I never played the first Ghostrunner, but a game where you play as a robot-ninja in a neon-drenched cyberpunk city who slices through enemies while going really fast sounds pretty sick. Ghostrunner 2 wastes no time in delivering on that basic premise before expanding on it over and over again. The opening third is a bit slower than I would like, and there are some speedbumps along the way, but even so, this sequel had me whipping through so many moments of sheer adrenaline at break-neck pace. By the time I rolled credits, I was ready to do it all again.
Starting on the Ground Floor
For those who are unfamiliar with studio One More Level’s 2020 game Ghostrunner, you play as Jack, an augmented cyborg-ninja known as (you guessed it) a Ghostrunner. Set inside the delightfully-dystopian skyscraper-city of Dharma, the sequel picks up one year after the events of the first game. The Climbers (a resistance group that revived Jack at the start of the first Ghostrunner) are trying to bring order to the Tower by uniting warring factions and gangs, assisted by Jack’s exceptionally lethal brand of help.
The gameplay loop is simple in theory. Complete each level by traversing through acrobatically complex platforming challenges and take out any enemies you come across without getting hit, all through the eyes of Jack in First-Person perspective. While that sounds simple when boiled down, the complexity of the game emerges when you consider just how many actions are available to you, and the varied level designs constantly keep you experimenting and adapting.
When you do take damage, that’s it. You don’t have a health bar or increasingly-red field of view, you just die and must restart at the last checkpoint. Thankfully, the respawn time is near instant and the checkpoints are so abundant that I never felt that I lost much progress.
You start the game by learning the basics of sword slashing, blocking, wall running, dashing, rail grinding and gap-jumping (better known as fancy, futuristic grapple-hooking). It’s not long before you’re also throwing shurikens, creating ghostly-holograms of yourself and sending out blasts of air to push objects and deflect projectiles. It’s a lot to get up to speed with at the start of the game, especially when you’re required to start chaining these actions together. Thankfully, you spend the first third of Ghostrunner 2 with just these foundational mechanics before being introduced to more complex toolkit additions later in the game, which means you’ve well and truly got a grasp of the basics before things start to become more complicated.
The minimap in the corner of the screen is essential for finding collectibles and understanding where enemies are when outside of your limited field-of-view, and its detection radius is quite generous. It’s so generous in fact that I was able to find more than 90% of the collectibles in the game during my first playthrough of each level, which allowed me to focus on refining my times on subsequent replays rather than secret hunting.
At the end of each level, you can buy new upgrades, talk to members of The Climbers or play the Roguerunner.exe side-activity, all from within the confines of Climber HQ.
Ghostrunner 2’s motherboard upgrade system empowers players to tweak their experience to their own preferences. You’ll find upgrades for things like parry-window timing, stamina recharge or dash invulnerability, and you can even gain a temporary defense bubble after reaching high kill-chain combos. There are dozens of options to choose from, and I love that players can prioritise different upgrades to tailor the game more to their liking, even if it does require a decent amount of fiddly maintenance to keep up-to-date during the campaign.
While the aim of each level is to get to the end, Ghostrunner 2 does one of my favourite things. At the end of each level, you are shown a friends leaderboard that ranks your best times and death count. Now, not only am I incentivised to master my abilities because it’s more fun to play that way, but I also desperately want to occupy that top spot on the leaderboard so that I can brag to my friends that I once again beat their times. It evokes that awesome score-chase that Neon White nailed so perfectly last year (I’ll get that record back Mitchell, I swear!).
If you’re done with the main campaign, or you want some more gameplay experience without replaying levels, the Roguerunner activity is a great distraction that can help keep your skills sharp. You start out with 5 lives, and you progress through an overworld map by choosing between a randomised assortment of bite-sized parkour and combat challenges. Completing each room rewards you with either additional lives or a random motherboard powerup, you go until you reach the end of the overworld map, and it’s not much more complicated than that honestly. While I’m very glad to see its inclusion here, during my four or five attempts I already saw repetition in the levels on offer, and I found that starting a new run without the abilities I had become reliant on was more frustrating than rewarding. After less than two hours in this mode, I was ready to move on, but hopefully they can add more variety to this mode in a future update.
Stumble Before You Can Sprint
Because you have to complete each combat encounter or platforming puzzle without getting hit or falling, you are required to execute uninterrupted stretches of gameplay where you do not fail in order to progress. This requirement-to-execute left me either feeling exhilarated and euphoric, or frustrated and impatient.
Pulling off the perfect chain of wall runs into slides into decapitations feels amazing, especially if you manage to pull this off during your first go of a given challenge. But when you’re still learning the game, I often felt that the instantaneous death mechanic forced me to learn by dying, and not by doing. I can see this being a common issue for players who pick up the game and want to feel empowered by Jack’s moveset without bashing their heads against the wall for 20 minutes first. Thankfully this experience became increasingly uncommon as I became more familiar with the game’s design and mechanics (and Ghostrunner veterans may already be efficient enough to bypass this frustration), but I don’t think every player will want to persevere through those feelings of unrelenting challenge.
It wasn’t until after I had access to all of Jack’s main abilities that I felt the level design of the game really started to sing. Each stage started introducing new twists and gameplay elements that helped recontextualise my moveset. The level designs surrounding these additions were so robust that I felt each mechanic was thoroughly explored without overstaying its welcome. Playing levels where you activate and deactivate panels to wall run across took me back to the campaign of Titanfall 2, and collecting double-jump charges in the Cybervoid gave me a very enjoyable sense of aerial manoeuvrability.
And then they give you a motorcycle, and boy oh boy, if you thought you were going fast before, then you better strap in! The motorcycle levels of Ghostrunner 2 comprise roughly a third of the game as Jack escapes the confines of Dharma, and you are introduced to this high-octane machine with white-knuckles gameplay. Constantly boosting to take massive jumps feels great and the significant amount of aerial steering at your disposal stops you from losing control. Keeping pace also allows you to wallride while on the bike, which leads to some terrific moments of not knowing (or caring) which way was up because the only thing that mattered was going forward. Follow that up with the ability to slash your sword, use a mounted machine gun and perform a combination maneuver of jumping off the bike before grappling back onto it to avoid hazards and you’ve got yourself a recipe for an unrelenting good time.
Some of the bike levels require you to get on and off the bike at various stages, usually to open a gate that is barring your path, which helps keep your ninja skills honed and the motorcycling fresh. You’ll also be presented with semi-open-ended missions that let you choose between various objectives and how you’ll approach them. The choice, in the end, is pretty minimal, but the variety in level structure helps to keep things from feeling too tunnel-visioned.
There’s even a dedicated motorcycle boss fight sequence that could easily go toe-to-toe with some of the more bombastic set-piece moments that we’ve had from this year’s outstanding cinematic single-player entries (like Star Wars Jedi: Survivor). I was sad when I had to say goodbye to the bike, but thankfully One More Level knew how to up the ante with its main combat loop and continue to keep things interesting all the way through to the end. Those final missions are among my favourite moments in gaming this year (and I’ve played a lot of great games this year!).
Not all facets of Ghostrunner 2 shine this brightly, however. There are a handful of boss fights, and while they’re great moments of payoff for reaching a large story-beat or completing a long level, they don’t feel as refined as some of the other highlights I just described. These bosses frequently jump all around the arena, leaving me spinning around in circles trying to get them back in view. I also found that a number of the large sweeping attacks that they used had very punishing hitboxes that stayed active for longer than you might realise. There were multiple times when I had successfully dodged a large sweeping sword strike, only to be taken out by walking into it while it was stationary.
Not every new addition to the level design was a slam-dunk either. Towards the end of the game, you find these floating platforms that you can grapple to bring closer to you. Once you jump onto them, they return to their initial position, allowing you to access new areas. The way these platforms arrive in front of you though is aggravatingly inconsistent, and because you are required to pull and then land on these platforms at high speed, you’ll most likely lose a number of lives in these areas, which brings the pacing to a screaming halt. This is the one mechanic that I felt wasn’t really ready for prime time, as I couldn’t rely on it with the precision that the game required of me.
Dystopia Never Looked So Good
Dharma, as a setting, is excellent. Ostensibly the last place on Earth where humans can survive, it’s an impossibly dense metropolis full of the hallmarks of the Cyberpunk oeuvre. We’re talking gigantic neon signs, buildings constantly under construction, energy weapons, jetpacks, flying cars and more, all encased in wet steel and an endless amount of pipes. When you’re not on the streets of the city, you’ll find yourself in cavernous sites of worship, exposed upper levels with a rare glimpse of the sky, or reactor rooms that power the whole Tower. Each location is also accompanied by its own song from the game’s glorious synthwave soundtrack.
You will dive into various Cyberspace environments from time to time, which are full of even more glowing objects and polygonal surfaces. Some of the holographic platforms, enemies and projectiles can start to blend together inside these digital environments (adding a sense of artificial difficulty) but on the whole, these levels are an excellent addition to the setting.
The goons and faction enemies that you come across are delightfully distinct, sporting facemasks, religious outerwear or hulking machinery that support their various combat abilities. You can tell what most enemies are just by looking at them, which is important when you need to avoid their unique attacks, and there’s a large variety of unique enemy combinations that will keep you on your toes throughout the game’s 10-12 hour run time.
When you break free from the walls of Dharma, you’ll be traversing a barren wasteland of fallen civilisation. It’s not particularly vibrant or original, but it does make for an excellent change of scenery at the halfway point of the game. You’ll also come across entirely new enemies out in the wilderness, but unfortunately these are mostly just a palette swap of foes that you have fought throughout the game already, with only one or two new additions during this sequence that change up the combat.
A note on performance: I played Ghostrunner 2 on PC, armed with a Ryzen 9 5900X and an RTX 3080. 90% of the time I was enjoying silky smooth frame rates and gorgeous visuals, but there were a number of occasions where the game’s performance tanked while high-quality assets tried to load into a scene. These times were infrequent enough to not be a major issue, and your mileage may vary depending on your system specs, but I felt it was worth mentioning. There were also a handful of bugs that required me to restart from a checkpoint in order to reset (like my stamina meter no longer recharging), but these issues were similarly minor and hopefully can be patched in the near future.
As a newcomer to the series, I was somewhat overwhelmed by the story. There is a Ghostrunner recap that you can watch from the main menu, but it’s so short! It contains next to no detail about the various factions or characters involved in the first game. When you consider how frequently the events of the past are mentioned throughout this sequel’s runtime, it’s a real shame that more wasn’t done to help on-board new players into this world.
The story of Ghostrunner 2 was engaging enough to pull me from encounter to encounter, and I enjoyed getting to know Jack’s crew of fellow Climbers (whether through radio chatter during missions or back at The Climbers HQ). By the end of the game though, I found myself asking questions about major character motivations and stakes. If it weren’t for some very explicit monologuing during the penultimate level, I might not have understood the climactic final confrontation at all. This didn’t detract from the gameplay, but with how much of a focus they placed on dialogue, cutscenes and optional conversations, I was left feeling somewhat bemused by the plot.
Despite some early hurdles, my time with Ghostrunner 2 was an absolute blast in a way that I think few games can come close to replicating. There’s a sense of momentum and speed that is fostered and maintained throughout the majority of the campaign’s runtime. The high skill-floor of the early levels was frustrating to overcome, and some of the mechanics didn’t meet the same standard of execution as others. At the end of the day, however, I also experienced moments here that I will be thinking about for years to come.
Ghostrunner 2 releases on October 26, 2023 (or October 24, 2023 if you buy the Brtual Edition) on PC, PS5 and Xbox Series X/S.