Ghostrunner is a first-person action game set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia inside a towering complex known as Dharma tower. You take up the role of a previously decommissioned Ghostrunner, a cybernetic super-soldier who was responsible for the protection of the last remnants of humanity that have taken refuge within Dharma tower.
In an act of betrayal, a self-appointed dictator–known as Mara the Keymaster–overthrew the previous regime and took command. Yours was among the many lives lost during this violent takeover. However, you’re given a second chance and brought back to life by an AI being, who gets you up to speed about your prior fate as well as your mission. Together with the resistance movement known as the Climbers, you set out to seek vengeance and overthrow the tyrannical ruler.
The story is nothing to write home about and largely serves as an excuse to indulge yourself in the game’s fast-paced parkour action. You’re a cyborg ninja for all intents and purposes, and Ghostrunner does a great job of conveying a corresponding sense of agility with its fluid and responsive movement. You can wall-run, use a grappling hook to get across large gaps, and quickly alter your direction while performing a jump. Developing a sense of flow and performing these actions in succession rewards you with a boost in speed, which helps you reach farther out places and dodge enemies more effectively. You’re also equipped with some additional moves that further enhance your mobility, range, and awareness.
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The core mechanics echo similarities with games like Mirror’s Edge and Titanfall. However, there are some key differences that give Ghostrunner a distinct identity. Your trusty Katana serves as your only weapon against your adversaries, which means long-range attacks are out of the question. This is where your lightning-fast mobility comes in handy. Though, the main twist here is that you die with a single hit from your enemies. Similarly, one failed jump is enough to take you out.
It’s not just you who goes down in one hit, however. It takes a single blow from your katana to take out even the toughest foe that stands in your way. Therefore, combat encounters don’t often last long. That said, they come equipped with guns, and tackling them, especially in instances when there’s more than one, requires careful consideration. Certain enemies also come with additional challenges that need to be worked around.
Advancing through Ghostrunner’s levels is akin to solving a tactical puzzle, and getting there requires some trial-and-error. Progression is tailored towards the hardcore speedrun audience. The fundamental game loop is all about embracing the philosophy of trying again and again until you get it right. This aspect reminds of games like Hotline Miami, where one miscalculated step can put you back to an earlier checkpoint.
It almost feels like Ghostrunners is at odds with itself. On one hand, it wants you to rely on your instincts, take risks, and develop a real sense of flow with your actions. On the other hand, with death always looming over your head, you’re also encouraged to tread carefully and strategize your actions.
That said, there are moments where you’ll hit your stride and your risks will pay off as you pull off stylish maneuvers to take out enemies and clear a section without having to reload a prior checkpoint multiple times before finally figuring it out. Moments like jumping from wall to wall and then slicing your way through an opponent with a deadly blow from your katana are truly exhilarating. However, the frequency of such moments is reduced as the level design gets more complex.
Luckily, there’s a generous serving of checkpoints, so you’ll likely end up close to where you got hit or missed a jump. The frustration associated with progression is therefore alleviated to an extent through this affordance. It also helps that Ghostrunners isn’t a particularly lengthy game, and should generally take six to seven hours to complete.
There’s little to complain about when it comes to the game’s striking visuals. The neon-lit environments of Dharma tower are rich in detail and do a splendid job of creating a gloomy and futuristic dystopian setting. Likewise, the cyberspace sections also look the part, with its wireframe aesthetic instantly reminding of Tron. A little more environmental variety would’ve been nice, but given the short length, it’s not a deal-breaker in the least.
Ghostrunner wears trial-and-error on its sleeve but does so with style and grace. It’s not for everyone, as it can be almost equally as frustrating as it is fun. While the mechanics are fluid and fun, the nature of progression hampers the experience. That said, there’s undoubtedly plenty of appeal for the hardcore speedrun community.
Update: We have received our review code for the PS4 version. Here are some of our impressions regarding the PS4 port for Ghostrunner.
The PS4 version offers a similar experience, although the controls can become a bit of a challenge as your speed ramps up. Making sharp 180 degree turns is sluggish using the analog stick. It feels like a game designed for the mouse. Support for Gyro aim would’ve worked wonders for brisk camera control, particularly when required to make sharp turns at a moment’s notice.
While not bad looking by any means, the PS4 version suffers from some technical inconsistencies when compared to its PC sibling. Performance isn’t ideally stable and there’s also some noticeable screen tearing.