compression that plays nice for console releases, but wreaks havoc on PCs. 

I love the Easter eggs in this game. Readers who do not recognize this iconic bike…”depart from me, all you workers of iniquity, for the LORD has heard my weeping.”

The introductory video also tells players all they need to know. The player-character Ghostrunner scales the colossal Dharma Tower, the last bastion of civilization, to assassinate Mara the Keymaster, a mad scientist with Doctor Octopus squid-like augments who is responsible for carrying out a coup against Adam, the Tower’s designer. With the press of a button, she deactivates the Ghostrunner (why she did not open with that, I do not know), literally disarms him, and discards him out of the window so he can descend to his doom. 

There will not be screenshots of enemies in this review because one GOTTA GO FAST at all times. I put together this sequence so our readers can get an idea of how the game moves in real-time (and to evaluate the L33T SK1LLZ of this critic).

But he does not die. Apparently, a resistance faction known as the Climbers (a nod to the Marxian power superstructure theory applied to the Tower, I would conjecture) rescues and reactivates the Ghostrunner, naming him “Jack” because he was “jacked-up” when they found him. As a Ghostrunner, Jack is an augmented being created for the purpose of…enforcing…Adam’s dictates. Upon reboot, Jack’s programming compels him to liberate an AI known as the Architect—yes I, too, immediately thought about The Matrix. This Architect tells Jack that the only way to liberate the Tower is to kill the Keymaster. Not much later, Jack responds to a distress call from a young woman named Zoe, the last of Climbers, who tags along via chat primarily to provide narrative background chatter and assist in developing Jack as a person rather than a thing. 

Scaling the tower will be a test in agility, indeed!

The base objective of the game is for Jack to ascend the Tower, but the Keymaster has unleashed her army of heavily-armed (cyber)punks to stop him. Unfortunately for them, Jack has brought a knife to a gunfight, which he wields prolifically to slice everything to pieces. However, Jack is a OHKO glass cannon, so he must use all of his skills to survive. Prominently, Jack can block single gunshots with his sword, wall-run, and perform a very short jaunt that the tutorial introduces as a jump extender, but I have determined that it is best used to activate a brief slow-motion mode called sensory boost; when activated, Jack can perform maneuvers such as changing directions while in mid-air, or expeditiously closing in on enemies like robot sentries who have massive AOE attacks with small cooldowns.

The Matrix-like programs where Jack “downloads upgrades” by navigating through the maze’s obstacles are designed with Japanese aesthetics in mind.

As Jack progresses, he will encounter more aggressive enemies with automatic weapons instead of single-shot pistols, foes who leap and strike right onto his position, bad guys with shields, and Ghostrunner facsimiles. To offset the escalating dangers, the Architect guides Jack through some Matrix-like virtual reality puzzle mazes to download upgrades to his software. These result in four different special attacks granted over the course of the game: blink, a dashing attack just like Genji’s in Overwatch; tempest, which functions like a Jedi’s forward force shockwave; surge, an anime-style crescent projectile fired from Jack’s sword; and overlord, allowing Jack to temporarily turn enemies against their allies.

This is my final passive skill configuration. Take note of all the other shapes in the box to the left. Having to choose from a relatively narrow selection compared to all that is available feels bad, man.

Along with these active skills, each node that Jack hacks into unlocks passive skills, too. Players will allocate these in a menu where skills take the form of shapes that will make world-class Tetris players cuss under their breath. With exceedingly finite space to use, players will have to decide which few passives to take. I favored the ability to ricochet gunshots back at enemies with my sword, the capacity to reduce the massive cooldowns for my active abilities, a radar that indicates where to find sword skins and collectible secrets, and as a consolation since no other shape would fit, an augmentation that highlights enemies so that they become more visible, a feature that strikes me as very useful for the colorblind or otherwise visually-impaired that should not be an unlockable, but a toggle in the options menu.

What is a ninja game without a shuriken? Too bad that most of the time when Jack can throw them, they are at wall targets to deactivate fans so he can pass, rather than at enemies.

Speaking of Genji, on occasion, players will encounter power-ups that I wish could be debugged into the game, or become accessible through a special mode or cheat code. (Remember cheat codes? What happened to those days?) Two types of super jumps allow Jack to circumvent and otherwise ignore using walls or rails to navigate the arena, leaping right into the face of enemies, or over obstacles to the objective. Another power-up activates hyper speed, reducing even the foes with automatic weapons to move at the speed of snails. My favorite, though, is the shuriken; in a reverse-Genji Dragonblade, Jack sheathes his sword to wield shurikens instead. No ninja game is complete without these projectiles! Yet, it is lamentable that I found this power-up more frequently to solve puzzles involving activating power nodes on walls than to kill enemies from a distance. 

I see the development teams are fans of the train fight from 2013’s The Wolverine. Yes, all of that motion blur indicates that I better jump over this barrier, and duck under that sign in the background or bite the dust.

Limitations on power-ups constitute only the beginning of Ghostrunner‘s flaws that constrain its moment-to-moment gameplay. Beginning with the CGI intro video that I praised earlier, I was never able to watch it in its entirety without hitching. How in the world is it possible to not get a video right?  Changing from Direct X 11 to 12 and back did not help, as I would later discover. I managed to play through about 90% of the game until its final few levels when it introduced a new enemy that crawls on all fours and explodes on contact with Jack. Virtually any time they spawned, the game would freeze, and I would die while waiting to regain control. I managed to circumvent this by pausing the game with the Esc key, then resuming. 

All in good fun, I absolutely smoked Joe. See what I did there? LJ posted a few scores of his own on the staff chat, too.

Hitching has no place in a game that is designed to run smoothly enough to simulate the kind of speed one should expect of a character who defies gravity by wall-running in perpetuity, especially because Ghostrunner is designed to cater toward gamers who love to speedrun. I am not a speedrunner, but some of the staff at Geeks Under Grace compared notes in a friendly competition due to the game tracking the number of deaths and time of completion so gamers can compare with their friends in real-time. The hitching cost me a few deaths that I did not deserve. 

Here is a great example of a sequence where I ate at least a half dozen deaths just not knowing what to do. It looks like I am supposed to grapple right into the death trap, but I am supposed to grapple and swing *AROUND* it to see the next grapple hook. How am I supposed to know this without experimenting with trial-and-error?

Though Ghostrunner feels like the kind of game designed to appeal to the perfectionist impulses of speedrunners, its pacing feels inconsistent for a regular player like myself. There are specific enemy encounter sequences within levels—like the ones featuring the shuriken power-up—that I would like to replay, but I am disinterested in executing the prerequisite platforming to revisit those areas. The frequency of trial and error for first-time players is considerable, as readers can see between the deaths of Joe and me. If Ghostrunner was fundamentally a puzzle/adventure game, I would regard it differently; in light of it presenting itself as an action game, the trial and error between both enemy encounters and also platforming sequences makes me feel at times less like the last of the cyber ninjas that Jack is supposed to be, and more like one out of an active army of hundreds of Ghostrunners where one finally prevails after dozens before it had failed. I am at least glad that the developers have partitioned checkpoints within levels so that players need not endure repeating long action or platforming segments. 

Yes, this cyberpunk atmosphere is what everyone came to see. Unfortunately, two-thirds of the game consists of navigating interior corridors instead of cityscapes like this. Even the developers knew what they were doing with this reveal, as Zoe chips in a comment. More of this, please and thanks.

I frequently write that I expect narrative-driven motivation in my video games to provide me with a purpose for completing the main objective beyond the mere fact that I am playing a game. Simply put, Ghostrunner’s story is cliché; rapacious scientist(s) believe that they have the answer to humanity’s problems, and said answer is their total control of humanity, to which humanity responds with cries of freedom. A champion rises to thwart this evil at the behest of one who appears benevolent before their ulterior motives come to light. If this were the 90’s or even the 2000’s, I might have simply shrugged, not expecting anything sensical in my action game. But this is 2020; games developed by one-man armies like Axiom Verge and Papers, Please exist. For a game with as many developers and publishers as Ghostrunner, I expect better. 

Do not adjust your devices! After this blurry boss introduction, the Architect and Zoe narrate how Jack has had cloaking technology all along, and that only a select few of the Keymaster’s forces can detect him. No. That is totally unearned, and lazy writing. Someone on the development teams was unable to properly program stealth, but the writing team retained that detail?

I am comfortable with saying that Ghostrunner is a title that is greater than the sum of its parts, and I believe that is what ultimately preserves it as a good game. After all, we—that is, the collective gaming industry—were promised some cyberpunk goodness in 2020 from another developer, but they stay trippin’. One More Level, 3D Realms, Slipgate Ironworks, 505 Games, and All in! Games releasing Ghostrunner is timely, yet this critic wonders if the game could have been better than what it is if there were fewer chefs in the kitchen.

Review copy generously provided by Stride PR.

 





The Bottom Line

Though flawed, Ghostrunner is a quality shout-out to fans of ninjas, speedrunning, and Mirror's Edge.

 

7.5

Maurice Pogue

Since picking up an NES controller in 1985 at the age of 2, Maurice and video games have been inseparable. While most children aspired to be lawyers, doctors, or engineers (at the behest of their parents), he aspired to write for publications such as EGM, PC Gamer, PC Accelerator, and Edge. After achieving ABD status in English at MSU, Maurice left academia and dedicated his writing to his lifelong passion. He is currently the Video Game Editor at Geeks Under Grace.

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