The sequel to One More Level’s hit hardcore action game is finally upon us and promises a bigger, bolder and bloodier challenge than before. Knowing what was in store for gamers with the original Ghostrunner, it’s a safe bet that ‘ball-achingly harder‘ can be added to the list of adjectives too. Aimed squarely at those that relish the euphoria of gaining success in the face of adversity, Ghostrunner 2 is bringing more of the complex traversal and precise combat mechanics to our gaming machines, alongside a techno-babble infused story that you just need to go along with for the sake of the action. What needed to be determined is whether time, feedback and experience has softened the developers, or if 505 Games wanted a title that will be more accessible; and the gut feel after my time with it is an emphatic NO!
Synopsis time… set an indeterminate period in the future after an apocalyptic event known as the Burst, you’re inhabiting the shell of ‘Jack’ – a former Ghostrunner who were the peacekeeping force of the Dharma Tower where the last of humanity is holed up. Jack is a cyborg ninja for want of a better term, designed to be faster, harder and stronger than all comers, as well as having the ability to interface directly with the Cybervoid – the digital network within the tower. In the previous game *spoilers* he helped overthrow the Architect of the tower and enabled the rebellious Climbers to take over. Ghostrunner 2 picks up shortly after this with Jack working for the Interface Council when a new threat appears in the form of the Asura. These beings are similar to the Ghostrunners, possess tremendous technical abilities and are seeking to reinstate the Architect and revive his vision of total human subjugation. Of course, we’re not going to let this happen and you embark on a frantic journey up, down and outside the Dharma Tower to stop the Asura in their tracks. It’ll not be easy though because the catch is that Jack dies if he takes a single hit.
The gameplay hook is that one mis-step, one bullet to the torso, or one mis-judged parry and it’s game over. Well, not fully game over, Jack respawns almost instantly at the last checkpoint and dives headfirst into the action again. Ghostrunner 2 is built around this vulnerability and despite trepidation that some might have on getting hit, it works like a charm. All the action is in first person and there’s a reasonably equal balance of traversal and combat to get to grips with. Jumping, sling-shotting, wall-running and sliding is used to get our warrior around the levels; whilst swinging a sword or throwing shuriken’s takes care of the enemies. With a one hit death scenario in place it’s a good job all the foes also go down with a single blow, just expect to be outnumbered and outgunned pretty much all the time. The levels are sprawling with an emphasis on covering distance as quickly as possible, and fighting isn’t far different. Staying still is a route to a quick restart, so keeping on the move protects somewhat… though it also means having to think on the fly and that’s easier said than done on most occasions. Fortunately the conceit works in more of a trial and error way so that each encounter feels more like a puzzle to solve rather than a battle of attrition. Getting used to the rhythm and flow of the movement and enemy types brings knowledge of how to tackle each situation, and imbues the feeling of being a total badass, up to the point it strips it all away and cheaply kills you.
I say cheaply because it’ll feel that way, but Ghostrunner 2 is never unfair. If you die it’s because you’ve not noticed that leaping mad man with a mallet aimed at the back of your skull, or the hail of bullets coming from above. No matter how many times you die in combat (and it’ll be a hell of a lot), you learn something new that inches the progress forward. Then all of a sudden it’ll click and you’re off, confident in dealing with anything that appears in your way. Whether it’s a new upgrade earned, a new ability unlocked, or new pathways you discover in the environment, there’s a continual slew of options opened up that bring choices, and that’s when the game really becomes fun. You’re still dying of course, yet it’s more like an opportunity to try out something different and see what effect your latest gadget has. I particularly like the fact that the combat gadgets double as traversal and puzzle solving tools and it abandons the cooldown on them when you’re purely moving from A to B. They have to be limited in the combat encounters though or you’d be too overpowered, plus you’ve already got a special ability that can turn the tables pretty rapidly, and that’s swappable depending on which you’ve unlocked. Sitting over the top of everything is the stamina meter which dictates how long you can block for, how often you can dash or dodge, and even how long you can trigger the sensory overload that lets you pause time in mid-air to line up movement or strikes. This latter element is the bit that really has to be mastered and managed otherwise you’ll find yourself getting smacked down far more often than you’d like.
Where Ghostrunner 2 kicks things up a notch is with the introduction of a bike after the first third of the game. Up to that point you’re enjoying the glorious interiors of the Tower, marvelling at how cathedral like it is and soaking up the cyberpunk aesthetic. Suddenly you’re thrust out of the relative safety of it and head off into the radiation riddled badlands to search out the Asura. It’s a mighty change of pace and something that you wish wasn’t part of the promo build up because it’s pretty damn exciting when it all happens. The pace of the game ramps up, you’re asked to fight and traverse all manner of obstacles, and it’s extremely easy in some parts to get turned upside down and lose all grip on orientation. It is simply thrilling to hurtle down the side of this massive edifice, though maybe drops a bit of that speed when you reach the ground and trundle across collapsing highways, stopping to open gates and fight mutants; but the core skills learned in the first part serve you well, especially against the bosses. Admittedly, I hated the first boss, thought he was an unfairly placed uber-hard enemy designed to frustrate with unblockable wide area attacks; yet the later ones are much more enjoyable and provide some really memorable moments. The same can be said for the Cybervoid sections where the team have been able to play a little more with the scope and scale and switch on some nicely twisted puzzle environments as well as enemies. Big round of applause for the level designers because it’s truly impressive at times.
Level design is one thing that brings the atmosphere, the art style is another, and it’s rounded off with some wonderful audio and a great synth soundtrack. Voice acting does it’s job, though there’s the dialogue outside the missions that feels a little stilted, but it’s not actually necessary unless you want to dive into backstory. Talking to the NPCs, upgrading and playing a Rogue-like minigame all take place in a hub area which adds a grander feel, and scattered through the levels are hidden routes to collectibles as well as additional challenges to tackle. There’s a surprising amount of depth to Ghostrunner 2 beyond the hack and slash surface and it’ll keep you going for many hours. Does it have any drawbacks? There are a couple, though in fairness it’s based on how precise you are with a controller. Movement and traversal is fluid and slick up to the point it isn’t, which is typically when you’ve not hit a wall run at the proper angle and end up scaling instead of running along. Occasionally it’s forgiving and lets you away with a mistake or two, though more often than not you’ll be plunging down a shaft to another restart. Likewise with the shuriken which is fairly essential at a few points, you have to be extremely accurate with the throws otherwise it’ll all go awry. If those throws miss in combat you may as well get hit by the immensely accurate gunmen or unblockable laser beams and retry because it takes an age to recharge the ability. Similarly, being purposeful yet gentle with the bike is essential to keep on going in the right direction when the tracks start to twist and loop; but all these things do come back to how you are with inputs on the controller and there’s a feel that maybe, just maybe, mouse and keyboard would have an edge here.
Be aware of the sado-masochistic nature of Ghostrunner 2 going into it and you’ll have a riot. It’s fast, smooth and gorgeous with plenty of new pieces thrown at you to keep it interesting. However, it’s the one hit kill ethos that’s likely to put a number of players off. It’s a shame really because viewing this more as a spatial puzzle game than a quick death simulator has enhanced my enjoyment of it no end. With a strong uncompromising identity continued from the first game, innovation, replayability, new content coming over the next few months, and plenty of head scratching lore to dive in to, there’s all the signs this is a cult and semi-niche title about to break into the mainstream. Jump on now and go for a ride I bet you’ll not find the likes of anywhere else.
A PS5 review copy of Ghostrunner 2 was provided by One More Level’s PR team, and the game is available now on PlayStation, PC and Xbox for between £40 and £70 depending on the edition.
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