Ghostrunner is a game of two halves: Noise, chaos, movement; and sudden and complete ephemeral silence.
As the titular Ghostrunner, you are–in essence–a cyberpunk ninja. A force of nature whose eyes you see through as you run, dash, jump, and wall-run your way through a dystopian mega-tower housing the remnants of society after a cataclysmic event.
You move as a superhuman would. Your speed, agility, and spatial awareness are second to none. They need to be good, because your journey is peppered with enemy soldiers tasked with bringing you down. They have guns, you have a sword. They fall with one slash of your blade, but you die if one bullet touches you.
Ghostrunner has a story. It’s a fairly rudimentary, if well-delivered, one. The story is not what’s important in Ghostrunner, though. That’s just there to provide the canvas for the glorious work of movement and violence that you paint upon it.
I’m a big fan of games with laser-like focus. I like the sprawling epics replete with endless options as much as anyone else, but there’s something really special about a game that knows it has a good idea, and delivers it with the minimal amount of bloat and maximal amount of devotion.
Polish development studio One More Level knows exactly what it wants to do in Ghostrunner. It wants to make you feel like a living weapon, like death incarnate, and it wants to make that as cool as possible. The game is focused on bringing this feeling to life. Everything about its design is geared towards this goal. The dark, neon-drenched cyberpunk setting with the pulsing techno soundtrack. The heft of your character as he bounds from one wall run to another and bullets whizz past him. The way the action slows down for just a second after you kill the last enemy in a particular area.
In a nutshell, that’s what the game play loop of Ghostrunner is all about: You traverse for a while, and then you end up in an area with some enemies in it, and you engage. You have a selection of skills that you gradually unlock to make both of these tasks more fun and more cool: A mid-air dash, a grappling hook, a short ‘bullet time’-esque move that lets you slow time for a second while you choose a direction in which to dash.
In most games, the two modes of play are quite disjointed. Traversal is traversal. Combat is combat. You explore, and then you fight. In Ghostrunner there is a beautiful synthesis–and another example of the game’s focus–at play: Movement is combat. The skills you use to move around are the very same you use to deal death. When you enter an enemy-filled arena, you are on a ticking clock. Either you move quickly, or you are dead. The bullets from your enemies’ guns fly directly at you from great distances. Your job is to close that distance, and to neutralise the threat. Each traversal section hones the survival skills you will use in these encounters. And, because the only way you can kill your enemies is at close range, it also hones your killing skills. To deal death once you get up close is easy: A button press swings your blade, and it cleaves right through your foe. To get within swinging distance without taking a bullet, that’s the challenge.
This is an incredibly simple game play loop, and it is reminiscent of Katana Zero—Ghostrunner spiritual 2D twin of sorts (except in Ghostrunner, the centrality of movement is emphasised even more as there is rarely time to stop and think). It’s also powerfully satisfying. Developers One More Level have done three things very well here that feed into this. Firstly, the restart following your death is pretty much instant. This is super important because you will die in Ghostrunner. A lot. Secondly, the ratio of traversal and enemy encounters is just right. Thirdly, the scaling of the challenge is taken right out of the playbook of the Nintendo school of game design. You start out defeating one simple enemy on an easy to reach platform. This is just the right level of demanding for someone learning how to play. You are still getting used to the controls. Then, after maybe two or three tries, the enemy lies at your feet in two, the action slowing down for a second in that oh-so-satisfying way. And then you’re off.
Before you know it, you are in the zone. You arrive in a new area and your vision blurs as zip-like lightning, leaping off platforms and bounding between walls, grappling to a higher spot to reassess the geography, in a split second planning your route from one enemy to the next and then moving off like a blur before the bullets arrive at your location. In that split second you saw more than in some five minute spans. One enemy has a shield, so a frontal assault would be fruitless. But you spotted a raised area above him. If you could get up there you could leap over and behind him and that would be that. But the raised area also has an enemy on it. And it’s in easy sight of another enemy below that. They will have to go first. Shield man will have to be last.
And so you go.
Run, leap, twist, turn–dead.
Run, twist, leap, run–dead.
Jump, run, slide, turn–dead.
Run, leap, dash, turn–there! The first is down. But no time to rest, you have to keep mov–dead.
The loop becomes almost trance-like. Like the best games that demand you practice until you are perfect, Ghostrunner never makes this feel like a chore. You simply feel compelled to go again and again, and again, until…
Time slows for a second and then suddenly the stillness. You look down and on the blood-spattered ground lies a shield. You look back and see the trail you left in your wake, the sense of accomplishment swelling in your chest and a smile spreading on your face as your whirlwind of violence has finally accomplished what you sought.
But there’s no time to wait. The celebration must be quick. You breathe out and that’s it: You’re on the move again. Because to be still is to be dead.
Ghostrunner is not a huge game. Nor does it want to be. It’s a lean, focused experience that knows exactly what it wants to deliver and delivers it with elegant violence and a tonne of fun.
Want more gaming from Plex?