Cutting Deep With An Unpolished Blade
Ghostrunner, staying true to its speeedrun-centric gameplay style, spares no time letting you know what you’re up for.
Soon after your first kill, control is handed to you and an optional timer in the bottom right of the screen begins counting up – Below it, a counter with a skull icon that’ll most likely be ticking up as well real soon. If nothing else, one thing is clear – it’s time to follow the glowing arrow telling you where to go, and to follow it fast. It’s not long before you’re instructed to make your first wallrun, jumping towards a neon signboard and sprinting right across it as if you were on rails. While this signboard isn’t long enough to demonstrate it, there’s one key difference between the wallrunning in Ghostrunner and that of its parkour predecessors, most notably Titanfall 2 and Mirror’s Edge: There’s no limit to how far you can wallrun. In Ghostrunner, you gain a short boost in elevation upon starting a wallrun that you can never lose during it. This marks the start of Ghostrunner’s mechanical oversights, many of which are wallrun-related.
Past that signboard and another wallrun, you score your first actual kill on an unsuspecting enemy. With a click of a button, your katana glides across the screen and effortlessly cuts them in two, the resulting splatter of blood staining the screen itself. If you’re lucky, you might even automatically do a flourish with your sword right after. Either way, though, the kill has just the right amount of violence, impact and fluidity to bring a tear to even a robot ninja’s eye. The satisfaction of getting a kill is one that never loses its charm in Ghostrunner, feeling like a pure shot of dopamine every time your blade connects with supple human flesh. If you’re quick enough, you could have killed that enemy while performing an uninterrupted transition from one wallrun to another, bringing you into a slide down a vent and in front of a spinning fan. Of course, a mere fan is no challenge for a Ghostrunner – you’re introduced to the dash mechanic, granting yourself a short burst of speed to bring yourself right between two blades of certain death. This dash mechanic is built upon in the next section of the mission with the sensory boost mechanic, completing your introduction to the bread and butter of Ghostrunner. Sensory boost is activated by holding down the dash button, causing time to slow down and allowing you to manoeuvre left and right in order to dodge any incoming projectiles or navigate around obstacles for a limited time. Once this time is up or you decide to attack, the slow motion ends and you’re launched towards the direction you’re facing, allowing you to close gaps with objects or enemies.
With these three mechanics in hand – wallrunning, dashing and sensory boost – Ghostrunner gets the green light to throw you into your first actual combat situation. You’re presented with a choice between either a slide or wallrun to reach an area with three foes for you to dispatch as you see fit. While three may not sound like a lot considering how enemies die in one hit and you’re given quick mobility options, it’s best not to underestimate Ghostrunner’s difficulty even if you’ve had prior experience with fast-paced mobility-based games. After all, Ghostrunner never asked you to pick a difficulty setting, and the Souls games should’ve taught you all you need to know about what that means.
You’re going to learn a few things from this combat section, most likely the hard way. Firstly, enemies fire at you with pinpoint accuracy, and at regular intervals. If at any time you decide to stand still, you’re going to be greeted with a death screen, and that death counter in the bottom right corner of the HUD is going to go up by one. If it does, you’re going to learn the second thing – respawns in the game are lightning quick. You’re almost instantly dropped right back to your last checkpoint after you die, another thing the game gets right. The last thing you might learn is that you can deflect projectiles towards where you’re aiming by hitting a projectile close to you at just the right time, allowing you to avoid damage while eliminating your attacker at range. This is no easy feat, though, with projectiles travelling extremely fast making the deflect timing very tight.
After going through a second area with even more enemies and traversal options for reaching them, you’re dropped into level 2, featuring yet another mechanic, the Gap Jammer. This is your grappling hook, allowing you to latch onto hooks with right click and swing yourself across gaps or towards a wallrun. Pretty straight forward. You go through a couple more enemy-filled areas before you’re introduced to a computer terminal, granting you access to the SCP Grid that lets you equip upgrades that take the form of Tetris blocks. The SCP Grid has limited space for these blocks however, forcing you to decide between what upgrades are most important for you to bring considering the shape of the blocks and how much space you have on your grid. Among the first upgrades you’ll get are two four-block upgrades, one highlighting collectibles on your minimap and the other highlighting enemies with a bright red outline. I felt that these were excellent choices to include as introductory low-capacity upgrades, as they have a great benefit on your first run through the game in finding collectibles and learning enemy positions whilst being safely discarded once you’ve got more experience with the game.
The terminal also grants you access to the codex, where your collectibles are displayed (I’ll get to these later) and the armory, where you can change the appearance of your katana. The armory is one of my favourite parts of the game – while you’ll only have access to a couple of katanas at the start depending on the platform you’re playing the game on and whether you pre-ordered the game, you’ll be able to collect more designs as collectibles throughout the game as you progress, and they’re all absolutely stunning.
At the end of this level, however, you meet “The Architect”, a character who’s been and will be in your head feeding you exposition. He puts you into your first encounter with the Cybervoid, a digital landscape within the game and by far the game’s weakest point. In the Cybervoid, you’re unable to use your dash or sensory boost, leaving you ever so slightly handicapped in regards to mobility. The game seems to encourage you to take things slower in order to take in the exposition that this first Cybervoid section is dedicated to. This becomes clear once you reach a section with moving platforms that are painfully slow, with no way to use your movement skills to skip past them instead of waiting for them. You’re told about a lady named Mara, the ‘Keymaster’, who appears to be the antagonist of the story. The architect instructs you to scale The Tower, the towering megastructure that Ghostrunner is set in, in order to reach her at the top and end her reign once and for all. With that, you jump off the edge of the Cybervoid and back into reality, ending level 2.
As levels 1 and 2 are the only levels available in the demo of the game, I will not be going into detail about the later chapters due to spoiler reasons. Hopefully you’ve got a good sense of what type of game Ghostrunner is by now, because it only builds upon that as it progresses.
As expected, the “runner” part of Ghostrunner features heavily, with platforming sections making up the bulk of its levels – And I’ve got to admit, I savoured them every wallrun of the way. This is largely due to the incredible level design of the game; what I feel is by far its strongest point. A couple of levels in and it becomes clear that the level design in Ghostrunner is treated with love. Sure, assets are reused for intractable parkour objects such as wallrun surfaces and grappling hook points, but that’s not a big deal considering how well optimized the game is and the stupid amount of effort that would be required to make every one of those objects unique. It’s likely that you won’t be anywhere close to getting tired of seeing them, too, in part due to how well they fit into the stunning backdrops and settings and in part due to just how fun the platforming is.
It’s no surprise that Ghostrunner looks great – The visuals were a large part of the hype surrounding it. I suppose gamers just can’t resist a cyberpunk aesthetic especially considering some current events, with the RTX and DLSS support that Ghostrunner has simply being icing on the cake. But graphical fidelity alone doesn’t carry Ghostrunner to the remarkable level of visual beauty that it’s achieved – As said before, this is a game whose environments have been crafted with love. Not a single one of the sections in any of Ghostrunner’s 17 levels is a repeat of one that precedes it – Every platforming section, every combat section, every Cybervoid section – They’re all unique. Being a single player experience, this gives playing through Ghostrunner a degree of freshness that I’d only ever expect out of puzzle games such as Portal or The Witness; A degree of freshness that’s ever so welcome. This is achieved through the handcrafting of every area and their backdrops. In the earlier levels you’ll find yourself indoors, sliding through air vents and under industrial pipes whilst surrounded by a slum dotted with neon lighting. But soon you make your way out of this slum known as the Base District and into the better developed Dharma City, with the economic jump being clearly reflected with far more polished high-rise buildings in the backdrop whilst you go from wallrunning across scuffed concrete walls to advertisement-laden neon signages while riding on rails reminiscent of the skyhooks from BioShock Infinite. In fact, I can’t help but feel that developer One More Level took notes from BioShock Infinite for its sky rails, with both games delivering that breathtaking sense of scale as you peer into the horizon with the wind against your face.
Past appearances, the platforming is spiced up gameplay-wise with timed buffs and hackable objects that help you traverse otherwise inaccessible locations. There are three types of these buffs, placed in static locations throughout levels: Slow-mo, Shuriken, and Jump. The Slow-mo buff slows down time tremendously whilst still allowing you to move at full speed, making way for feats such as weaving between fan blades. The Shuriken buff allows you to throw out Shurikens, able to activate power panels that help you through an area. The Jump buff makes your next jump send you absolutely flying, sending you straight to high areas. My favourite part about these buffs is that not only do they encourage the player to think critically with the limited time they have, but that every single one of them has a combat application as well. Slow-mo can let you cut down a ridiculous number of enemies before they can even turn their heads to acknowledge your presence, Shuriken allows you to kill enemies freely from range and Jump can let you get the drop on an enemy that doesn’t realise you’re below them. With these buffs being timed, these combat applications would only be useful if the section they’re in permits for their usage as such, but One More Level has very cleverly made special note to ensure that you’re given ample opportunities to play around with them in combat. An example that comes to mind would be one of the later levels where a Slow-mo buff is hidden in an elevated area, where reaching it would allow you to conveniently deal with the tedious enemies on the ground level. This buff isn’t explicitly shown or necessary in any way to complete the section, but it’s there. Apart from timed buffs there also exist hackable objects such as billboards you can rotate or wheels you can stop at will, adding another layer of puzzle and timing to otherwise bland platforming sections.
If you’re creative with your use of these buffs and hackable objects, you might even be able to use them to access some secret collectibles, of which Ghostrunner has 56 spread across its 17 levels. These collectibles are split into three categories: Swords, Artifacts and Audio Logs. Swords are simply skins for your katana, Artifacts are objects with lore tied to them, and Audio Logs are playable audio tracks with lore attached. While I have no qualms with the collectibles themselves, with the swords looking splendid and the artifacts and audio logs providing a satisfying feeding of lore, I do have an issue with how simple the collectibles are to find. As I’d mentioned before, there’s an upgrade that highlights collectibles on your minimap. Coupled with the collectibles present in a level being displayed on the level select screen, it’s rather convenient to hunt for collectibles. The issue is that the collectibles aren’t hidden well at all – all but one of them are guaranteed to show up on your minimap as you traverse through the levels normally, and getting to them isn’t particularly hard either as the routes to find them are shockingly obvious. Searching for collectibles was too easy – It felt less like a search and more of a list of chores, with there being little to no satisfaction upon collecting one.
The Artifacts and Audio Logs do build upon Ghostrunner’s story rather well though, with the artifacts providing some insight into what life in The Tower is like while the Audio Logs reveal more about the Ghostrunner’s past. The lore definitely goes far deeper than I’d expect for a game that opens with what appears to be the completely unprovoked murder of a man just standing around.
Ghostrunner’s plot revolves around the conflict between the people of The Tower and the authority that governs them as well as the conflict between the Ghostrunner and The Architect regarding the truth of the Ghostrunner’s past. While the story is a tad bit predictable and on-the-nose with its themes of anti-authoritarianism and transhumanism, I believe it’s satisfactory since anybody who buys this game for the story is out of their mind. Since the story is told to you through radio communications as a deliberate design choice to not detract too much from the gameplay, its comfortable pacing and satisfying conclusion are a nice companion to have as you zip around julienning enemies, of which there are many.
With combat sections going hand-in-hand with platforming sections, Ghostrunner naturally has some features to make them more interesting as well, namely different enemy types and special abilities.
There aren’t too many different enemy types, but each one changes the way you approach a combat scenario in their own unique way and are equally deadly – a constant in Ghostrunner. Enemies become more and more advanced as you progress through the game, ranging from basic single-shot enemies to flying drones and mechs that fire unblockable energy waves. I quite appreciated the attention to detail with making the enemies more advanced – It shows that One More Level really did care about the financial discrepancy motif that’s oh so integral to a true cyberpunk theme.
Enemies are encountered in dedicated arena-like areas, many at times with a door that only unlocks when all the enemies in the area are killed. The enemy placements in these arenas are the same every time, allowing for speedrunning of the game with both reliable enemy attack patterns and placements. Going through an arena for the first time feels much like playing through a level of SUPERHOT, but Ghostrunner’s fast pacing makes it feel more like RUINER while making SUPERHOT seem like a turn-based puzzle game. That’s not where the similarities to RUINER end, though. Both games are absolutely brutal in difficulty when you’re not used to them and provide you with an arsenal of modifiable special abilities on cooldowns.
In Ghostrunner, you’re given four different special abilities: Blink, Tempest, Surge and Overlord. Blink is a short range lock-on teleport that allows you to cut through multiple enemies at once, Tempest is an air blast that sends enemies ragdolling and deflects projectiles, Surge is a long-range energy wave you send out with your katana and Overlord allows you turn an enemy to your side for a limited period of time (just like in RUINER). Activating an ability gives you a short period of sensory boost in order to aim it in sticky situations, but I found that this could sometimes get you killed as you’re unable to strafe from side to side as you would in a normal sensory boost. Each ability is unlocked through a specific Cybervoid tutorial for it, and are fairly unique. I for one definitely got my fair share of fun playing around with each special ability, figuring out which ones worked better for what particular situations. Abilities require focus, a passively regenerating energy resource, to use. There are SCP Grid upgrades that modify both focus gain as well as the individual abilities themselves, for example, granting focus on kills or refunding the cost of Tempest if you kill two or more enemies with a single cast of it.
With specific level layouts, it’s inevitable that certain abilities are put to completely better use than others in particular sections. I found this a tad bit disappointing as it discourages experimentation after you realise that a certain special ability is simply just the best option to go through a particular section. Luckily, this doesn’t occur too much due to the level design of the combat arenas. Platforming and combat are seamlessly married in Ghostrunner – other than the alternative pathways provided when entering a combat section, platforming elements also allow you to more creatively make use of your abilities, such as using a wallrun in order to get a vantage point that allows you to line up multiple enemies for a Surge.
The inverse is also true, with combat enabling platforming. This is no more apparent than in the boss fights of the game. While the first boss is almost exclusively a test of your platforming skills, the second is more combat-focused, requiring mastery of deflects. Between each combat phase, though, you’re forced to think quick about how to traverse the different platforming routes across the arena. Needless to say, the bosses absolutely kicked my ass when I first encountered them, but the satisfaction I felt upon dealing the final blows made my countless deaths worth it as I heaved sighs of relief watching the beautifully animated cutscenes play out. Besides, dying in Ghostrunner is par for the course – as if it were a PLAYDEAD title, One More Level surely intended for players to die on their first runs of the game in order to figure things out and improve on their subsequent ones. Checkpoints are plentiful and timely placed and respawns are quick, lessening the irritation from repeatedly dying to the same sections in levels. Thankfully, Ghostrunner ensures to its best ability that its frustration is justified – You’ve probably heard this countless times before, but for the most part when you die in Ghostrunner you know it’s your fault and you simply get more pumped up to finally beat the level. Even though it’d be an understatement saying that it took me a couple of tries, when I finally managed to beat the first boss with no deaths I truly did feel really accomplished.
But that’s when everything goes right in Ghostrunner, which I’m afraid to say isn’t confirmed throughout your playthrough. Ghostrunner has its flaws both mechanically and in terms of design, and with the reflex-orientated and challenging design of the game, these flaws can become infuriating.
To start off, wallrun detection and wallrunning have their kinks that have to be worked out. Sometimes, the game just doesn’t detect that you’re going for a wallrun and refuses to stick you to the wall, causing you to fall to your death. This also occurs as a counterintuitive design choice – while bunnyhopping (sliding and jumping in rapid succession to build speed) is an intended mechanic with a specific animation and sound cue, it’s almost impossible to start a wallrun right from a bunnyhop, utterly devastating your tempo with a fall to your death. Wallruns can also behave weirdly – Jumping off a wallrun before you reach the end of the wall gives you a large boost in distance that isn’t present if you simply reach the end of the wall, but this isn’t accounted for very well in certain areas where the walls are short and make the jump timing far too tight. Wallruns are also VERY easily abusable with sensory boost, as sensory boosting off a wallrun and back onto the surface can allow you to go into a wallrun again. Keep repeating the process and you can easily scale a multitude of surfaces that really shouldn’t be scalable – You can even abuse the boost in height whenever you start a wallrun to vertically scale surfaces.
In terms of design, Ghostrunner surprisingly drops the ball completely in some aspects considering how much attention to detail is paid to others. Most notable of these design issues are the Cybervoid sections and cinematics included in certain levels. Cybervoid sections are extremely slow paced and can even revolve solely around puzzle solving instead of platforming – However, they aren’t separate to the levels that they’re included in. This means that you could blitz through a level cutting up enemies only to reach its Cybervoid section and have to start hitting buttons to solve a puzzle. It really does baffle me why, in a game that advertises itself to speedrunners, that the simple change wasn’t made to make all Cybervoid sections separate levels. Even the Cybervoid tutorials aren’t made separate, forcing you to have to “learn” how to use a special ability all over again when you replay the level that you unlocked it in. In the same vein, the cinematics for levels aren’t skippable. This becomes rather frustrating when replaying the game to get lower death counts or faster timings, as you’re forced to sit through the cinematics every single time you wish to have another go.
The bottom line
In the grand scheme of things, Ghostrunner is still undoubtedly fun despite these flaws. It took me about 13 hours to get all the achievements for the game and go through a handful of levels, including all the bosses, deathless. However, I must warn that looks are deceiving – Ghostrunner may look appealing with its neon façade, but much like The Tower, it only serves to hide a gritty and brutal experience within. Ghostrunner is a challenging game, and I don’t say that lightly. While it’ll definitely find a place with the large group of players nowadays seeking a challenge, it’s certainly more targeted towards those who are willing to put in the more insane hours and practice required to reach inhumanly fast speeds in clearing its levels. At its core, Ghostrunner is a game designed for speedrunning, and almost all its replayability hinges on that. Don’t be too intimidated, though – the game isn’t too difficult at all with its frequent checkpoints, and I was able to complete it in an expected timing of 6 hours despite PC launch issues with mouse clicks not registering. I’d say its difficulty is comparable to that of RUINER on normal difficulty, with the same fast reflexes being required for both titles. Overall, Ghostrunner is for me one of the most enjoyable titles to have released this year, but I simply can’t recommend it with its asking price of $40 for those who aren’t fully invested into mastering its fast movement and speedrunning element. Let’s just say that Ghostrunner is a game that looks for its own audience. For those who’ll make full use of the game, I’m sure that it’ll find its way into their hands naturally.
Ghostrunner can be purchased on Steam.