Ghostrunner is the bastard child of Hotline Miami and Mirror’s Edge.
You are the titular Ghostrunner, a trained samurai sword-wielding cybernetic killer who should by all accounts be dead. Yet you’re not – repaired by someone who hopes that you can make the world a better place, you’ve got a chance at revenge. And so up the Dharma Tower you ascend, on a quest to take down the Keymaster, Mara, who not only killed you, but also rules the city with an iron fist.
Of course, getting to Mara isn’t going to be an easy task. Initially armed with just your sword and your acrobatic skills, you begin your journey, split into just shy of 20 separate levels. They each vary in length – from just ten minutes to close to an hour. Or at least they did for me. You see, Ghostrunner might be one of the most challenging games I’ve ever played – in some levels I died over 200 times. But frequent checkpoints, a trance-inducing soundtrack and gameplay that makes you feel like more of a badass than ever before when things go right meant that I kept leaping right back in until my task was complete.
In each of Ghostrunner‘s levels your aim is simple – reach your destination. But along the way, you’ll have to deal with rooms full of Mara’s guards, and overcome challenging environmental gauntlets. Just one hit will kill you, and so your actions need to be flawless – make one wrong move and it’s back to the last checkpoint you go. Luckily that’s never too far; each combat encounter or test of your acrobatic skills is essentially considered its own challenge in Ghostrunner, making death never feel like too much of a punishment.
Initially even the feeblest of foes you come up against seem formidable, but as you master your skills of sliding, wall-running and dodging while in the air before dashing in for the kill, they become the fodder that they need to be. Before long, you’ll also have enemies armed with rapid-firing energy weapons to deal with, ninjas, mechs, exploding freaks and a whole lot more. Each enemy type requires you to approach them in a specific way, leading to each encounter almost feeling like a puzzle, especially when you factor in mysterious orbs that provide some of your foes impenetrable shields until you’ve destroyed them.
Each arena of combat, then, is essentially its own little playground – you’re free to tackle the enemies it contains in the order you see fit. But there’s generally a route that works best, that allows you to take them all out in one continuous dance of death. The only thing you can’t do is dilly-dally; Ghostrunner is a game in which you need to constantly keep on the move. Stand still for just one second during combat, and you’re likely to die.
The further you get in Ghostrunner, the more complex it gets. To give you more movement options, for example, you gain the use of a grappling hook, and throughout the course of the game you acquire four useful offensive skills. You can only have one of these active at any one time time, however, and a cooldown timer ensures you can’t spam your way to success. Ghostrunner would be much easier if you could just hack every enemy you come across to fight for you, or constantly unleash waves of energy with your sword. The environment, too, becomes more hazardous, with walls becoming electrified, and more.
In an overtly gamified twist, there are even temporary power-ups to be found in Ghostrunner‘s world. One pick-up will allow you to slow down time temporarily, useful when needing to make your way past fast-moving objects. There’s also a super jump pick-up for when you need to gain great height or cover a great distance. The most useful of them all, though, is the temporary use of throwing stars. They’re great for taking out enemies from afar, but are also used to trigger switches.
What really makes Ghostrunner such a compelling experience is the variety of gameplay that’s on offer. Combat encounters are split up by bouts of traversal, both challenging and less so. And the game’s story unfolds via unintrusive conversations within these quieter moments. There are puzzles to overcome, too, the most troublesome of which you’re required to solve to unlock your additional skills. Ghostrunner‘s pacing is perfect, managing to make what is a highly-intense experience never feel repetitive or overly exhausting.
It’s not perfect, though. This is not a game that everyone will enjoy due to the sky-high difficulty level. Some may also not gel with its trial and error nature – even the most skilled will probably die a time or two when entering a new area until they’re fully aware of all the enemies it contains and the nature of the environmental hazards they’re up against. And then there are the controls; when they work perfectly they’re wonderful, but sometimes you’ll find yourself running on a wall when you didn’t want to, or you’ll miss a rail you’re jumping to by what seems like a negligible amount and plummet to your death.
But as long as you know what you’re getting yourself into with Ghostrunner, it might just prove to be your favourite game of the year. It’s certainly the most action-packed and exciting. It absorbs you in a world that’s dripping with atmosphere thanks to its stellar visuals, and its pumping soundtrack makes you uncontrollably tap your feet. The gameplay, though, is what will ultimately make you love it. It might take a few attempts, but when you finally clear a room of enemies in one continuous motion as if it was choreographed for a blockbuster movie, you can’t help but feel a great sense of accomplishment and awe. And Ghostrunner has so many of these moments that you can’t help but love it.