A Marathon Of Misery Awaits
Developed in partnership with One More Level, 3D Realms, and Slipgate Ironworks, Ghostrunner aims to make players feel like the ultimate cyborg ninja as they grapple, wall run, and slide across ominous industrial areas and slice gun-toting psychos in half with their futuristic katanas. Combining the high-flying parkour gameplay of Mirror’s Edge with the tense, one-hit deaths of Hotline Miami, this cyberpunk slasher was well-received when it made its way onto the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC last month. So when a review copy of the Nintendo Switch version landed in my inbox, you better believe I was eager to take a stab at the title.
However, as much as I wished to become the agile ninja showcased in the game’s opening cinematic, my career as a Ghostrunner was an exercise in frustration. I felt more like a squirrel trying in vain to clamber up a light post covered in Crisco than a badass cyber Samurai scaling an ominous tower high above a dystopian skyline. But that’s not for lack of trying. I spent roughly six hours slashing my way through the game’s campaign in hopes of honing my samurai skills to a razor’s edge. Unfortunately, like a cybernetic implant rejected by its host, the Switch version of Ghostrunner feels like it’s fighting tooth and nail to rebel against the humble hardware that’s trying to run it.
A New Kind Of Blade Runner
Before I get into all that, though, here’s the setup. The game puts you in control of “Jack,” a Ghostrunner brought back from the dead with no memory of his former self. Guided by the voice of a being known as The Architect, your goal is to climb Dharma Tower (no, not Darm Tower of Ys fame) and kill the Keymaster, Mara, who rules over society from her lair high above the city.
Precision platforming is the name of the game in Ghostrunner. Things begin straightforward enough as you run along walls and slide down ramps to gain speed to perform long-distance leaps of faith. However, it doesn’t take long before you find yourself in the middle of a veritable Rube Goldberg machine of perilous platforms and churning death traps that will put your parkour skills to the test. With so much going on, it can be pretty tough to get your bearings. But much like Mirror’s Edge, bright yellow accents usually serve to highlight your destination as you make your way across the sprawling environments.
Trying to navigate Ghostrunner‘s gritty locales is already challenging to begin with. But before long, you’ll come face to face with Mara’s goons, which you’ll often need to take down while simultaneously performing insane acrobatic feats. Armed with just a sword and your wits, the challenge really starts to climb as you try to plan the best path to take through each area so that you can dispatch your foes and progress to your next objective, all while dodging a hail of gunfire. You would think these moments would be the highlights of Ghostrunner‘s campaign, right? Well, not exactly. While these bloody encounters show flashes of promise, the game’s glaring lack of optimization gets in the way time and time again to spoil the fun.
For a game that’s built around speed, efficiency, and pinpoint accuracy, Ghostrunner‘s controls completely miss the mark. It’s incredibly twitchy. Even the tiniest tap of the right thumbstick causes you to turn 45 degrees. Considering you need to line up your sword slashes and wall runs perfectly, this creates all sorts of problems. You have a focus ability that slows time to a crawl for a few seconds and even allows you to dodge out of the way of projectiles, which helps a little, I guess. But even with this ability activated, I often found myself struggling to line up my cursor with my opponent before another enemy could gun me down from offscreen. This happens constantly. Even after adjusting the look sensitivity in the options menu, it did very little to help remedy the issue.
If you think that sounds frustrating, just you wait. It only gets worse when new enemies are introduced, like soldiers with forcefields that can only be disabled by finding and destroying their emitters, or highly mobile enemies with machine guns who fire off volley after volley of hot plasma, and other cyber ninjas who want to cut you to ribbons (though to be fair, those fights are actually pretty cool).
As you can imagine, the game’s control issues carry over to the platforming as well. There were so many times that I became utterly disoriented in the middle of a series of jumps because of how difficult it was to keep my character facing the right direction. To make matters worse, the game has a nasty habit of not recognizing when you want to use your grappling hook even when the prompt is clearly visible, resulting in a nasty fall to a bottomless pit. Other times, you’ll find yourself stuck on something in the environment that causes you to stop mid-wall run or get trapped behind a solid object. Believe me; it’s a mess.
Her Ghost In The Fog
It’s no mystery that the Switch pales in performance compared to the Xbox One, PS4, and PC. With that in mind, I think it’s safe to say that by now, we expect the Switch version of multi-platform titles to leave a bit on the cutting room floor when compared to their contemporaries. Ghostrunner is an extreme example of this phenomenon and looks like a product of a bygone console era despite its Unreal Engine 4-powered visuals.
Unlike the other console versions of the game, the Switch version’s world blanketed in a hazy white fog, making everything appear muddy and washed out, and the draw distance is super shallow. Is it ugly? Sure is! But that’s only part of the problem. This lack of visual fidelity can make it nearly impossible to see enemy bullets or objects you need to interact with during platforming sequences. Of course, horsepower isn’t everything, but you’d be hard-pressed to find another Switch game that looks this rough around the edges. Of course, I’d be more willing to overlook this lack of polish if it didn’t directly affect the gameplay. But that’s not the case here. The shoddy presentation makes it challenging to tell what’s going on, turning an already grueling game into something that’s borderline unplayable.
Still, for what it’s worth, the game runs at a steady 30 frames per second. And the soundtrack, produced by retrowave titan Daniel Deluxe, hits hard and perfectly fits the cyberpunk theme. If you’re a fan of the synth-laden soundtracks for Hotline Miami, Katana Zero, and Furi, you’ll certainly love what you’ll find here.
I Ran So Far Away
Despite all of Ghostrunner‘s problems, there’s the kernel of a great game here. If you have the option to pick it up on any other platform, then I absolutely recommend doing so; especially if you’re a cyberpunk fetishist with a love for games that aren’t afraid to kick you in the teeth. Sadly, the Switch version just doesn’t deliver the same experience with its severely downgraded visuals and a plethora of performance issues. When all is said and done, this is one port that’s better off lost in time, like tears in rain.
Final Verdict: 2.5/5
Available on: Switch (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, PC; Publisher: 505 Games; Developer: One More Level, 3D Realms, Slipgate Ironworks; Players: 1; Released: November 10, 2020; MSRP: $29.99
Editor’s note: The publisher provided a review copy