Ghostrunner Hides One Helluva Puzzle Game Under High-Speed Slashing

It's a lot like Portal, if Portal had katanas instead of portals.

I played my first-ever PC game, Portal 2, when I was 14. The platforming puzzler quickly became a lifelong favorite thanks to its masterful world-building, level design, and character. But besides the famous story and writing, what I loved about Portal 2 was the wonderful construction of the puzzles. Sure, they could be incredibly frustrating at times, but that just made the thrill of completing each level even better.

Ghostrunner is a first-person action game where you play as the titular Ghostrunner: an advanced blade fighter created specifically to kick ass and take names. In a post-apocalyptic world, what’s left of the human race is confined to the many levels of a singular structure named Dharma Tower. Ghostrunner opens on your confrontation with a woman in a many-armed contraption (think Doc Ock from the Marvel universe). To her side lies the lifeless body of a man. The woman dispatches you quickly and you fall to unknown depths.

You learn that the dead man was “the Architect,” or the person behind all the technological innovations of this world, including Dharma Tower itself and you, the Ghostrunner. The woman is “the Keymaster.” By killing the Architect and destroying every other Ghostrunner, she’s seized power of Dharma and enslaved everyone who lives inside. Guided by the Architect’s robotic consciousness, you must make it past all the challenges of the tower, climb to the top, and defeat the Keymaster once and for all.

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Despite the violent setup, as I played Ghostrunner, I often found myself drawing parallels to Portal 2. Every level is an environmental puzzle that requires you to decipher a key sequence of actions — and then perform them perfectly. Ghostrunner’s puzzles just happen to be much bloodier. Instead of a portal gun, you’re armed with a katana. Instead of companion cubes, there are enemies that shoot deadly lasers at you.

What makes Ghostrunner levels unique is the skill required to execute the solutions. There were plenty of parkour levels that gave me a hard time, as I jumped and dashed my way through, but the real challenge of the game is in its combat. Ghostrunner uses a one-hit-one-kill model: enemies are felled by a single hit, but so are you. Many levels involve complex map geometry and require you to kill every enemy in order to progress. As you fight your way through, you need to be constantly on the move, dodging, dashing, and wall-running in first-person. The levels can be very challenging as a result. Figuring out how to cut through throngs of foes is one thing; executing that correctly when one shot is game over is a whole different beast. But there’s nothing like the satisfaction of finally pushing through after so very many tries.

Luckily, Ghostrunner is built around learning from repeated failure. Instant respawn times and frequent checkpoints are a blessing. The game also gives you special abilities to compensate for your lack of durability. One core feature I especially love is “Sensory Boost,” which allows you to slow down time for a brief moment in order to dodge enemy attacks in the air, Matrix-style. I’ve literally never felt as cool in a video game as when I would jump off a wall, activate slow down time, and watch bullets whizz past me in slow motion before slicing up dudes in real time. Ghostrunner’s movement is intensely satisfying, and definitely the part of the game I enjoyed the most. I blurted out “oh my god, I feel so awesome” a total of seven times during the first two chapters (yeah, I counted).

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For how good it feels to play, though, I was a little disappointed by the game Dharma Tower’s lack of substance. The cyberpunk mega-building style is well-designed, with each new area looking and feeling unique, but the game doesn’t explain a lot about the world or the characters that inhabit it. The introduction of a character who was part of a failed uprising against the Keymaster is an intriguing bit of background, but Ghostrunner’s overarching storyline and failure to follow up on certain narrative threads leave a lot to be desired.

One of the more memorable encounters is a Keymaster-created Ghostrunner prototype with many of the same abilities as you. As you follow her through a sprawling chapter that includes fighting your way through a train, you can’t help but wonder what this might mean for you, the supposedly last Ghostrunner. Except… there’s no further context or exploration of any significance. You defeat her and move on. Ghostrunner sets up a few compelling ideas like this, dropping them into your path like grenades, but largely sprints past them in favor of progressing the main storyline, which itself is fairly linear and fails to surprise in any meaningful way. Even the twist at the end of the game becomes obvious after a few chapters. Perhaps the game is limited by its relatively short playtime (which clocks in at about 10 hours), but I can’t help but feel like something was simply missing.

Still, if you don’t care about that sort of thing, Ghostrunner is a good time. Though it’s not quite as well-rounded as something like Portal 2, the game that I’ve come to think of as its mechanical predecessor, the slick movement, exciting combat, and general feel of badassery make it worth picking up if you’re looking for a challenge. More than anything, I can’t wait to see the speedruns that come out of Ghostrunner — it feels like a game that was made to be pushed to its limits.

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