So there’s a line with difficulty. If you agree to spar with someone, it’s fine if they throw you around or punch you up or even take you down. But it’s not appropriate – nor is it necessary – to kick you in the crotch while you’re writhing in pain on the ground. Similarly, if you make a game where the player has to conquer a tower infested with guards, it’s cool to make it difficult. What’s not cool is making a game where every level is procedurally generated and only giving players a checkpoint after they beat five levels. And this is the major problem with Neon Chrome. It’s not hard; it’s unpredictable and it’s unfair.
I’ll admit that I jumped at the opportunity to play Neon Chrome. I’ve loved this sort of top down action-shooter before. And I’ve come to expect, as a general rule of thumb, that anything boasting the ‘cyberpunk’ atmosphere will succeed in terms of soundtrack and gritty visuals. So I threw myself straight into Neon Chrome’s campaign and was pleasantly surprised by the graphics and score. Anyway, I marauded my way through the first rooms of the first level, killing about 4 robots and 3 people. And then, of course, I died. Whereupon I was transported to some weird room where I jumped into this weird chair which then transported me into another room and which in turn transported me back to the start of what it said was level one. And I thought, “This whole process is pretty inconsiderate in a game where you’re meant to die a lot”. And then I thought, “This level one is totally different to the level one I played before”. So then I died once more and I repeated the process and the level changed again. And at this point I was feeling a mixture of:
- Confused (at why the level kept changing)
- Annoyed (at the fact that the level kept changing)
- Apathetic (because I really didn’t feel like dealing with constantly changing levels).
When my courage respawned and my patience was amply stockpiled, I returned to Neon Chrome and conquered its first level. Whereupon I sung a little celebration song, proceeded into level two and somehow came out alive. So I celebrated again, proceeded into level three and then promptly died. At this point I was feeling:
- Relieved (at the fact that I’d made it through two levels),
- Confident, somewhat (that I’d beat level three this time),
- Slightly annoyed (when I remembered level three would be totally different this time).
So I jumped into the weird chair that then transported me to that other room and which in turn transported me back to the start of…
I’m sure, as a rational human being, you can guess the emotions I was feeling at that point. So I walked to my computer, sat down and promised myself that I would make a point, in this review, of stressing how absolutely ridiculous it is to limit checkpoint distribution in a procedurally generated game.
As it turns out, players are given checkpoints. But this only happens after they’ve beaten five levels – the fifth of which is a boss battle. And while this is better than having no checkpoints, it still puts a massive obstacle in the way of actually enjoying Neon Chrome.
Believe it or not, I’m actually a big fan of difficult games. I’ve played and loved both Electronic Super Joy and Super Meat Boy. But while these games are hard, they’re also fair. And they succeed because they supply gameplay so addicting that it transcends frustration. In these games, death only entices you to play more. And more importantly, as frustrating as they can be, these games never seem unfair. Plus, there are few – if any – obstacles that can’t be overcome through practice and memorisation. The same can’t be said for Neon Chrome because it removes memory from the equation. You can’t learn this game because the levels are procedurally generated. This means that you’re always flying blind. It also means that – short of saying ‘Neon Chrome looks nice!’ – I can’t really comment on level design.
Oh, by the way, Neon Chrome looks nice! And I want to stress this fact because I’ve said before that retro graphics have had their time. Sure Neon Chrome adopts a retro style gameplay but it also adopts a very modern skin. It’s not going to win any cinematic or graphical awards, but it feels like the studio has put thought and effort into the graphics, rather than simply using ‘retro’ as an excuse for lack of refinement. And the soundtrack is even better. It’s comprised of those booming atmospheric techno/electro/I-don’t-know-the-real-terminology sort of tunes we’ve come to expect – and love – in these games. So top notch work here. But as we’ve seen time and time again, visuals and soundtracks do not make a game good.
And sadly for Neon Chrome, while the levels look and sound nice, the whole ‘procedurally generated’ thing opens up a can of worms. Sure, every level is different. But this actually makes things repetitive. With games of this sort, it’s the variation between levels that makes the challenge fun. You practice and memorise one level, but when you progress, you’ve got a whole new – and diverse – challenge in front of you. Now, I’m sure a lot of effort went into designing Neon Chrome but the execution just didn’t work out.. The idea of procedurally generated levels would best have been included as an end-game unlock, or as a separate challenge mode – like Endless Love mode in Electronic Superjoy – where players test their skills by seeing how far they can make it through randomly sequenced levels before dying.
The game does boast some sort of RPG-esque customisation. I’m assuming this is supposed to ease the ‘challenge’ of the changing levels. And while the idea is theoretically sound, it doesn’t gel with the rest of the game. Other than retro-graphics, another trend that’s surfacing in gaming lately is the inclusion of this RPG upgrade system in games of every genre. And it usually doesn’t work that well: sometimes it just doesn’t fit, sometimes it feels redundant and other times it replaces the process of refining skills. The latter is the case in Neon Chrome. Rather than receiving helpful bonuses, you hoard enough currency to buy enough upgrades to make the changing levels easy enough to stumble through. Then you die and you repeat the process again, until you’ve made, what the game tells you, is progress.
In short, Neon Chrome is a combination of decent gameplay ideas – none of which really work – wrapped up in gritty visuals and catchy scores – both of which work wonderfully. The game wants to follow in the footsteps of Hotline Miami and other action platformers, but if these games are delicious sodas, Neon Chrome is a cup of sugar. There’s no thought put into refining the taste, it’s just a bucket of sweetness with no character. The developers took a few elements that made previous titles successful and overlooked the rest, and in doing so they have forsaken the very essence of enjoyment. Neon Chrome has taken all these steps to ensure replayability. But somewhere along the way it lost the essence of ‘playability’. For a game to boast about longevity and replayability the implied premise is that it’s fun in the first place. And Neon Chrome is not. The constantly changing levels feel like a cheap way of manufacturing difficulty, and it makes Neon Chrome pale in comparison to games that create an appealing challenge out of careful and creative design.