The best cyberpunk games you should be playing right now
Despite major titles like Gears 5 and Cyberpunk 2077 headlining Gamescom 2019 in Cologne earlier this year, there was one surprise announcement that almost stole the show entirely. Ghostrunner debuted in the best way possible, via an extended demo that revealed exactly how it looked and played in real time, with none of the marketing prevarication that can often leave interested parties with more questions and concerns than cause for excitement.
And what a demo it was, showcasing Ghostrunner's immediate strengths as a first-person hack and slasher with snappy time-hopping rhythms, buttery movement mechanics, and neon-drenched visuals shamelessly ripped from the movie it shares half its name with. We've only known about the game since August, but Ghostrunner has already landed on the 'must have' pile for many, so we caught up with lead designer and producer Radosław Ratusznik to find how developer One More Level has been dealing with the reaction.
Time to die
The studio is well aware, by the way, that Ghostrunner is a confluence of ideas drawn directly from other games, movies, and shows, but acknowledges the direct inspiration with pride. "We obviously drew from several works of pop culture," admits Ratusznik. "For example, similarities in the life of a society living in a closed off area can be found in, among others, the movie Snowpiercer. The idea of a superstructure in which everyone lives was depicted really well in Dredd, while the notion of being a savior and the “bullet time” effect may remind you of The Matrix. There will definitely be more references and similarities to other works in the final product."
If you haven't played God's Trigger – One More Level's heavily stylised, top-down shoot-em-up that provides little room for player error - Ghostrunner can also be read as a natural evolution of those same ideas, only this time explored in a three-dimensional space. Of course, Ratusznik is also aware that even God's Trigger "was strongly inspired by Hotline Miami, so we kind of developed the existing game formula [for Ghostrunner] by adding a one-hit-one-kill mechanic."
But Ghostrunner wouldn't have made such a strong impact at Gamescom if it hadn't stood out for some reason (especially with Cyberpunk 2077 attending the same expo), and that reason is the attention-grabbing power of its moment-to-moment gameplay. It's a game that asks what happens when someone brings a katana to a gunfight, repeatedly forcing you to close the gap on enemies with your freerunning abilities and hit them before they can hit you. It's essentially a cyberpunk-infused riff on Superhot's brand of tabletop carnography, only - with the exception of a slow-mo power that can be activated on command - time still moves when you don't.
"We wanted our game to stand out, so we decided to focus on melee combat," explains Ratusznik. "In the crowd of first-person games, often created by major AAA studios, we would be doomed to failure otherwise. Additionally, the one-hit-one-kill mechanic perfectly syncs with swordplay, and it's extremely satisfying."
As a result, Ghostrunner is designed to be an unforgiving gauntlet of player skill, with even the opening level showcasing formidably tough scenarios that are as much a test of your problem-solving faculties as they are your reflexes. According to Ratusznik, one of the biggest creative challenges for the team so far has been balancing that demanding design philosophy against something that's still fun to play, with features like your character's bullet time ability there to "help players avoid hazards, but at the same time trigger epic moments where they're able to pull off a kill at the last minute".
Ratusznik continues: "The easiest variable to balance difficulty escalation is the number of enemies. We focus on diversifying the gameplay by adding new archetypes of enemies that require different approaches. For example, an enemy with a shield can't be killed head-on, so we must allow for a surprise attack from behind, either by using the character's speed and mobility or their slow-motion skill. Carefully mixing different enemy types and deciding where to put them is the key to balancing Ghostrunner's difficulty."
As for Ghostrunner's story, Cyberpunk's western inspired themes of revenge, redemption, and antiheroism are all here, alongside the genre's more political ruminations on class conflict and transhumanism. Ratusznik describes a contained narrative that "takes place in the future, after a global cataclysm, where the remains of humanity live in a tower built by The Architect, who died mysteriously years ago".
"A person's worth depends on the category of implants they have. The implants – given to them in childhood – determine which social group they belong to," he continues. "You play as a cyber-warrior, the only one capable of fighting both in the physical world and in cyberspace."
As said cyber-warrior, it's your job to ascend the tower and take out its despotic ruler, The Keymaster, while uncovering more about both your personal backstory and secrets of the tower itself. That key theme of ascension (both literally and figuratively) is also a fitting impetus for Ghostrunner's gameplay, as you're continually rising the Tower's titanic heights while also growing in your abilities as a fighter. You can probably see why Ratusznik cited the Dredd movie as an inspiration, too.
Speaking of, is One More Level concerned to be launching so close to the biggest cyberpunk game of all time, CD Projekt Red's Cyberpunk 2077? On the contrary, Ratusznik jokes that most of the team are as excited for the upcoming RPG's release as everyone else. "We're players ourselves and we can't wait to get our hands on the game. We don't really perceive Cyberpunk 2077 as competition, it's a gigantic AAA production, while we're targeting hardcore players."
Its sights might be set squarely on the hardcore playerbase, then, but Ghostrunner is already generating the kind of wide-reaching buzz that other indie games would kill for. They say imitation is the best form of flattery; turns out it's good for self-promotion, too.
Check out more big new games of 2019 and beyond on the way, or watch the video below for our latest episode of Dialogue Options.