First-person shooting and action-platforming make for a heavenly duo in the speedy Neon White. Our review…
If speedrunning is the purest expression of gaming skill, then games designed with speedrunning in mind are the path to enlightenment. Neon White goes further than that. For players who marvel at speedrunners but feel hopelessly incompetent, or even those who can’t see the point (let alone joy) of being able to exploit a glitch that shaves off milliseconds from a run, then this is the best game to introduce you to its highs. It may even get you hooked in the process.
It’s also a leftfield proposition from Annapurna Interactive, usually better known for games driven by narrative rather than skill-based mechanics with levels and leaderboards. Out goes developer Ben Esposito’s previously wholesome, pastel-coloured vibes from Donut County and in comes a game made for the freaks, the outsiders. That might sound like the kind of edgy marketing for mature shooters from the early noughties, and if you swap out gore for horny anime, you’re sort of on the right track.
But while this is a first-person game that involves shooting, an FPS it is not. Nor is it a slow-paced deckbuilder, as the cards representing your weapon might have you assume at first glance. Neon White is first and foremost about movement, and for those using a controller, it wisely maps the jump to the left trigger so that you can keep your right thumb on the stick for very important quick turns and aims. Shooting is still there, with your job as the titular masked assassin being to eradicate demons from Heaven in each level while reaching the goal as fast as possible. However, you soon discover that it’s the cards’ secondary functions that really drive the game.
Each card may represent a gun, like a pistol, Uzi, shotgun, or even rocket launcher, but if you’re standing around to line up a shot, you’re playing Neon White wrong. Each card also contains a skill, though activating it also loses the card, while you can only hold three of the same card at any time. For instance, the yellow card’s skill activates a jump, great for executing a double-jump to reach a high platform. Other cards also have their own movement-based skills but can also be used to defeat demons, such as the purple card that plants a bomb, the explosion from which you can use to propel to higher ground; or the blue card that lets you air-dash forward, eviscerating demons or sturdy red doors in your way. Sure, demons need to be defeated in order to open the goal at the end, but you’re constantly driving forward, and they’re often placed in such a way as to keep you in flow – like a row of enemies in a 3D Sonic game you attack in order to get from A to B, only more elegantly executed.
Once you reach the goal, you’ll already want to try again, not just because these missions are often very quick anyway, but because you know you can do better. You’re thinking about that corner you could’ve turned tighter on or how jumping just a bit too early was slower than just coasting along the watery path. They’re all tiny increments that can overtake your ghost and push your time up from Silver to Gold, and soon enough, you won’t be settling for Gold but chasing that elusive Ace. In trying to make speedrunning more accessible, however, the game also drops a clue to shortcuts that will shave off the precious seconds you need, suddenly transforming your approach.
It’s not so much ‘git gud’ as you’ll just automatically want to keep improving when the game is generously giving you the tools to do so. In my case, despite the campaign being split into chapters so that you’re supposed to achieve a specific Neon rank before you can unlock the next chapter, I would already be 10 to 20 ranks ahead of the requirement.
That said, for those too overwhelmed by the constantly breakneck approach, there are ways to take it slow as you can also replay levels to hunt down a hidden gift, which requires some more ingenious use of your skill cards to reach. These can then be given to fellow Neon assassins in between missions to build up your relationships, but more importantly to unlock more challenging missions, including some demanding precision to survive traps, making it feel like you’re racing through a Super Meat Boy level in 3D.
Then there’s the story, which doesn’t try to be anything more than a straight-up pastiche of late-night anime with a touch of Suda51 aesthetics with its masked misfits, though the voice cast understands the assignment well, including a highlight from YouTuber SungWon Cho doing his best Italian-American gangster accent as an angel who looks like a cat, as you do. It’s entertaining enough for people who can vibe with the obvious tropes, but there’s tellingly a skip button in the corner. After all, you’re not really here for the story of a himbo assassin’s redemption or a conspiracy in Heaven, you’re a freak off its leash chasing the next high of your next record. And what a rush it is.
As fun as it is to unlock hints to shortcuts on subsequent runs, it feels even more satisfying playing missions in the latter half when without exploits or knowledge of the time requirement. Your sheer reactions to everything you’ve learned so far makes it entirely possible to get the Ace on the first try, or as White sometimes quips, “No-scoped it”.