This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Ghostrunner.
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I’ll say one thing for the age in which we live, at least we might finally get that evil cyberpunk future we’ve always dreamed about. Yes, it’ll mean an age of corporate oppression and rampant income inequality, but on the bright side, roller blading might come back. Probably why everyone’s looking forward to Cyberpunk 20 whatever it was, they’re keen to get some practice in before Amazon starts reserving breathable air for Prime subscribers. Well, to tide you over while you’re waiting, here’s another Cyberpunk game called Ghostrunner. Rather a generic name, if the word “runner” has been tacked on and there doesn’t seem to be much athletics going on you know you’re dealing with Cyberpunk. See also Blade runner. Netrunner. Shadow runner. Techrunner. That last one I made up, but you thought it was real, didn’t you, that’s my point. Still, I can’t fault Ghostrunner’s title for relevance, since it’s a game primarily about running, and making things dead. The plot is, you’re a cyborg ninja in the Cyberpunk future that was being run by an elderly scientist power couple until one of them turned themselves into Doctor Octopus because they were sick of playing Scrabble and watching Midsomer Murders.
After being thrown down into the slums which are physically at the bottom of the city because cyberpunk’s never been good at subtle symbolism at the best of times, our hero must journey back up to the top to challenge the villain to a final duel on behalf of all the oppressed citizens and Spider-Man. And the good thing about Ghostrunner’s plot is that it’s so fucking mind-numbingly predictable it’s virtually impossible to spoil. If I were to tell you that Mr. G. Runner Esq. has two voices in his earpiece, one a stern taskmaster who keeps downplaying our humanity and advising us not to stop to save civilians because piles of bodies are useful for reaching high shelves, the other a tearful bunny rabbit who dreams with glimmering eyes of a better world for all who asks you to pwease save all their wittle fowest fwiends because it’d be such a shame to waste all the lovely cakes she baked for tea, which of those two characters would you think turns on us before the end? And without wishing to give any more away, I had a mystical premonition halfway through that the ending of the game was going to rip off the ending of Robocop. And funnily enough that’s exactly what it did.
But forget about the plot, the writers did the instant the first draft was turned in, this is a highly gameplay-focussed experience that I would best summarize as “first person Katana Zero.” With some Mirror’s Edge-y parkouring thrown into the mix to keep the wheels turning. We’re thrown into a linear sequence of combat arenas where you tend to die a lot, broken up by platforming challenges where you tend to die a lot, but you’re kind of expected to, it’s the Hotline Miami thing where reloading is lightning fast and you can crack off one attempt after another like you’re watching Groundhog Day on fast forward. Which is just as well, because things might get frustrating. It’s first person, and what’s first person good for, kids? “Ranged combat!” What’s it not so good for? “Melee combat and anything that relies upon situational awareness!” That’s right. Let’s not mince words, if you ever stop moving in a combat section, you’re already dead. The message just hasn’t reached your brain yet. And you’ll probably never realise what killed you, because you can only look in one direction and bullets will be closing in from at least five. And even if you haven’t stopped they’ll probably hit you anyway if you aren’t making liberal use of the slow motion power that lets you sidestep in midair.
Christ knows how that works from a physics perspective. We are a cyborg, maybe we’ve got little queefing robovaginas under our armpits that function as thrusters. As with most games from the Hotline Miami stable, the fast paced gameplay can be uvula-pummelingly frustrating while you’re struggling and chesterfield-sofa-buggeringly satisfying when you finally succeed, but there’s a couple of slightly dodgy notes to the design that temper any praise I might offer. For one, at the end of the standard dash move, our character suddenly decelerates like he has to stop to have a little burp, and it kinda kills the flow for me, especially since this is one of the core traversal moves that we’re generally using more often than we use our ability to breathe. You also acquire four superpowers along the course of the game that aren’t exactly core mechanics because they take longer to cool down than the horniest cat in the furnace, and all of them are basically just for instantly deleting an enemy or two if you can’t be bothered to deal with them properly. These abilities include – kill enemies in a line, kill enemies with another enemy, kill enemies with a very unreliable projectile that half the time just sailed right through motherfuckers without even ruffling their hairdo, or just splatter everything directly in front of you. Yeah, if I were you I’d stick to the sneeze of doom.
For whatever it’s worth, Ghostrunner’s gameplay is at its best in the basic combat because you have options. If the strategy of sprinting headlong towards an enemy headbutting their bullets out of the way doesn’t seem to be working out, you can try new tactics. Take a different route, wall run along the knick knack shelf, jump off the engorged testicle of a moth and stone cold uncoil a dude’s flesh like he’s the wrapping on a tube of biscuit dough. The platforming sections are more hit and miss because there’s usually only one route, and then there are the boss fights, which are one hundred percent miss. Absolute no-hit zone there. The first one has you escaping from a gigantic game of Kerplunk where lasers fire in all directions like stiffies at a nudist debutante ball and your only choice is to add Mr. Trial and Mr. Error to your dance card. But it’s still better than the second boss fight with angry girl ninja, where the only way to win is to parry all her strikes and the point when you press parry appears to be completely unrelated to the way her limbs randomly flail in all directions like she’s the fluffer at the nudist debutante ball and there’s only five seconds to go before the big midnight jizz fountain.
But even that is still better than the final boss fight with Doctor Octopus. You’d think the main advantage of Doctor Octopus tentacles would be increased mobility, so it’s a little baffling why Doctor Octopus just fucking sits there like a pile of dodgy sauerkraut challenging you to a rather humiliating game of Simon Says. So yeah, it’s like working at a failing retailer. Things are alright on the ground level but the bosses are all fucking terrible. Having said all that, I did find some fun in Ghostrunner, but the design does seem to be rife with rookie mistakes. With that in mind, I looked into the creators’ previous titles. And it turns out one of the developers was Slipgate Ironworks, who brought us that godawful Bombshell game from a few years back, amongst others. Well you know what, for all Ghostrunner’s flaws, it definitely shows improvement, so nice job, lads. You went from giving us a dog poo sandwich to giving us a normal sandwich with dog poo on the side. Some of which did get on the sandwich but that was probably more the fault of whoever was packing the takeout box. What am I on about-