With Cyberpunk 2077 having been delayed for the *checks the calendar* 124th time, there’s a bit of a gap in the market for some grungy sci-fi. Enter Ghostrunner, a first-person game that describes itself as a “hardcore FPP slasher.” I’d describe it as the bastard baby of Mirror’s Edge and Dishonored. It’s fast, frenetic, and frequently exhilarating. It’s the kind of game that can make you clutch your mouse like it owes you money.
You’re the titular Ghostrunner, a cybernetic ninja wielding a deadly sword capable of slicing through foes in a single stroke and the power of badass parkour. You awake in a cyberpunk world where some disaster known as The Burst has wrecked humanity, the only survivors now huddled up in a colossal tower known as Dharma. With an A.I. called the Architect in your head, a resistance member called Zoe in your ear and a supposed tyrant running the place it’s up to you to work your way up the tower and kill the bad guy. And everybody else in your way.
The story of Ghostrunner is fairly typical cyberpunk fare with a twist you’ll see coming a mile off. In short, it’s forgettable. It doesn’t help that you’ll almost never meet another character, instead all the dialogue takes place via radios and in your mind which isn’t very compelling. With that said, Ghostrunner is all about moving fast and keeping up your momentum, so this method of delivering the story does keep the game constantly moving forward.
As fast and fluid as the Ghostrunner is, he’s also incredibly fragile. Like the enemies you slice and dice, it takes just one hit to send you back to the last checkpoint. That makes Ghostrunner an unforgiving game at times. It’s not unusual to just die and not even know exactly who killed you. Worse still, you’re going to fail without even feeling like you did anything wrong or knowing how to fix it. There’s a lot of trial and error involved in making it through the levels, along with split-second decision making and quick reflexes. It’s a game of immense frustration, albeit mitigated by fast loading times and well-placed checkpoints, and of soaring elation. All those annoyances and the dozens of deaths it took to finally nail the bad guys wash away, leaving that lovely endorphin rush us game junkies love so much.
To the game’s credit, it understands that dying repeatedly can be traumatic, even if it is part of the core design, and so it does a few things to alleviate the issue. First, respawning is damn-near instantaneous, so you’re back in the action without an awkward loading screen that lets you wallow in self-pity and rage. Second, if you die during one of the many conversations in your head, the dialogue will continue to play where it left off when you respawn.
Your core moves are a jump, wallrun, slide and grappling hook, and with those basic things alone Ghostrunner is already slicker than a banana peel in Mario Kart. But there’s another neat trick that every good sword-wielding cybernetic-ninja can employ: dash. Okay, so that isn’t very impressive, but get this: if you hold down dash in mid-air you get a few seconds of slow-motion and can strafe left and right, letting you avoid projectiles and circle around shielded foes. It’s also handy during the frantic parkour sequences, giving you a brief chance to catch your breath or quickly course correct a bad leap. In a game about momentum and speed, the change to slow-motion is a little jarring at first, but it quickly becomes the most valuable tool you have.
Attempting to explain Ghostrunner’s movement is tricky. It all starts off innocent enough with a wallrun or two here or maybe a slide to jump to wallrun. Before long though, things are a lot more complicated and frantic. The longer parkour intensive sequences are where most of the story and exposition get delivered, but it’s actually hard to take it all in when you’re focusing on your timing, anticipating what’s coming next and reacting fast enough. If you can keep going without stopping you gain more speed, turning you into as fast-moving blur of death, but still a fragile one. A single mistake is all it takes, and it’s easy to make that mistake. Occasionally the game will make the mistake for you thanks to a wallrun not activated properly or something like that. It doesn’t happen often enough to ruin the game, but when it does occur you’ll probably have to suck in all that rage and bottle it up until you become an old, bitter alchaholic. So, like, next week-ish.
When it comes to employing your blade and fancy footwork in combat, things are a tad different. The areas in which you fight aren’t big and vast by any stretch, but you do get a little more freedom in how you approach and move around versus the more directed parkour sections. I think the level design is a little weak in the sense that it feels more like a playpark with specific routes through it rather than a true sandbox where you can really let loose. However, that doesn’t stop it being fun to flow through a fight without stopping, slicing up enemies as you go. And speaking of which, Ghostrunner does a good job of adding in new enemy types that require different tactics to annihilate. It’s starts with simple goons who fire off a shot, but before long there’s guys with machine guns, ninjas whose charge must be parried and robots that unleash a wall of energy. Really, fights are puzzles. Fast-paced, jumpy-jumpy, slicey-dicey puzzles. With a cyber ninja.
You do get your metal hands on some extra powers, specifically four of ’em. There’s Blink, which lets you slice through multiple foes in a line while also ignoring projectiles. For something a little Jedi-ish there’s Tempest, a surge of energy that blasts out of your hand. The other two I won’t chat about, but suffice to say they all add a little extra zest to gameplay, and their use is controlled by a meter that builds up slowly or by killing enemies. The system is nicely balanced so that you can’t just spam abilities (although hiding like a pussy until they recharge is doable) and so their usage feels important.
Talking about special abilities brings me to the oddest part of Ghostrunner. You see, as you battle up the tower level by level and die a billion times you’ll acquire special chips that you can slot into your brain. These will do a bunch of things like make dash recharge quicker or make Tempest strike a wider area. While you can’t drastically alter how you’ll play Ghostrunner, there’s a bit of room for tweaking your style. Weirdly though, the inside of the Ghostrunner’s skull closely resembles a game of Tetris. Each chip is a different shape, and you have to slot them into the space available. The more empty squares you leave, the faster your passive recharge rate. But the more you fill, the more bonuses you get. It’s a…strange choice of system, especially in a game about constantly moving. Stopping to rotate blocks feels at odds with everything else. Honestly, I could have done without the whole Tetris brain thing.
There’s one last skill I haven’t mentioned yet, but it can elevate you from cyber-noob to cyber-god, and that’s the ability to parry incoming projectiles. It requires excellent timing, but if you learn how to do it while running on walls and leaping then it means you don’t have to rely quite as much on the dash. There’s even a fun upgrade that lets you bat bullets straight back to their origin point.
It took me roughly 7 hours to run, jump and decapitate my way to the top of the cyberpunk tower. However, the fun doesn’t quite end there, or at least it doesn’t if you’re the kind of person who enjoys replaying levels. Ghostrunner feels like it was built with speedrunning in mind. Unfortunately, I don’t have the skill to tell you if Ghostrunner has a high enough skill ceiling to really attract speedrunners, nor do I have the time to put in to become skilled enough. But at the very least I can see most people enjoying going back to earlier levels a few times and bettering their times, and lowering their death count.
There are also collectibles to gather up, some of which very slightly flesh out the world and story. But the most interesting of the bunch are the sweet new skins you can swipe for your sword. There’s a lot of choices and they’re sneakily hidden, making finding them a genuine pleasure.
Considering how much of Ghostrunner is about pin-point movement and making decisions quickly, I’m glad to report that the game’s performance was flawless while testing. The framerate was silky-smooth without any major drops to disrupt the action. The only issues that popped up were a few minor glitches: one instance of falling through the level, two cases of getting stuck in scenery.
If you’re the kind of person who loved pulling off fancy moves in Dishonored or if the idea of being a cyber-ninja with a sword and the parkour skills of a mountain goat then Ghostrunner is for you. It’s fast, tense, aggravating and exciting. There were moments were I properly leaned forward out of my chair, clenched my muscles and then let out an explosive breath once I had gotten through an area in one, beautiful run of death. And then five seconds later I’d be coursing Ghostrunner because of my 100th death that I never saw coming.
- Sleek, crisp gameplay.
- Cyberpunk aesthetic looks great.
- Immensely satisfying and rewarding.
- Dull story.
- Death just happens.
- Immensely annoying.