On the surface, Ghostrunner is stuffed with inspiration. Touted as a blend between Mirror’s Edge and Dishonored, combining the former’s wall-running fluidity and the latter’s sword-slashing antics, Ghostrunner looks like a sumptuous offering. On top of these promising ingredients you get a sprinkling of DOOM platforming and the one-more-go appeal of Hotline Miami thanks in part to generous respawn points after a failed run, as well as a one-hit and you’re dead level of challenge and carrying a blatant nod to the 1980’s classic Blade Runner inscribed in the title and formatted as such on the game’s cover. All of this is wrapped up in a cyberpunk and Matrix-style presentation and world that leaves an indelible impression on those willing to give this indie offering a second glance. Does Ghostrunner hold everything together to satisfy those that inspired it or is this one nothing but a Ghostbummer?
The setup and story of Ghostrunner is slight and passive; You play as a mysterious figure who wakes up in Dharma Tower with no memory of his prior exploits, but carries a sword to slice and dice his foes, though this likely didn’t jog his memory. You are introduced by an elusive guide, known as The Architect, who informs you of a great event that caused a calamity named The Burst, further informing you of his former partner Mara (additionally known as The Keymaster), responsible for wiping out most of the Ghostrunner units responsible for keeping the peace at Dharma Tower. Of course, with you being the only remaining Ghostrunner your task is dispense your bladed brand of justice – and off you go to decapitate the tower’s numerous thugs. Exposition bits and bobs are dished out continually through radio chatter where you’re given instructions and backstory by The Architect and learn about the city’s inhabitants and the ongoing power-struggle happening in Dharma’s domain.
There’s nothing wrong with a minimalist approach to storytelling, but the predictability in how Ghostrunner orchestrates its yarn leaves much to be desired. The Architect is a guide and omniscient force most of the time, giving the assumption that he’s all-knowing and all-powerful, and you’re just an enforcer doing his bidding.
Get your pen handy to tick off those cyberpunk and general clichés, because Ghostrunner is littered with them, almost to the extent of its inspirations. Here’s a rundown; a protagonist who wakes up with no memory, a politically-divided setting, mysterious figures trying to contact you to do their bidding, power struggles, a city shrouded in darkness and glowing in neon, an emphasis on transhumanism through anatomic augmentations and computerised iconography. Unfortunately nothing offsets the general setup of Ghostrunner from feeling like well-trodden ground and Deja-vu.
Hope you like running, sword-swiping and bounding wall-to-wall a lot because Ghostrunner‘s action-heavy jaunt is predicated on fast reflexes and ninja-style antics. Ghostrunner prefers that you’re in constant motion and at times this is thrilling and worthwhile, but other times it gets irritating and frustrating, and not in a way that’ll encourage and caress your diligence, but in a way that seems blatantly unfair and cheap. Take the thugs you come across bubbled in shields, where defeating them requires locating and slicing through a beaming orb that will dismantle all enemies in the vicinity who are protected by it. Firstly they can shoot you freely and kill you with a single shot whilst guarded, and secondly having to disengage the shields before wiping the grunts out increases the chances of a visit to the “you’re dead” screen. Granted the respawn points are welcomingly generous and that’s wholly appreciated, but too many stymieing niggles put pay to the sense of the frenetic feeling of being a powerful figure with a sword should ignite.
When starting a level things feel crisp and satisfying as you sprint, use your grappling hook to speedily and momentously swing towards suspended walls, jumping and bouncing between them in a rhythmically pleasing fashion, and proceed to merrily sliding down slopes like you’re a kid at a country park. The sense of speed is quite sensational and far more gratifying and flowing than in Mirror’s Edge. The rhythm is so good that it’ll likely lure out that dangerous badass within you.
However that badass may hide back into the pit of your stomach when enemies enter the fray. Not only can they one-shot kill you and be guarded by shields you’ll need to destroy, but their accuracy and your lack of defence against their attacks is nothing but a hindrance to the flow of the action. Yes you can equip various skills via a tetromino-layered upgrade screen as you make progress through the story, but you’ll still be at the mercy of cheap shots.
Upgrades like Blink can allow you to dispatch targets and cut through multiple enemies, and there’s an ability to temporarily enter slow-motion to take out enemies before they take you out. Abilities are limited and require a cooldown, but can be recharged by dispatching of enemies and they will generally help you out in a pinch if you require it.
Generally, Ghostrunner does make up for a lack of empowerment somewhat with the powers you do acquire and use at your disposal, and has the potential to instil a sense of power and agency as you rapidly cut through the rank and file, but you’re still a puny urban-jacketed Kylo Ren cosplayer who is prone to one-shot kills from out of nowhere, or just before you attack. Thus, when the game gives you the sense of momentum that makes it awesome it pulls you right back as though you were a child on a lead – which is apropos to the dash ability that jolts you forward – pleasing, but suddenly stops as soon as it becomes useful.
Ghostrunner‘s cyberpunk influences definitely leave their mark but the limited colour palette and concrete-looking levels get dull after a while. Blood splattering across the screen after you slice enemies is both exacting and a wonderful effect that is both a satisfying visual and a signal of encouragement that you can make it through sections if you keep trying. The sound design doesn’t speak volumes about the best extent of the game’s quality as it’s minimal and hearing chatter through radio doesn’t immerse or make you care about the world around you like seeing the characters easily would. Generic cyberpunk music doesn’t help matters but like the game’s presentation it’s passable, if unimpressive.
There are a bevvy of reasons to commend Ghostrunner thanks to its emphasis on story, the brilliantly satisfying ways you carve through your adversaries, and the rhythmic feeling of the wall-running is excellently fluid. However, Ghostrunner falls down due to its unfair challenge, the one-dimensional and cliched characters, the tepid-looking cyberpunk aesthetics and the befuddling upgrade system. Ghostrunner will easily satisfy those who are compelled by its inspirations and it’s decent at what it does, but the frustrations and hurdles aren’t quite worth standing for because the challenges within Ghostrunner‘s design appear to contradict the kind of emphatic power that being a badass unstoppable ninja should define. Ghostrunner is certainly worth a look and will definitely click with those endeared by its speed and momentum, but potentially alienates those who just want a kick-ass action game to delve into. In this sense, Ghostrunner is as much a success as it is a failure.
This game was reviewed based on Xbox One review code, using an Xbox One console. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.