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Neon White makes you feel like the smartest man in hell
A wicked and stylish take on the shooter that takes level design to heavenly heights.
Even if the narrative is too loose for its own good, Neon White never misses a beat where the action is concerned. It’s an elegant, energetic and entertaining twist on the shooter genre with more than enough style to draw you in, and plenty of substance to keep you engaged all the way through to the credits.
Neon White review
Familiarity can get you pretty far when it comes to games, but Neon White makes a strong case for the alternative.
Set in a strikingly illustrated (and anime-inspired) afterlife, Neon White is a first-person parkour game where you play as a deceased amnesiac with a gun. The good news? Heaven exists. The bad news is that you (the titular Neon White) aren’t allowed in. Not unless you clear ten days worth of demon-infested obstacle courses and emerge at the top of the celestial scoreboard.
Putting the overtly-gamey framing to the side for a minute, it’s rare to find a game that feels so explicitly designed for speed-runners as Neon White is. Each level tasks you with getting to the finish line as fast as possible. Along the way, you’ll throw down with a variety of demonic denizens and collect cards. The former have to be cleansed to clear each level, while the latter acts as a kind of power-up.
Every card you collect in Neon White adds a new gun to your arsenal. Think familiar firearms archetypes like the pistol, machine gun, shotgun and rocket launcher and you’ve got the right idea. The more cards you're carrying, the more you can afford to let loose on enemies. Run out of ammunition, and you'll have resort to hacking away at them with a sword or, in some situations, your bare hands.
The real twist here is that you can discard these cards in exchange for a special one-time-use ability. The nature of these effects varies, but they all tend to involve movement in one direction or another. As with weapons in Neon White, the roster here includes many of the classics. Dashes, ground pounds, grappling hooks. That sort of thing.
Courtesy of this card-based quirk, each level of Neon White is as much a shooting gallery as it is a gymnastics course. In lesser hands, this setup could quickly threaten to become tiresome. Thankfully, the whole affair is a masterclass in combat puzzle design.
Rather than give you more cards than you know what to do with, Neon White tends to opt for a more restrained and at-times cerebral approach. Not every solution is immediately obvious, but you always have the right tools close at hand. Success has less to do with headshots and more to do with learning the layout of each level. Most of the time, you’re playing to learn how to string together the perfect run rather than to drag yourself over the finish line on your first attempt.
Of course, clearing each level is only the beginning. While most are snack-sized encounters that’ll take you no more than a minute or two to successfully complete, beating the various par times and finding the hidden collectibles in each level can take you a lot longer.
Looping back to an earlier point, Neon White is really effective at making you feel like you're someone who might appear on Games Done Quick. Crucially though, it achieves that fantasy without actually requiring the kind of specialised dexterity and memorisation that actual speedrunning typically involves.
There are moments where it feels like you've out-thought the designer in a given level. Sequences where you use a certain ability in a way that feels like it runs against the grain, but lets you break open the structure of the level and hack your way to a particularly great time.
The more time I spend playing Neon White, the more I suspect that this is a sleight of hand. I'm not cheating anyone. This is exactly the way this game is intended to be played. The best trick that Neon White ever pulls is making you think it wants anything else.
This is a game that wants you to feel like you're getting one over on it, but it doesn't want to cheat you out of any sense of accomplishment you might get from doing so.
In Neon White, life only begins with the death you're dealing out to demons.
When you’re not setting fresh times on new levels or trying to beat the high scores of older ones, you’re able to spend time with the various denizens of the pleasant (but still prison-like) purgatory which acts as a hub between missions. These visual-novel-like interactions flesh out the detail of the world and add flavour to the characters who inhabit it.
Few of these encounters are necessary to reach the credits, but they're still a decent detour when you need a break from the repetition of the main gameplay loop. Gifts collected by replaying older levels can be cashed in to advance your relationships with each member of the cast, from the flirty Neon Red to the gregarious Neon Yellow to your cranky handler Mikey.
The voice acting for each of these characters does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of bringing each of these personalities to life. So much so that the infrequent moments that lack it come across as stilted by comparison.
A full run of all 125 or so levels in Neon White might take you less than ten hours, but the moment-to-moment gunplay is fun enough that it’s not difficult to invent new reasons to stick with it and keep playing. It's been almost a week since I hit the credits, and I'm still chipping away at high scores, unlocking new dialogue encounters and tracking down collectibles.
Completing the main game also unlocks a rush mode, which throws levels at you in a randomised sequence. This is a neat addition, but I can't help but wish the endgame here had a little more meat on its bones.
I feel a similar sort of dissatisfaction with the way the main plot in Neon White shakes out. The broader narrative here unfolds at a decent enough clip, but the last third or so of the story feels comparatively glacial as it limps towards a predictable finish line.
I don't think Neon White necessarily needs to end with some Marvel-esque post-credits stinger, but a little less satisfaction could have gone a long way here. Everything wraps itself up a little too neatly, and it's abrupt enough that you're not even given room to imagine what comes next for these characters and the world they inhabit.
Even as the stakes escalate, there's never really a sense of urgency due to the rigid structure of the game. It would have been neat to see something subvert or upend those expectations. The restraint that makes the best levels in Neon White sing ends up working against it when it comes to the storytelling.
Is Neon White worth the money?
Neon White has more than novelty on its side, but when you're water sliding down a canal and sacrificing your guns for eldritch parkour abilities, it has to be said that the verve, vibe and volume of originality here counts for a lot. A freakish blend of card-based gunplay, first-person platforming, exaggerated visuals and quirky writing makes for an infectiously fun time regardless of whether you're a longtime fan of speed-centric shooters or a newcomer to the niche.
Neon White blurs the lines between genres, but it rarely misses sight of where the fun lies.
Neon White is available on Nintendo Switch and PC.