Few ideas are as ripe for a video game as a cybernetic ninja. Unparalleled agility matched with the boundless power of technology is a blueprint perfectly suited for the interactive medium and the power fantasies it often attracts. Ghostrunner may seem like it was initially birthed out of a pitch meeting filled with similar premises from the “Slam Dunk Game Ideas” list, but it’s more than something a katana-wielding mall ninja would fantasize about. Through its rock-solid controls and well-paced levels, it expertly fulfills the dream of being a cyborg ninja and is one of the best parkour-focused games out there.
A bladed runner
Ghostrunner’s excellence comes from a relatively straightforward core. Wall-running, jumping, grappling, sliding, slicing, and dashing are your six main tools that can overcome anything the game throws at you. All of it controls well and usually, outside of a few failed wall-runs here and there, behaves exactly as it should.
Responsiveness, while undeniably the most important one, is only the first step and the game goes past basic functionality by creating levels that intuitively use its core set of moves. Neon-drenched gauntlets chain together everything in your kit, requiring finesse and quick reflexes as you bounce off a wall to avoid a rogue electrical current and grapple into the skyrises via a conveniently placed meat hook before crashing back down on a highjacked drone. Stages are full of these sorts of highlight-reel moments and typically mix together existing obstacles while also introducing a few more.
Satisfying runs are only possible if you pull them off flawlessly and, spoiler, you won’t. Ghostrunner is pretty demanding, giving players slick controls while also always putting those controls to the test. Properly realizing that aforementioned cyber ninja dream takes work.
However, that work is a vital component of Ghostrunner‘s greatness. Falling into the endless abyss and getting shot to hell are not painful reminders of the game’s difficulty, but valuable learning experiences that clearly communicate your mistakes. Each is an opportunity to gradually improve and become quicker and more ninja-like — a trial-and-error process that is made painless by the lack of post-death load screens.
Within a few hours, linking together long strings of uninterrupted parkour becomes natural and absolutely electrifying because of the effort it took to get there, especially when the difficulty curve starts ramping up. Dying in one hit naturally leads to this feeling because of how that persistent challenge forces you to adapt, learn the game, and complete every checkpoint in one unbroken shot like a true skilled ninja. You can’t stumble through it and the game is intelligently designed enough to cut out the frustration that one-hit deaths might entail, which is partially due to the clear level design and enemies that have easily discernible silhouettes and predictable patterns.
Combat isn’t even a superfluous part of the experience but fundamental to it because of how it seamlessly it incorporates with the free-running. But it’s less like traditional melee combat, per se, and more like a puzzle where your sword is the solution. One-hit kills also apply to your opponents, meaning the true test in skill is closing the distance via parkour and knowing when to make your fatal slice.
Since they are single-hit obstacles and not tanks with a lot of health, killing them becomes part of the parkour flow and something great players can best in one in unbroken segment as they learn what routes get them to the end while also cutting all of the enemies to ribbons. Each type even challenges you in myriad ways. Sword-wielding wardens that must be parried test your reflexes since a premature strike sends you flying. Snipers make sure your timing and ability to weave between cover is on point. Kamikaze drones keep you running at all times. There’s an impressive array of foes with unique functions that require different strategies to overcome, much like Doom and its varied bestiary of demons.
Ghostrunner is even ripe for experimentation as there is no one way to cut your way to the exit. Special offensive abilities yield new powerful moves and the Tetris-like upgrade system allows you to pick what you want to specialize in. Some may choose to deflect bullets and others may want improved special abilities or another kind of dash. Every combat room is physically designed as a relatively open playground and its many customization options further enhance those liberties. It’s a shame that the game doesn’t have more modes or challenge rooms to serve up its best-in-class, freeform gameplay in smaller, score-based chunks.
Fighting and platforming are both blazing fast when done successfully, something the banging soundtrack encourages with each new track. Songs bounce between ’80s electronic music inspired by popular cyberpunk media and newer EDM that still fits the mood while still being modern. Together, they create an excellent list of fast beats that match the gameplay tempo and surrounding environments. It both sounds like a mixtape you’d need while performing parkour and one you’d place over a montage of Blade Runner clips.
But like tears in rain, Ghostrunner‘s narrative dissipates without a trace. Secondary characters constantly bark lore bits and plot details at you, but its impressive consistency can’t override its inconvenience and generally middling quality. Nailing consecutive wall-runs while avoiding death and finding the right grapple point after a leap of faith takes a significant amount of concentration. Survival is more important, meaning your brainpower is going to be allocated to that and not the two faceless characters dumping lore on you. Ghostrunner is all about moving forward so this approach is better than cutscenes that screech the breakneck pacing to halt, but it still probably isn’t the optimal way to convey a story, especially one so determined on fleshing out its dystopian world.
Ghostrunner Review | The final verdict
And even though that world is a broken dystopian nightmare, Ghostrunner‘s gameplay is just the opposite. Slicing and sprinting through each dilapidated factory and string of sharply lit billboards is a rush because of how satisfying it is to control as well as how it, through its design, pushes players to play well enough to get the most out of its systems. A seasoned ninja strikes perfectly without any fatal faults; an apt summary of the gameplay loop and Ghostrunner as a whole.
Game Revolution reviewed Ghostrunner on PC. Code provided by the publisher.