Last year, Ghostrunner earned the title of ‘Coolest Game’ in my 2021 GOTY Awards. Despite playing it at the start of the year, it stood out enough to remain in my memory for the rest of the year. Now, with the Project Hel expansion just around the corner, it’s time to dive back in for a full review.

Does it hold up the second time around?

INTO THE CYBERVOID
As the name implies, the game throws you into a cyberpunk setting under the hood of the Ghostrunner – a cybernetic blade fighter designed to be the ultimate warrior. Waking up to a voice in his head, he soon finds out that he was created by that very same voice, The Architect, who tasks him with taking out The Keymaster – a former colleague of his who betrayed him and is now currently ruling the dystopian world with her iron-tentacled fist.

With the Ghostrunner slowly regaining his power, he will run into into other friends and foes, and learn more about what’s going on and who he really is. It’s a great setup, even if it ticks off just about every cyberpunk trope in the book. It’s a genuinely interesting setting, however, so you’ll still be interested in learning all about the world, even if none of it proves particularly surprising.

NINJA’S EDGE
An easy, albeit reductive, way to describe Ghostrunner is to call it the lovechild between Ninja Gaiden and Mirror’s Edge. It takes the first person parkour elements of the latter and blends it with the visceral melee and brutal difficulty of the former. It’s a perfect combination that gives me a genre I never knew I wanted, and Ghostrunner pulls it off with aplomb. 

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As you’ll probably expect from the description, most of your time will be spent wallrunning, jumping, and even grappling around the beautiful cyberpunk environments. Despite the limited moveset at your disposal, there’s quite a variety of traversal possibilities open to you. As the game progresses into the main city, you’ll start to encounter even more gimmicks for you to take advantage of: rails that you can ride across, drones for you to send on a crash course in the direction of your choosing, among other things – including an obligatory train setpiece where you chase after a rival. Great stuff! All this is bound together by the all-important dash function, which can be held down to slow down time temporarily – something that allows you to pull off some crazy platforming manoeuvres, as well as helping you to avoid dangers. Movement feels really fun to use for the most part, and most importantly seems to avoid that sense of motion sickness that Mirror’s Edge suffered from.

Platforming is only one part of the game, however, with combat being the secondary focus. Combat typically comes in three flavours: obstacle enemies, arena enemies, and boss fights. Obstacle enemies are enemies you will encounter along your journey that get in your way, but are non-essential – allowing you to kill them or avoid them, as you see fit. Arena fights, on the other hand, are far more plentiful and make up the main combat experience. A locked door prevents you from proceeding and you need to navigate an arena, taking down the enemies who lurk there. There’s a small number of enemies, unlike most arena shooters, but every single one is a real threat due to the Ghostrunner dying in a single hit. Take out all the opponents in the area, and the door will unlock allowing you to proceed.

Arenas are really well designed, with a plethora of movement options for you to get around. There’s a bunch of different enemy types to face, with a continual stream of new varieties to help things stay fresh. From Ninjas to Mechs, the game throws even more dangerous opponents into the mix as the game goes on. It always feels like the odds are insurmountable and barely possible, but as the same time it also feels absolutely doable. It’s a testament to the game’s design. Frequent checkpoints mean that death never feels too punishing, although bafflingly checkpoints only provide a soft-save – meaning that if you exit the game, it’ll send you right back to the start of the level. Levels are long and difficult, so it’s something that will no doubt prove frustrating on your initial playthrough. Thankfully the Switch’s sleep function helps to mitigate it slightly, but it should never have been like that in the first place.

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Combat is brutal, but you do have some extra options at your disposal. Every now and then you’ll enter the Cybervoid, a virtual world that will allow you to unlock additional abilities for your Ghostrunner to use. These sections are compulsory, meaning that you’ll never miss out on any, but that isn’t necessarily a positive. Unlike the rest of the game, these sections are typically puzzle focused, with some light platforming scattered around. Puzzles range from surprisingly simple, to devilishly hard. One of the later puzzles had me using the slide-jump to long jump past sections of the puzzle, as finding the actual route through was starting to annoy me a little. They’re a distraction from the standard gameplay, but you’ll usually be happy when they’re over. Even visually they are far less exciting than the rest of the game, with the oriental-themed Cybervoids being the only notable exception.

The abilities gained from beating these are pretty cool, even though you’ll usually find yourself sticking to only one or two. These abilities can take out enemies with ease, but require recharging after use. Additionally, you’ll also acquire upgrades that can help make you stronger. Whether it be extra dashes, or some buffs to your abilities, they’re extremely useful. Much like Resident Evil 4, you need to place the tetronimo-shaped upgrades into the limited inventory space. Your organisation skills will help you get the most from the space, but you’ll only ever be able to use a small handful. It’s a good idea to switch out upgrades based on your situation, as certain levels benefit from certain upgrades. A later level sees you pitted against swarms of explosive mutants, making the upgrade that refills your ability after a multikill absolutely essential.

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ONCE MORE INTO THE VOID
Over the course of the last year, Ghostrunner has seen a multitude of updates to help add to the 8-10 hour campaign. First of all is the introduction of two new difficulty modes: assist and hardcore. The former gives you a few tweakable options to make things easier; you can slow down the gameplay, enable faster recharges for abilities, and even allow yourself an extra hit before dying. They’re relatively minor changes but they do make a big difference. The great thing about assist mode is that it makes it a far more relaxed experienced, allowing you to feel like a cool Ninja but without all the deaths. Hardcore mode, on the other hand, steps things up a notch by giving you all your abilities but then remixing the stages to make the game far harder. If you thought the base game was too challenging, you’ve seen nothing.

In addition to these, the developers have also added in a couple of new game modes. Wave Mode is an almost roguelike experience, pitting you against waves of enemies and granting random upgrades every now and then. It is fun, but the nature of the gameplay means that the roguelike elements feel somewhat wasted since none of the upgrades are particularly essential. Kill Run offers a nice twist on the normal formula, as it gives you a countdown to reach the end, forcing you to collect time upgrades between kills. It’s really hard, but there’s a variety of mini levels for you to tackle – if you can! Finally, there’s a photo mode for the more artistic types out there. For those looking to keep playing the game beyond the credits, there’s certainly a lot on offer here.

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JANKRUNNER
Unfortunately, not everything in the game is great. If there’s one thing that Ghostrunner falls foul of, it’s jank. What I mean by that is not everything works as intended. You’ll often find that some platforms seem a little bit lower or further away than they ought to be, and you’ll miss them by a hair’s breadth. Sometimes, you’ll just get lucky and make the jump, other times it feels like you have to cheese it a little and find an unintended solution. One moment near the end had me running around the pipes on the wall, rather than the platforms clearly meant for traversal.

There’s also some moments in the game that feel a little out of place in terms of pacing. Usually they occur in the cybervoid sections, which slow things to a halt and focus on puzzle solving – some of which can be real mindbending. Often, they provide a nice break, but sometimes they’ll just test your patience more than anything. Bosses too, whilst offering great setpieces, tend to have weird difficulty spikes – with the first boss being one of the hardest parts of the game, and the final boss being one of the easiest. They’re all cool to fight, but most tend to interrupt the flow. The second boss, Hel, was the only one that felt like a natural part of the game’s progression.

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Despite some minor issues, Ghostrunner is an excellent title. It captures the feeling of being a badass Ninja perfectly, even if you’ll find yourself dying again and again. With the post-launch content, it’s a well-rounded package too and an absolute bargain for the price. If you’re a glutton for punishment, this may be your next addiction!