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Ghostrunner: Complete Edition

Ghostrunner: Complete Edition

Written by Rob Larkin on 8/13/2022 for PS5  
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Undoubtedly, the best advice I can give about Ghostrunner: Complete Edition deserves to be shoved right up front: do yourself a favor and download the demo and play it for yourself before first. The demo is offered across platforms. Here it is for Playstation, or it's the first item on the Steam page. The demo covers the complete first level of the game and will introduce you to all of the core movement techniques of combat, dodging, and grappling while acclimating you to just how fast this game plays. The reason I implore everyone who might be interested to give it a try is simply this: this is a breakneck-paced game that involves a lot of trial and error, and being attracted to that in theory is sometimes very different to actually enjoying it in practice. Also, there is the motion sickness; so watch out for that. 

Ghostrunner is played at a lightning pace. The only thing you really get for slowing down is dead... again. You will die a lot in Ghostrunner. The completion of each level displays the kill count in the statistics and even early, easier levels were still racking up my count to sixty or seventy attempts. Checkpoints are fair though. Levels break down into running sequences and arenas usually populated sparsely by a few enemies and when the room is clear or gauntlet run a checkpoint is reached. I never really felt cheated in that regard, but I did have to work out the lines needed to traverse the arena through copious trial and error, and even once my strategy was formed, I needed to execute on it flawlessly to pass each hurdle. There is no health bar, no room for error. A single enemy bullet, a single brush along an electrified wall, a single mistimed leap that doesn't land on a platform all bolt you straight back to that last checkpoint. Probably the best feature of this loop is that there is no time to even dust yourself off before the next attempt, as reloading times into the previous checkpoint are practically nil. The game moves fast, not just the cybernetic limbs of your protagonist ninja, but even the re-entrance to the next attempt that lies beyond the fourth wall.

Something that moves this fast really has no right to look this good, but Ghostrunner pulls it off deftly. The world blitzes around you. Even though many elements are familiar for gameplay reasons - it's important to dictate to the player exactly what textures can be wall run or what yellowed edges you should be aiming to vault to - the world itself comes alive in a fleshed out dystopian tower, a last bastion of humanity of a dark future. Ghostrunner takes full advantage of the power of the PS5 to pull off colors and fidelities that are excellent and then spin them around the frames as fast as you race your character from danger to danger. 

And Ghostrunner does this against the backdrop and characterizations of a plot and storytelling that fits perfectly. It's like the Doom or Doom: Eternal reboots in that regard. Minimal use of cutscenes to break the flow while maximizing the use of in-play voiceover communications between your character and the NPCs aiding you on your way keep you immersed in the activity while delivering on a pretty good plot, well told. Little features bear note too, like the fact that amidst this endless live, die, repeat cycle of progressing through the levels, dialogue isn't chained to invisible checkpoints that respawn every pass. So an NPC will start on a monologue and you might die mid-delivery. You'll probably actually die a few times mid-delivery. But rather than picking up at the beginning and having to repeat the monologue every time, the NPC picks up where they left off on the next attempt. It's actually more refreshing than you might even think. 

Another thing I liked more than I should is how abilities are applied to the runner. Rather than spending skill points or choosing between branches of a skill tree, you unlock tiles on a grid, like a checkerboard. then you place skills of different Tetris like shapes into what is unlocked. You can apply as many skills as you can fit, given the unlocked space. Obviously, more powerful abilities are associate with a larger block, and blocks can be repositioned and rotated to fit what's available. It's an interesting mini-game and makes for a unique puzzle with some clever choices, kind of along the lines of the classic backpack problem from Computer Science university curriculums across the globe. 

Ghostrunner: Complete Edition - the name sounds so final, so comprehensive. In reality, we're talking a base game and the one piece of DLC released to follow it. To be fair, it does include all of the sword and glove cosmetic sets from the Neon, Winter, Halloween, and Metal OX packs so there really is nothing else you can buy for the game. All content, all cosmetics, complete. So that's cool, even if it is just the two pieces of playable content. As for that DLC, Project_Hel, it is largely more of the same type gameplay - a fast moving character exploring their surroundings and abilities with a voiceover plot unfolding around them. However, in Project_Hel you get to experience the other side of the story, as the protagonist and antagonist roles from the base game get flipped in this script. Also, Hel is the ghostrunner dialed up to 11, so the feeling of being overpowered is palpable. You even get a proper ranged special attack right from the start. It's a proper progression of the foundation the ghostrunner built, even if the level and enemies attempt to compensate. 

But where the game starts to falter is in most enemy design. Early enemies are just grunts with a pistol who never displace themselves and just shoot a single round in your direction on a regular cadence. This progresses into grunts that fire bursts, snipers that bear down from afar, shielded grunts that force you to maneuver behind, drones and turrets, and finally a handful of movement class enemies that will lunge or even track you down with similar speed as even your ninja runner. The playing field stays in the protagonists' favor as special abilities let you cut down any foe before recharging on a cool down. This adds a bit of tactical strategy on when to execute it but can be a nice trump card used wisely.

My real issue with the enemies is just how fragile I felt as the ghostrunner. One shot and I'm dead, and many times I'm in constant motion and moving along the only angles the game seems to offer and I still get picked off by a single bullet at a range my abilities offer no response for. The movement and traversal of an interesting world always stood out as excellent but in stark contrast to so many cheap deaths by the enemies. I felt I was playing by the rules but still couldn't reach or react to the threat in time, and it didn't feel like a timing issue. In constant motion I must use this wall run to close the distance, but sometimes I felt the opponent picked me off the wall and sometime I made it. I think I would have preferred the game to be more more of a runner and less focused on the combat because if I mis-time a jump and plummet into the depths, that's clearly on me. But if I'm following the same lines and one run I slice down an enemy with my katana and the next they pick me off on the same approach, that just feels like cheap RNG. And if it really was my fault that attempt ended in failure, it was never made clear what I did different or what I should have tried instead. 

For the most part though, everything was going great my first night playing. I had put in maybe an hour and a half or so and made decent progress with picking up the basics and moving about progressing through the levels. The game does well to implement new elements with appropriate spacing. The controls are clever too. The major movement controls of jumping, grappling, attacking, and dodging are all mapped to the four shoulder buttons to maximize efficient. Only the slide button and another for use when interacting with an object (almost exclusively done at the end of a level or section) are on the facepad. The game is hard, there are a handful of skills to master, but good level design doesn't overwhelm you with them all at once. Then I put down the controller and it hit me - motion sickness. I can't say I had any session of significant length without feeling at least a little bit of it. Maybe it's because that first time had made me a hypochondriac, always feeling for it; but there it was. I often get the same with VR as I never really found my VR legs either. So of course this is probably more a me thing than the game but it's worth noting, and worth reiterating the suggestion to play the demo first and keep an eye out for it yourself.  However, if you want all the queasiness of VR without having to shell out for the hardware of a headset, I might just have the solution right here...

The overall length of the campaign and even DLC isn't astronomical. The base game can be completed somewhere between half a dozen hours to a dozen hours even with all the deaths and restarts. The DLC is shorter than that; but it's the live, die, repeat loop that provides the initial focus of the gameplay. So if dying 70 times for every success sounds like a hoot, there you have it. The thing is, even in the frustration of defeat, the game is so demanding and progress with each attempt tangible enough that the payoff for actually surmounting a level is exhilarating; and the tension just before success as you are desperately trying to pick off the last enemy before the exit just adds to that payoff when you do. It also offers players the opportunity to really hone their skills on replays to zero in on clean runs of the smoothest lines. The replayability lies in the perfection of the craft of ghost running, but only if that appeals to you. Otherwise it's a pretty one and done affair, with a few collectibles you can chapter select to track back for post-completion. 

If Mirror's Edge and Doom had a love child, I'm convinced that game would be Ghostrunner. It takes the movement and quest for the prefect running line from the seminal free running title of the former and combines it with world building and narration of the latter and delivers a tidy package. I was let down by some of the enemy design and it does not boast an amazing running time, but the free running video game genre is a bit underrepresented compared to adjacent types like first person shooters. Even the FPS games that incorporate free running usually add it as a mechanic to the shooting, not focus the core gameplay around the movement like Ghostrunner does. If that appeals to you then Ghostrunner provides an excellent option - and the Complete Edition is a way to snatch up every bit of content and cosmetic on the menu. It gets a lot more right than wrong and where it does fail doesn't ruin the experience because for every cheap death to a stray bullet I had a half dozen that were clearly through faults I could wholly own myself. Just a shame about the motion sickness; but perhaps that's another testament to how immersive, and daggum fast, this game really plays. 

Despite being physically hampered by the experience of playing the game, I could clearly see what the makers were going for here and I think they largely hit those notes well. I feel like this game has the potential to be a distinctly polarizing experience. Those that really get into it have the option to obsess over perfect, clean runs that lie within reach of those dedicated enough to perfect them; while those that don't are welcome to just put down the controller after a dozen hours of trial and error to completion. Don't give up on the first few failed attempts because the payoff when it all comes together is rewarding regardless of whether it took you ten tries or a hundred, and maybe even more so if the latter.

Rating: 8 Good

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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 First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.  
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...

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