Ghostrunner is, on the surface, a game about a cyber-ninja gliding through a dank and dystopian future, slicing through any of the unlucky goons to stand in his way. That, on its own, is a pretty easy sell, especially with Cyberpunk 2077 giving us a few extra weeks before taking over our lives. However, Ghostrunner doesn't take the easy option of turning in an obvious power fantasy that would only linger briefly in our collective memory.
Instead it's something much more fascinating - and punishing - than its high concept might suggest. At its core, this is Super Meat Boy meets Mirror's Edge, a first person runner where you can die in one hit. That last part is key to everything the game gets right and wrong in its early stages, as you learn how to navigate around obstacles and enemies when a single wrong step could be the difference between progression or death.
Ghost in the machine
Jack, as your Ghostrunner is dubbed, is one frail boy. Even in the game's opening stages, it's surprising to see just how little damage he can take, as every blast from the faceless thugs you take on sends you hurtling back to a checkpoint. But, as you start to learn the layouts of levels, and develop strategies, you'll quickly learn (as well as die trying to) how crucial movement is. Whether it's wall-running, using a quick dash ability, or slowing time for a few beats to dodge gunfire in mid-air, Jack's weakness is overcome by your ability to pinball around levels.
And that's before we even talk about his Katana. Unlike Mirror's Edge, a cult classic first person runner that focused more on movement than blasting, Jack is expected to fight back. In fact, you won't be able to move past certain points unless you take out every robo-voiced mug in your way. So if the constant death starts to frustrate you, don't worry, you'll have plenty of people to take it out on. You'll want to as well, as when you pick up its rhythm, slashing through enemies and striking their shots back at them is a ballet of futuristic violence that pulls you through increasingly tough encounters.
Blink and you'll miss him
As you'd expect from the moment you see the words cyber-ninja, Jack's powers aren't static. As you move through the game, you'll be able to earn new abilities that somehow make a lightning fast half-man, half-killing-machine even deadlier. I've currently only unlocked Blink, which allows you target and insta-kill combatants by effectively teleporting through them. But the scope is intoxicating, and Blink has already given me several sly chuckles as I whip through a line of assorted lackeys. Does it make the game any easier? Absolutely not, but it at least gives you the ability to mix up how you dish out death.
As you can probably tell, Ghostrunner is not a welcoming game. It's harder than the steel blade Jack wields, and frustration can regularly creep in. Death counts at the end of levels make for bleak reading the first time you play them and there are times where I do wonder if my blood pressure really needs this. And then, I'll get the perfect run. Jack's feet will land cleanly on a wall, his sword will deflect shots back into faces with unvering precision, and he will pirouette around every danger. Like a needle falling into a record's groove, it's exhilarating to feel like you're unstoppable, every failed attempt and ingrained muscle memory coming together to create a brief, galvanizing moment.
Then the next stage comes. Failure beckons. Again. And again. Ghostrunner might prove to better me in the long run, it's certainly battering me in the short term, but those glimmers of free-flowing parkour action make it worth your time.