Neon White review – speedrunning has never been so stylish
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While I’m not particularly religious, from time to time I do still ponder what heaven might be like. It’s a nebulous, sometimes frightening concept. What could possibly await you in the afterlife?
Maybe it’s somewhere where concepts like stress and worry don’t exist. Or perhaps it’s just like being asleep, forever. In Neon White, heaven is neither of those things: it’s a place where you kill demons and get horny.
Last year, co-creator of Neon White Ben Esposito opened a gameplay walkthrough by saying that unlike his more child-friendly title Donut County, his next game would be for freaks. ‘Ah,’ I thought, ‘I think he’s talking about me.’
To describe Neon White at its most basic, it’s a speedrunning FPS, where our protagonist, the titular White, is tasked with killing all the demons plaguing heaven before judgement day. But there’s a strong dash of anime mixed in there too, with some fun, albeit simple visual novel elements.
The problem when you refer to something as vaguely anime is that some people inherently don’t like it for boring, reductive reasons, and I do wish those people would grow up, because Neon White wears its anime influences proudly on its sleeves, and is all the better for it. Especially paired with maybe the most exhilarating gameplay I’ve experienced this year.
To say that this game is fast is an understatement. Neon White is designed around you getting to the end of the level as fast as you can, giving you a variety of tools from level to level. These tools come in the form of soul cards, pickups that give you access to a range of firearms that can alternatively be “spent” for one-off supernatural powers. Take the rifle, for example: use it as a weapon, and you’ve got a long range, pretty powerful gun that can take down most enemies in a couple of shots. Or, you can “spend” it to do a speedy dash across a gap, taking down any enemies along the way as you phase through them, but that does put you down a gun.
As a core mechanic, it is incredibly tight, and there wasn’t a single weapon amongst the lot that felt bad or finicky to use. So that you’re not too overpowered, you can only ever have two soul cards at once. And so that you’re not up a particular creek, you always have a katana that does small amounts of damage, but it also doesn’t have any special powers.
Of course, you can have the best feeling weapons and powers in the world, but without good level design, they’re nothing but plastic toys. Thankfully, Neon White has some of the best level design I’ve ever played in an arcade-style game. Levels are deceptively simple at first glance, at least the early ones. For the most part, levels are short but layered playgrounds that beg you to figure out how to get across them as fast as you can. The more I played, the more I started to really understand the true fluidity of it all, and know when best to use a particular power or weapon.
There are clear directions in the way you should go, through enemy placements and clear and colourful modelling work. Quickly, you’ll come to learn these are never the fastest routes, with the game even offering hints towards skips you can pull off. With those hints, you slowly come to understand the game’s geography, and even if they aren’t as obvious as the supposed ‘main path,’ there are clear ways to skip whole sections of a level. Which, as any speedrunner knows, is the whole point.
More than anything, the combination of the effective level design and clever movement mechanics taught me something special: the magic of speedrunning. I’ve dabbled in speedrunning in the past – the only games I’ve completed full runs of are the seminal Celeste, and a personal favourite in Kingdom Hearts 2 – but never taken it particularly seriously.
God, does Neon White let you feel the rush of it. I think the moment that really solidified this as a game that I actually think I want to learn how to run came when I played its very first level – not the first time I played it, but once I’d returned to it after a good few hours into the game. I wanted to know how fast I could beat it, how high I could place. And you know what? At the time of writing, I’m in the number one spot.
Granted, I’m likely not up against a huge pool of speedrunners, as ahead of launch it’s probably limited to a select few players. I don’t care though, because the adrenaline I felt when I squeezed in that first place time within less than a millisecond wasn’t like any I’d felt before. And if that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.
If nothing else it’s a school for learning how to speedrun – one that, if time permits me, I will genuinely try to learn how to run myself. In a way that’s the highest possible compliment I can give.
However, that’s not all that Neon White is. There is a story there, which honestly I think is more what Esposito was talking about when he said he was making a game for freaks. Alongside the titular White, there are three other Neons (those tasked with killing demons) that you spend most of your time with. Problem is though, White suffers from a case of amnesia, which I know is an overused plot device, but it does its job here and it does it well.
In an attempt to regain White’s memories, you can acquire gifts across the various levels to give to the three Neons, Red, Yellow, and Violet. This can result in sidequests, which are levels with specific challenges; dialogue scenes, which are mostly just bits of fun with no meaningful story; and memories, which is where the sad stuff kicks in.
The surprising thing about Neon White is that its story is sort of about abuse. For the most part – albeit speaking without direct personal experience of that trauma – I think it handles these themes well. Worth noting is there’s also a fast forward button during cutscenes (it is a game about speedrunning after all), so you can just skip it if that topic isn’t something you’re keen to witness.
Either way, while there’s some surprising substance here, don’t go into Neon White expecting the most revolutionary story, nor one that ever gets particularly frightening or heavy, as plenty of the game just sees White hornily flirting with Red and vice versa (which, thankfully, never feels too crude – more just adults being adults). These exchanges are balanced out by a pretty constant ribbing of White, too – mostly because he’s a huge nerd who’s asking to be dunked on, albeit in an incredibly likeable way – and so none of the more sexual dialogue ever feels particularly gratuitous as a result.
Still, the crux of Neon White is its speed. If nothing else it’s a school for learning how to speedrun – one that, if time permits me, I will genuinely try to learn how to run myself. In a way that’s the highest possible compliment I can give Neon White. It’s not a game for everyone, especially for those who like to take things slow. But for freaks like me, it’s something I can’t do without.