Speedrunning is pretty awesome when you think about it. It’s a collective demonstration of what our skills in a particular game can achieve. Spending our time mastering mechanics, memorizing the layout of the world, what goals to achieve within a certain amount of time, and pushing the game’s engine can handle. It's fun seeing how fast you can go through a game. I’ve done a bit of speedrunning in the past. Seeing how fast I can navigate the four layers of the underworld in Hades, or how fast I can clear an area in Bloodborne because I’ve poured one hundred into both games. We’ve seen people make a living off of speedrunning! For a whole year now, streamers have been challenging themselves to see how fast they can beat Elden Ring or in what crazy way they can do so. These speedruns are known as “challenge runs,” and they are the type of runs we view as impossible until these crazy bastards do it. Whether that’s beating Elden Ring with one hand, your feet, on a dance pad, using voice commands, or with a blindfold. Speedrunning has gotten crazy now and with it comes an audience wanting to know how these people have done it.
Speedrunning is awesome, but it takes years of practice to know how to do it. Like I said, some speedruns will break the engine and mechanics of a game and trying to figure out how to do so is often difficult. Learning how to abuse certain systems is hard, and some gamers give up because learning how to speedrun can be less fun than just casually playing the game. Why can’t there be a game that gives us the sense of being a speedrunner? No, I’m not talking about racing games. There’s a difference between going fast and being fast. In this case, I’m talking about games that make you become fast and agile. The closest we’ve come to having a good speedrunning game are the 3D Sonic The Hedgehog titles, but we all know a good chunk of them have a fair share of problems and they too walk the line of “going fast” and “being fast.” There hasn’t been a good speedrunning game to come out until recently. Neon White, a speedrunning first person shooter developed by Angel Matrix. That being an indie studio founded by Ben Esposito, the same guy who made Donut County back in 2018. That weird hole game where you swallowed things up and forced individuals to eat at a raccoon's donut shop. Yeah, that guy made Neon White as well.
Neon White began development after Esposito finished working on Donut County and published it. At the time, Slay The Spire came out and started to become popular amongst the indie scene. It was proof that deck builders held a place today, and Esposito was inspired with how compelling the build variety was. Esposito was originally working on a fast-paced shooter similar to the likes of Titanfall 2 and the recent Doom games but decided to incorporate a card-based system. Each card would represent a different weapon the player could use, and through that they could jet around each arena looking for the most powerful cards and formulate a powerful arsenal. He was going to release the world’s first card-based arena shooter, and the idea just did not work. Sadly, playtesters complained the card based created some really finicky combat where weapons had a limited amount of use, and they would awkwardly be forced to use whatever weapon they were using. Imagine using a shotgun in close quarters, running out, and then pulling out a bazooka. It doesn’t sound good, does it? Esposito scrapped the idea of a deck builder arena shooter, but during playtesting Esposito noticed a handful of players who were enjoying the movement system. The players that were jetting around levels and daring each other to reach certain points in a short amount of time. This is what gave Esposito the idea to make a game focused on speedrunning. The card system was reworked so that discarding guns would then give you a power to help get you to where you needed to go. He then formed Angel Matrix to help with development, and due to how the team’s name was inspired by 1990s anime he then decided to make his new game a nod to the anime of the olden days. He got animators, art designers, hired Machine Girl to create a kickass soundtrack, and even got Steve Blum to voice the protagonist. The guy who does the English voice acting for Spike Spiegel in Cowboy Bebop. This is what led to Neon White. One of the more expensive indies to come out, and one of the best indies of 2022.
I’ve been meaning to play Neon White for e some time now. Everyone online freaked out about how addicting it was and the core gameplay loop was innovative. The moment they say the word “innovative” is the moment I check out a game to see if what they are claiming is right. Do we have innovation in game design or are we talking in graphics because having good graphics does not mean your game innovated. Every game has good graphics now! It’s nothing new. Luckily it was that first description, and to my surprise Neon White was better than I was expecting. There are a couple downsides, but overall it’s a fantastic game and I want to talk about why it’s so engaging. Today we’re talking about Neon White and why it deserves you attention.
The story follows White, a recently deceased sinner who is drifting in an endless abyss known as the Glass Ocean. Almost every sinner is forced to be kept in stasis down there. Unable to control their bodies, move, or cry for help. Nothing but the sound of your thoughts and wondering when you'll wake up again. It’s horrible, but every so often a collection of sinners are dragged up to the surface. What lies beyond purgatory? Heaven of course. The Believers, followers of god, will summon a group of sinners which they dub Neons to do some dirty work they can’t handle. Each year they hold a contest to see which Neon can kill the most demons, and the Neon who kills the most demons gets to stay in heaven unless another Neon dethrones them of their position. Just about anything is better than being sent back into the Glass Ocean, or even worse hell. White is one of several Neons being forced into the competition, and while the announcements are being given out White tries to remember how he died. Unfortunately, he’s suffering from amnesia and can’t even recall who he was in life. The competition has commenced and White rushes off to kill the demons scattered around heaven. Rising in the ranks and recognizing a couple of faces.
He doesn’t know who these individuals are, but they explain they were friends with White when they were still alive. Yellow, this brash dude who claims to be a chill bro with White. Violet, this energetic girl who states White was their mentor and taught them how to violently kill people. Then Red, a slim woman who White is hoping was his lover. The three of them are surprised that White doesn’t remember who they are, but they attempt to help as they run around killing more demons. The current Neon being kept in heaven is Neon Green, and he’s been the champion for quite some time now. White gets a strange feeling looking at Green, but we won’t spoil it. What I will spoil though is the truth behind the competition, so if you don’t want to know skip this section. Anyways, turns out the competition is somewhat of a sham and the halo keeping Green in heaven is actually a device designed by the Believers to make him obey them and drive him slowly insane. It doesn't matter whether White or somebody else wins, because staying in heaven is still torture. This is what leads White and his friends to figure out what is going on, how to break this loop of being forced in a competition each year, and reform the standards of heaven. White may even regain more of his memories and discover the killer he was in life.
Neon White is less about combat and more about how you get through a level. It’s not a typical first person, but more like a puzzle platformer where you’re trying to figure out the most optimal route to take. Your weapons come in the form of cards which you can pick up, and once all the ammunition for a card is used up then it’s disposed of. However, picking up more of that type of card will increase how much ammo you have before you discard it. You can only have two guns at a time, and picking up a third gun will discard whatever gun you had in your off hand. So you always have to consider what you have and when you’ll use it. What makes Neon White and its gun based cards unique though is that each one gives you a special ability. The pistol will give you a double jump, rifle grants you a long range forward dash, the SMG allows you to ground pound through floor boards and enemies below, shotgun gives you a dash that goes in any direction, assault rifle shoots out a sticky bomb to blow up crowds and give you a boost, and finally there is the rocket launcher which you can double jump with a unleash a grappling hook. When you use a card’s ability you discard one of your weapon cards, and you can use a card’s ability up to three times if you manage to collect three or more of the specific weapon’s card. Just like running out of ammo you can no longer use the gun and their abilities once these cards are all discarded.
Levels are always designed to keep you moving towards the goal and demons are always colored black. This allows you to immediately spot where they are especially since the levels are always brightly colored. Demons will try to fire away at you, but you can quickly cut them down using your guns or certain abilities that just blast right through them. Some demons are colored, and killing these demons will drop certain cards. Blue demons give you the dash rifle, green demons give you the ground pound SMG, and yellow demons give you the double jump pistol. Knowing who to target next is what will give you the cards you need to keep moving forward at a brisk pace. Now we all know the first attempt through a level won’t be perfect. You’ll screw up, miss a couple shots, and clumsily make it towards the goal. You’ll get a silver medal for your efforts, but then you’ll notice a small meter fills up when achieving it. This is the Insight Meter, and the more you fill this up the better. Play the level again, perform much better, and you’ll achieve the gold medal which boosts the Insight Meter even higher. Okay, now all you have to do is achieve the ace medal. Problem is that you have to chip off a ton of time compared to the gold and silver medals, and taking the most basic route most likely won’t give you the time needed. Remember, the Insight Metter? Filling it up enough will reveal a clue in the level. A hidden shortcut you can take that still gets you to where you need to be. Some of these shortcuts are well hidden, and other times they will require you to use or save up certain cards. Work quickly and finally you’ll get that ace medal. The work required to get an ace medal feels brilliant. It requires practice and memorization. It can be difficult, but it is rewarding.
Also hidden throughout every level besides boss stages are presents. This can be given to NPCs in the hub world and doing so will boost your bond with them. You’ll get to have exchanges with them, occasionally be gifted things, and even be taken to a bonus stage. These levels are tough and will test your mastery of the mechanics, but beating them is the only way to further your bond with each character. You can’t increase it unless you beat the bonus stages. Outside of that there’s nothing much else to say. You could compete against the global leaderboards, but that’s not really required to beat the game. Neon White is a smartly designed speedrun game where you always know where to go, but it takes time before you master a stage. Hopefully you can slay all the demons that stand in your wake and become the fastest Neon known to the heavens.
Neon White is fast, furious, and the most energetic shooter I’ve played in a bit. I will admit, it’s not going to be to everyone’s liking and there are a few downsides that hold it down. Despite all of that, it’s still a great game which I can strongly recommend. The core gameplay loop is well designed and addicting. I was expecting myself to go through each level once each, but I kept replaying them over and over to see if I could beat my fastest time and achieve the ace medal. Knowing when to use certain cards, who and where to shoot, and looking out for shortcuts. The hunt to be better with each attempt is what kept me going. The levels get bigger overtime, but I never felt confused on where to go. Well, occasionally I did, but it was during times where I was playing uncarefully and just breezing through. Levels are linear and always use set pieces to give you an idea of where to go. Whether that’s a row of enemies, cards, water, and much more. The game does a good job signaling when to use specific abilities, and it’s super easy to maneuver your character around. I played this on a PlayStation 4 and the button mapping for this game is perfect. Right trigger to fire, left trigger to use an ability, R1 to switch cards, and L1 to jump. Most shooters map the jump button to one of four buttons on the right side of the controller but having it on one of the left buttons feels more convenient as taking your thumb off the right stick to press a button can be hard as you need to constantly turn the camera around. Dusk did this as well, and it helps make playing a fast-paced shooter easier on consoles. Great stuff!
The art direction for this game is great. Think of Mirror’s Edge, but with more fantastical locales. You have this glistening ocean with white spires ascending towards the sky. Hanging gardens, a neon city under construction, and a couple others. Angel Matrix made a really pretty game. Not the most realistic game as other indie titles like Kena: Bridge of Spirits and Stray are pushing the boundaries of what the indie scene can do, but I prefer Neon White over those two because this game has actual art direction compared to those games whose main goals are “look realistic.” I like the design of the characters and how their personalities always match what they look like. Violet is cheerful, Yellow is chill, Green is fierce, Red is whimsical, and White is just ominous. The music is great as well and keeps your blood pumping as you keep on running. Collecting all the gifts and increasing your bond with each friend is fun as well. It’s not as great as the bond system in Persona where increasing it will affect what they can do in combat, but it’s still nice. The game took me around 17-18 hours to beat, which is a little longer than I expected. It was mainly due to how I was aiming to get ace medals on all the levels and max out all the character bonds, but even so that seems like the right amount of time to get one hundred percent.
I do have complaints with Neon White. Nothing that holds me back from loving it, but things that may seem off to people. The story is probably the biggest downside to the game. Personally, I think the story is great. What it’s about is interesting, and every big reveal kept me wanting to see what was going on. Who are all these characters, how are their past lives related, and what is truly happening in heaven. Where is God during all of this and why isn’t he trying to solve the problems happening? The main plot is good, but isn’t good is the dialogue and how some of the characters are handled. Neon White has a great story buried underneath rubble. Whether that’s how some of the characters are written and what they have to say. Neon Yellow is supposed to be this chill dude who you drink beers with and view as a best friend, but his line deliveries feel so off. The voice actor obviously tried his best, but who they chose wasn’t good. Violet is supposed to be a girl who is disturbed in life, because she never had a good childhood and was surrounded by violence. However, she just comes off as annoying at times and while I guess that’s part of her character it does get on your nerves. Some line deliveries feel really exaggerated, and I can tell the writers are struggling to blend cheesy comedy and drama with the themes they have.
I stated the core gameplay is good, but there are a couple annoyances. Sometimes you’re moving at a breakneck speed and need to shoot something while on the move, but you miss or instead the game’s detection system will mess up and hit something else you didn’t want to hit. Forcing you to start a retry that could have been avoided. Collision detection isn’t also good, as sometimes you think you performed a jump or dash right but instead you missed it by a slight pixel and started descending. Causing another restart that could have been avoided. There could have been a ledge grab system or better collision, but that would probably slow down the gameplay more. The gifts are fun to collect, but a good chunk of them are out of bounds or in places you wouldn’t bother checking. At times I had to look up guides to find them, because they were not giving me a good idea of where to go. This game has nearly one hundred plus levels, but by the end I was kind of ready to be done with the game. Besides these complaints, Neon White is splendid and one of the best indie shooters to come out in years. I wouldn’t call it exactly an FPS, but instead it’s a product much better. In the end I am going to give Neon White a 9/10 for excellence at best.
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