If you are in need of a cyberpunk appetizer, luckily for you Ghostrunner is now available on Xbox One.
Created by the studio One More Level, this first-person platforming action game wastes absolutely no time in getting started. Booting the game up plays a slick little cutscene showing the events that lead to the titular Ghostrunner’s initial circumstances. After getting his mechanical booty handed to him by Doctor Octo- er… I mean an evil scientist named Mara who just so happens to have four, long, telepathically controlled arms with grabby claws coming out of her back, the Ghostrunner reboots in the slummiest of cyberpunk slums. With the irritable voice of a mysterious stranger in your head pushing you onward, you are now free to dash, wall run, and slash your way through a series of levels in order to exact revenge. And maybe save what’s left of humanity.
As far as stories go, Ghostrunner gets a passing grade. It isn’t something you’ll be saving in your desk to show future students as an example of going above and beyond, but it gets the job done. Exposition is delivered competently enough through the various voices in your head, and the ultimate goal of defeating Schmoctor Schmoctopus is a perfect motivator. Don’t expect anything too original, however. I won’t spoil anything here, but if you’ve ever watched a film before, you’ll likely be able to tell what happens in every portion of the story long before it actually does reveal it.
Now, it gives me great joy to declare that a game developer has finally admitted to the world that bumper jumper controls are the superior way to play. Bumper jumping is the default setting for Ghostrunner, because if you tried to play by jumping with the A button you would need Usain Bolt thumbs. You’ll be doing a lot of jumping and aiming at the same time, so this is your opportunity to join me in the bumper jumping club. Of course, if you’re stubborn and wrong, you can change these settings.
Let’s talk more about that jumping and aiming. The game starts incredibly strong. Movement is fluid, quick, and responsive. In fact, this is the best wall running I’ve seen since Titanfall 2. Sliding and dashing both feel a bit less refined than they should be, but not to the point that they inhibit gameplay. Additionally, you have a grappling tether with a generous amount of range that saved me on more than one occasion.
Combat, like movement, starts strong. Every enemy you face dies with a single slice of your sword. Yet the same is also true for you. A single shot, slice, explosion, or platforming mishap means game over. However, the game has checkpoints that always feel fair, and beginning your next attempt is faster than instant. In the first half of the game, finishing a level with 50+ deaths always surprised me, because it never felt that high. Zipping around the various combat encounters for the solution that finally worked was such a joy that no amount of failure felt frustrating at all.
Unfortunately, that joy is fleeting. You may have noticed how I mentioned the first half of the game is free of frustration. That is because the second half feels like it has been designed with almost no thought at all. Within the first few levels, enemy variations are gradually introduced. These new foes present unique situations for you to adapt to and work around, and encourage experimentation. However, in an attempt to continue injecting variety into the combat, even more enemies are introduced and they are awful. Three, in particular, feel as if they were shoehorned into the game at the last minute. They aren’t fun to fight, and the majority of instances where they bested me in combat felt like it was the game’s fault more than mine – whether that meant the sword-bearing guys phased through me, the giant droids shot invisible projectiles, or the little suicide units slowed the entire game down.
I would like to talk about the suicide units specifically, for a moment. In one of the final levels, these enemies are introduced. I can confidently say that they are the worst enemies I’ve ever seen in a video game. Rather than building on the primary gameplay loop, their behavior throws everything you’ve done and learned completely out the window. At times, this type of thing can be done well in games. Mixing up the player’s expectations can be a breath of fresh air that far along into a game. However, these units are completely broken. Their blast radius is enormous, there is no clear method for eliminating them, and they make loud, gross, guttural noises that sound like the devs asked Dave from accounting to eat the microphone. My final encounter with these despicable creatures caused my game to dip into single digit frame rates. I had to slog through portions of gameplay that looked and felt like a glitchy flipbook.
Following the absolute disaster of those exploding pieces of garbage, the game continued to feel unfinished. More weird ideas and enemies were introduced, the inconsistent shuriken upgrade was used too often, attempting to wall run became more difficult as the Ghostrunner just slid off, and the final boss was horribly underwhelming. In fact, each boss fight in the game could be used in a graph to show the exact moments that things got worse and worse.
Ghostrunner’s flaws are tragic ones. With it starting so strong, the bugs, poor optimization and horrendous design choices stung more and more. If all you’re looking for is a cyberpunk distraction until CD Projekt Red’s hotly anticipated title, this may be just what you’re looking for. However, if you want a game that’s consistent and well-made throughout, you could play the first eight levels of Ghostrunner on Xbox One and pretend it ends there.