Images, words flash across the screen. “HELLO DARKNESS.” “KILL BOSS.” The music sounds like death and the blood’s pounding in my ears. None of it means anything. The only thing that means anything is the great big bastard with the bat, coming at me and screaming something that gets lost in the mix. I blast him with a shotgun as big as his head, turn him into a fine mist. His bat’s mine now, and his buddy meets the back end of it moving at a million miles per hour as I teleport behind his boss and liquefy him with a laser shield. Is it over? Doors open. These guys are laughing like they’re actually enjoying this, like they got no idea what’s about to go on here. I cram a health pack down my throat and charge forward, shield online. One of us isn’t making it out of here alive. At this point, I hardly care who.
Like many gamers, RUINER has been on my radar ever since it was announced last year with a series of stylish trailers that showed a man with a DOS Prompt for a face glitching around beautiful maps and killing everything that moved. The trailers were impressive, but clearly faked: the glitchy aesthetic, the way stuff flashed on the screen, the way the music fit perfectly with the tight editing – it’s industry standard at this point to add in all these extra elements to make your game look better than it actually is, and while I was certainly interested, I absolutely wasn’t fooled.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I actually got my hands on the thing. Because that’s how RUINER actually plays. And that was only the beginning of my obsession with what might just be my new favorite game of 2017.
The world is full of things more powerful than us.
RUINER’s first moments are one of the strongest openings any videogame has ever had. As the unnamed protagonist – a big burly guy with a leather jacket, a heavy pipe, and a head full of mad – you find yourself in a giant facility known as HEAVEN under orders to “KILL BOSS.” What is HEAVEN? Who is BOSS? None of that matters – you have your orders and a whole suite of awesome abilities you can use to carry them out – let’s introduce some security guards’ faces to the pavement.
But before you can finish the mission, a hacker who calls you “puppy” gets into your head and destroys all your connections, leaving you nearly dead and face-down in a ditch in South Rengkok, the “bottom of the bottom.” According to this hacker, your brain was taken over by a group that wanted to use you as a dummy assassin, a group that’s also kidnapped your brother, and you need to go get revenge on them. Oh, and ripping their influence out of your head also means you lost most of those aforementioned sweet abilities, so you’ll probably want to get those back, too.
I expected RUINER to have great gameplay, but I was really taken aback (in the best possible way) by the quality of its writing. Sure, the setup (family member gets kidnapped by bad guys, go get revenge) might seem a bit videogame-y, and the setting is fairly standard cyberpunk stuff: there’s Rengkok, the crowded, stinking, polluted city where all the poor people go to die, and HEAVEN, the Elysium of the rich and powerful. We’ve seen many, many cyberpunk games (and films too, I’d argue, but games especially) that take the shiny aesthetics of cyberpunk classics like Blade Runner, Snow Crash, or Ghost in the Shell without understanding the genre and the reasons those stories worked (case in point: this shit.)
But RUINER gets it. At its core, this is a story about dehumanization. Cyberpunk is anti-corporation by nature, but most games (especially those published by gigantic triple-A companies) don’t do any more with this theme than “bad corporation is bad, destroy them.” Mustache-twirling psychopaths stand in for actual social commentary, with often underwhelming results. RUINER doesn’t do that – in fact, as previously mentioned, it’s the bad guys who seem to have it in for HEAVEN. Instead, this is a story about what it feels like to be crushed by a corporate environment.
Most of your commands are delivered in two-word orders: “KILL BOSS.” “WAKE UP.” You have no mouth and no understanding of what’s going on, so you just do what they tell you. You don’t care about your brother – you didn’t even know you had a brother, but the lady says you have to save him, so you do. I mean, that’s what you’re supposed to do. Right? The lines between “good” and “evil” aren’t so much fuzzy as they are nonexistent, and nobody really seems to care. Everybody’s working for someone else, and everybody’s just doing what they’re told – most of the bosses admit that they don’t even really want to fight you, but hey, you gotta pay the bills somehow. In a comparison I never expected to make, RUINER seems to take inspiration from The Stanley Parable, drawing parallels between the way the player follows the onscreen prompts and the way that your character, like a good little puppy, does whatever he’s told to do.
And like every game that matters, RUINER tells its story not just through cutscenes and dialogue, but through the gameplay itself. As I mentioned before, even though the game is played from a top-down perspective, your character’s robotic vision is mirrored on-screen as you glitch and receive new orders. Every fight starts with glaring prompts that scream your current two-word objective, lest you forget your place even for a moment. And the music – my god, the music. The artists that contributed to RUINER are apparently fairly big names (I’ll confess I’m not familiar with any of them), but I’m not sure the soundtrack is something I’d actually ever want to listen to on my own time. It’s all driving beats and oppressive thumps, but it moves dynamically with whatever’s on-screen, and is at least as responsible for RUINER’s unique feel and immersive world as the writing.
Speaking of the world, as wonderful as it is to see a game go for substance over style, RUINER understands that style’s important, too, and delivers it in spades. The art is a mix of high-quality how-the-hell-is-this-a-twenty-dollar-indie-game 3D assets and gorgeous paintings, and it’s all full of ghastly colors and harsh red lighting that contributes to the oppressive atmosphere and makes the game immediately stand out from the rest of your Steam library. And the characters who inhabit the world are well-rounded and interesting: furries, psychics, your hacker friend who talks in emojis, giant robots, rocket-launcher-wielding football quarterbacks, nuns who stand on street corners and try to get you to kill yourself. Rengkok South quickly turns from “more of the same” to one of the most interesting and compelling environments I’ve ever found myself in, mostly because the game understands how to drip-feed just enough worldbuilding to keep you interested without boring you with every intricate detail of how things work. Your avatar, too, has just enough personality to elevate him from being your stereotypical silent protagonist to someone I really grew to care for – and the image of him walking towards a cowering foe, lead pipe dragging across the ground, faceplate flashing “KILL YOU” is one that’s going to stick with me for a long time.
Jack the sound barrier. Bring the noise.
Holy crap, did I really just talk about RUINER for 1200 words without even mentioning the combat? I must’ve been hacked. The game bills itself as a top-down shooter, but that doesn’t really feel right to me. Yes, you’ve got a bird’s eye view of the map, and yes, you shoot things, but it’s really more of a beat ’em up – you walk into a room, the doors close, a bunch of enemies show up, you help them shed this mortal coil using a variety of weapons and powerups that only last a few hits, then you walk down a little hallway and do it all again. That’s not meant as a criticism – beat ‘em ups are a dying breed, and this is one of the best.
Besides, this is far from a dumb brawler. I like top-down shooters and consider myself pretty good at them, but RUINER provided a solid challenge even on the lowest difficulty setting. That’s because there’s rarely a problem you can just shoot or punch your way through – instead, you’ll need to carefully master all of your gadgets and abilities, including energy shields, spin attacks, dashes, and slow motion. I found that last one particularly satisfying – RUINER feels like what Transistor’s weird dual combat system wanted to be but wasn’t, requiring strategy and reflexes but making them feel like two parts of a cohesive whole instead of putting up a wall between the two.
For the most part, combat is great. It’s challenging but satisfying, and there’s several gangs with a variety of enemy types that keeps the fighting fresh. RUINER has lots of ideas, and makes sure none of them ever overstays their welcome while also keeping up a solid difficulty curve that requires you to learn new abilities at about the rate you master your old ones. The tech tree is simple (there’s only one skill currency, thank goodness) but also has a wide enough range of options to let players customize their magnificent robot body to fit their fighting style. Personally, I found that I preferred using the slow-motion dash to get close to enemies and smash their heads in with mighty melee attacks.
Unfortunately, some of the bosses contradict this “do what you like” philosophy. One boss, MOTHER, is nearly impossible to beat if you haven’t prioritized your shield upgrades, and as a melee player I found that some bosses’ knockback forced me to switch to ranged weapons. There was nothing I couldn’t handle, and it’s a far cry from, say, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but it did make that freedom of choice feel a little bit disingenuous. Perhaps that, too, is a result of the game trying to tell me something. At any rate, none of this changes the fact that most of the bosses are amazing – creative character designs that also require you to think in new ways, everything a satisfying encounter should be.
He is full of adrenaline, his nerves are shot, and his mind is cluttered up
I know this review’s gone long, but I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. RUINER is a game that defies description – it has to be experienced to be understood. It’s one of the most intense games I’ve ever played. It’s a hallmark of excellence not just in combat, but in storytelling, and deserves to be remembered amongst the cyberpunk genre’s best entries, especially in the medium of videogames. In short, it’s – wait, why am I bothering to explain myself to you people?
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, PS4; Publisher: Devolver Digital; Developer: Reikon Games; Players: 1; Released: September 26, 2017 ; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of RUINER given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.