Ghostrunner PC Review
Ninjas are pretty cool, right? Characters like Hotsuma and Hibana from Shinobi/Nightshade and Ryu Hayabusa from Ninja Gaiden make that statement a strong one, so we can all agree on that. But the question is, do you know what makes ninjas even better than cool? Cyborg ninjas! Oh yeah, just look at some of the most famous cyborg ninjas – Gray Fox and Raiden from the Metal Gear Solid series, Cyrax and Sektor (and other cyborg variants) from Mortal Kombat – and tell me with a straight face they are not awesome. Well, we have another one to add to the mix thanks to the developers of Ghostrunner, a cyberpunk action platformer that stars a cyborg ninja called Jack in a game that is all about performing some serious ninja action.
Ghostrunner is set in a post apocalyptic world where a calamity named the Burst has made the rest of humanity live in a giant skyscraper called Dharma Tower. It is in here where we see the ghostrunner (Jack), a cyborg ninja skilled in the art of fighting, lose against someone who looks like a B-tier Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man. Alas, Jack is defeated and thrown out of the window. The game begins with Jack waking up to a voice in his head who seems to be shocked that the ghostrunner is alive. With no memory intact, Jack follows the voice who explains he is the Architect of Dharma Tower and was also killed by the same person who tried to end Jack’s life. Teaming up, the duo make their way up Dharma Tower with an aim for vengeance.
This is a story beat that has been well-trodden before in many entertainment mediums, and even the idea of making the way up a huge tower is nothing new, but in Ghostrunner it is executed well that players will feel invested in learning about the game’s world and its small amount of characters that interact with the ghostrunner through his audio chip. One thing that should be noted is that the game never interrupts the flow of the action with its story, so while someone might be talking, the player is free to continue on with the insane action or succumb to the many deaths that will happen over the course of the game’s five to six hour campaign.
The tag line “Live. Die. Repeat” from the film Edge of Tomorrow is such a perfect tagline for Ghostrunner, because, apart from bosses, all enemies die in one hit, but also the player dies in one hit as well. Fast reflexes and good accuracy are required to perform the most efficient take downs. Standing still is not an option, so often many areas of the game have players thinking on their feet as they wall jump, air slow motion dash, normal dash, parry and attack with their own melee weapon, a trusty steel sword, to put an end to the enemies that block progression. The ghostrunner also has the ability to use special power ups that add some dynamics to the core gameplay. These are unlocked at key points in the game and enable such actions as attack dashing multiple enemies, launching a sword beam, force pushing enemies, and mind control, the latter brought into the last few levels of the game to help for the more complex situations where the level design and enemy encounters are masterfully blended together.
One thing Ghostrunner does well is making you feel like a badass ninja. The abilities are put to use to give the player options to tackle what is ahead of them in a few different ways. When the player is performing such actions in sequence, such as wall running across multiple walls, jumping into the air and then dashing down to kill someone, then turn to another enemy, parry their bullet, then dash towards them for a kill, it feels like finding the solution to a complex puzzle and the reward is so satisfying, and so bloody cool, as some of the actions required will be a good workout for the player’s fingers.
With no difficulty settings, Ghostrunner is a challenging game in which dying will happen a lot – one level had my death count over 90 – but thankfully the checkpoint system in Ghostrunner is fantastic, fair and instant. Death does not bring in loading, but flashes up a button to press that instantly respawns at the last checkpoint. This removes any frustration or annoyances with getting back into the action that can come with games with a focus on trial and error. Agile movement in first person has to be done right, otherwise games end up where death is down to issues with the game’s controls rather than the player, but Ghostrunner is mostly spot on with the first-person movement. This is a title that involves such nimble and lightning reflexes to combo various movement that it needed to be, and it all the mechanics from wall running to hook-swinging feel incredibly good. Throw in the ability to slow down in the air gives that bit more time to think about the next action, be it to reach another wall or dodge incoming laser beams. There was the occasion where I felt the wall jumping did not activate close to the wall, but it could have been down to the angle I was approaching, since wall running is based on the angle and momentum to determine how far one can launch from one wall to another, a situation that is in full force in the last level of the game and its wall jumping madness across bottomless caverns.
I cannot stress enough how great the level design is. It does a brilliant job in making sure all the powers of the ghostrunner are always used, and that also is true for the enemies. The game brings in new enemy types fairly often, usually after the player has adapted to the latest entry, a new one comes in to throw the mix up that allows Ghostrunner to have a slowly increased difficulty curve. By the end of the game all these enemies are mixed in rooms together to stretch the player to combine all the abilities and skills together, bringing a sort of zen-like rhythm to the gameplay, but nowhere near as relaxing.
Enemies come in many flavours – the standard pistol shooter is easy to dodge, shooting slow, while the machine-gun variant will fire in bursts, leaving a small window of opening before shooting another clip in your direction. Ninjas require parrying their dash attack, then following up with your own sword slice, shield gunners need attacking from behind, often using the walls around them or slow motion dash to get to their backside fast enough, mechs have wide laser beams that fill the screen and need to be accurately dodged to get close in before the next laser appears. There are more enemies, such as the evil bombers that need to be escaped from, but these examples should be enough to set in mind an example of an area which includes all these enemies surrounded by means of getting around with wall running, hook swinging and rail-riding, dodging all their attacks and managing to kill them all to open the door to the next area. Performing this to the game’s brilliant techno soundtrack is pure action bliss. I should be careful in that statement because in essence, Ghostrunner is a action puzzler, rather than a straight up first-person action game, as the challenge is not just from enemies, but also from environmental traversal areas that join each conflict zone together.
Backing up the action are beautiful and colourful visuals that one probably expects being set in a cyberpunk themed, end of the world scenario. To say the game is set in one giant tower there are a variety of locations here, and the added visit to the cyberworld allows for some exaggeration in colours. Performance on the PC is brilliant after they added back in the fullscreen option, which strangely was absent before a patch enabled it. The only issue to performance is turning on ray tracing, which kills the frame rate. I was running the game at 4k resolution with maximum (Epic) graphics setting happily hitting triple digit numbers on the frame rate, but enable ray tracing shrunk that down to the mid 40s for most of the game. This is on Nvidia’s latest 3090 series of cards. Turning on “DLSS Balanced” brings the game over the 60 fps mark and does not seem to add any issues to the image quality, so for best visuals and solid frame rate this setting is probably the way to go.
Ghostrunner has focused itself on bringing a precisely sculpted, fast, action puzzler that wonderfully blends all its design and action with the beautiful visuals and a banging soundtrack. It is challenging, and yes, death will be a plenty, but the developers have done good job in making sure the live, die, repeat nature of the game is as frustratingly free as possible, leaving its well designed mechanics to shine. Ghostrunner is an absolute blast to play, and when everything flows, it flows in such a electrifying manner that there is a euphoric delight in overcoming its challenge. Ghostrunner is not the longest game, but the experience it leaves the player at the end of it is one of great satisfaction.