A furiously fast, but anger inducing adventure
Despite the cult fanbase, the first-person parkour of Mirror's Edge never really made the jump to mainstream. I think a lot of that stems from the fact that it is incredibly difficult to pull off. If a title messes up implementing it, it can lead to a disorienting and headache inducing experience. More often than not, we end up with something like DOOM Eternal, which throws in bits of platforming in between rampant violence. Developer One More Level has crafted a title as the inverse of that, though, with Ghostrunner. Challenging bits of first person parkour platforming with dashes of violence added in-between.
Even as a fan of Mirror's Edge, I can say that the series had difficultly making its combat engine work. That was one of major concerns going into this title, but thankfully my fears were quickly assuaged. As the titular Ghostrunner, you are a cybernetic ninja with awesome agility and a sword that can cut down almost any enemy in a single swipe. By mostly removing projectiles from your arsenal, the developer was able to pare the combat to something that perfectly fits the speed and intensity of the parkour engine. You don't need to worry about slowing down to aim. I wouldn't even recommend slowing down at all, as you need to constantly be on the move.
As imperative as it is for getting around Dharma Tower as it is for survival, constant motion lies at the heart of the title's gameplay. When it comes to scaling the massive tower, which serves as humanity's last bit of shelter, you are almost always moving forward and upwards. The path is full of peril, though, so your acrobatic skills are always on display. From wall-running across neon billboards to grappling on leftover construction hooks, there are no shortage of movement options to utilize. Along the way, you'll also come across time limited power-ups that are also necessary to continue pushing forward. One gives you the ability to leap much higher into the air, while another lets you throw a cyber shuriken that can both pierce enemies and deactivate certain electrical switches. Both are often needed to be used in sync with your regular parkour moves.
When you do come across the guards of Dharma Tower, you'll also need to put those slick moves to use. Despite the offensive firepower of the Ghostrunner, the titular ninja is a bit of a glass cannon. All it takes is a single shot from an enemy to take him down. It would be difficult enough to take down one enemy with that being the case, but you are often tasked with taking down a group of foes in a single encounter. One major advantage you do have, though, is that each of these encounter areas is usually filled with surfaces for you to use as you see fit.
The other advantage you have in Ghostrunner are the various upgrades you come across during the campaign. The first, and most useful, is a dash that not only slows down time, but allows you to juke out of harm's way. Certainly, an important tool in combat, but one that also helps in traversal. The other major upgrades help further level the battlefield. There's Tempest, which shoots out a gust of wind that can toss enemies and projectiles, and Blink, which lets you dash through enemies if they are close enough to each other. All these skills are on a timer, though, so you can't just spam them. You need to be smart about using them, and really know when to pick your spot.
One thing you realize quickly when playing the title is that it is just as much a puzzle game as it is an action title. The most important thing you can do when you reach an encounter area is piece out the correct approach. Do you slide in on the left side and start taking out the guards there? Or do you ride a railing in on the right to a less crowded area? Maybe there's another path you're not even thinking of that provides the correct solution. You need to be able to analyze and break down each of these areas, because if you don't, then you are going to just get stuck in an endless loop of death.
All the planning in the world won't save you from dying at least a few times, though. Make no mistake, Ghostrunner is seriously difficult. Like, throw the controller on the ground, curse up a storm and worry your fiancé difficult. Most of these deaths will come from simply getting shot by a guard. You can deflect projectiles, but the timing window is very tiny. Or, if you're like me, you'll just constantly get shot in the back. Other times, death will come from simply moving too fast and losing track of your bearings. It's easy to go careening off a ledge when trying to mount your assault.
The further you get into Ghostrunner, though, the more the difficulty begins to feel brutally unfair. It can be tough to balance the challenge of any game, and there comes a point where One More Level fails to achieve that balance. It's not just the fact that you must deal with an overwhelming number of enemies, but it's the type of enemies that pop up. First, it's shield wielding foes that you need to get behind to kill, then there are enemies that can't be killed via sword strike due to being strapped with explosives. All you can do is either dodge them or wait for them to blow up and hope you can get out of the blast radius. The common response to this criticism is “Get Good,” but when the deck is as stacked against you as it is here, it can be hard to want to push forward.
It would be much easier to deal with the absurd difficulty of the title if the narrative was at all compelling. As the last remaining Ghostrunner, you are tasked with getting vengeance on Mara, the ruler of Dharma Tower who eliminated the rest of your kind. You are instructed on what to do by The Architect, the former ruler who was deposed by Mara in a coup. Along the way, you'll meet Zoe, a rebel who played a role in reactivating you. It's all very cyberpunky, but the lack of depth for the main players makes caring about their respective fates difficult. From the start, it's also easy to see where this story of revenge is going. It's predictable, and easy enough to tune out while playing.
Even if I didn't care for the cyberpunk story, I did appreciate the visual style. Dharma Tower looks like it would fit right into the world of Judge Dredd, which is something I appreciate. A mix of neon-soaked advertising and grimy apartments creates an interesting dynamic. I would have preferred more variety in the enemy designs, but since you hardly get the time to look at them, that's not too much of a concern. The electronic score backing the action makes for a perfect fit when you are slicing and dicing through enemies. It's the type of music I expected from the title, but nothing else would have fit in as well.
Despite the blistering pace of Ghostrunner, I didn't encounter too many technical issues while playing. Playing on a base Xbox One, I can only remember a few instances where performance issues popped up. These moments usually happened not when the screen was filled with enemies, but rather when I had to deal with other obstacles. During one particularly bad moment, the game's framerate slowed to a crawl as I attempted to catch up with a train. Another one I can remember is during a segment where I had to slide under a series of turbines. The slowdown never resulted in these sections feeling too difficult, but with the speed at which the game normally moves, it's noticeable.
When Ghostrunner is at its best, it really sings. The action is intense, frantically fast and brutal. When you successfully clear an area, whether it be a platforming or combat section, you feel like a king. However, these awesome moments tend to be sandwiched in between some of the most frustrating and annoying difficulty humps in recent memory. It's a brutally tough title, and it truly tested my patience. Even with how fast you can restart a section, having to repeat a moment dozens of times chips away at you. This is an entirely unique experience, but I fear that the overbearing difficulty will limit its potential audience.