Neon White Review: An Exciting Speed Runner/FPS/Platformer

Annapurna Interactive is one of, if not THE, most consistent game publisher in the industry today. The Unfinished Swan, What Remains of Edith Finch, Journey, and the incredible The Outer Wilds are, in my humble opinion, some of the best games to come out in the last decade. Annapurna just knows how to find talented studios and developers so they can give resources to those studios to make the best games they can. It is impressive that Annapurna has evolved into a publisher with a library that even some AAA publishers can't hold a candle to. That’s why, from the second I saw the reveal trailer for Neon White, I recognized that it was special, and seeing the publisher logo beforehand immediately gave me faith in it. 

However, my trust in one indie publisher is not universal. Neon White may not have been on a lot of people's radar. But I'll tell you (along with 98% of overwhelmingly positive reviews on Steam) that Neon White should be at the top of your list.
Story & Narrative
Neon White is a single-player, fast-paced, card-based, first-person shooter/platformer/visual novel with a large emphasis on speed running. You play as the titular character, Neon, an assassin from Hell who takes out demons in competition with other Neons in return for a chance of getting into heaven. This is a unique premise that I have not seen in a video game, and I think it works very well as a main motivator for the gameplay.

Before I go in depth about the game's stellar gameplay, I want to mention the story first since It did not leave that much of an impression on me. Visual novels are only going to appeal to a certain demographic, and I think it's clear that studio Angel Matrix is aware of that. Since all of the scenes with dialogue can be skipped, it lets players who aren't playing for the story just get to the parts they paid for. That being said, the story was serviceable. While I personally may not have found it appealing, I would expect that a lot of people are going to fall in love with the characters and world-building since each character has a distinct design/color and personality.
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Gameplay
While speed running has existed since the early days of gaming, lately it's become a genre in and of itself. Any game that can be completed can be done so with all of the exploits and strats needed to get to the end as fast as possible. Even games that weren't created with speed running in mind can give the player so much freedom that it's practically begging the player to experiment with the game's mechanics and push what's possible to the limit. 

Neon White is built around speed running - not through player choice and freedom in how you complete stages, but through precision. Precise inputs are just as much of an important factor in speedrunning as knowing all the exploits. You have to be right on time with every button press to nail a perfect run - all from muscle memory and quick thinking. 

The guns in this game are cards. You can either use your card by shooting it, or you can discard that gun which lets you use that card's special ability. The first gun is a pistol called “Elevate” which can shoot single bullets. When it gets discarded you get an automatic boost into the air. This is great for double jumps. Shotguns (Fireball) fling you whichever direction youre looking, purple LMGs (Purify) can shoot purple bombs that will launch the player in the air if you’re close enough, and green LMGs (Stomp) ground pound and destroy any enemies and objects in your radius. Those are the only ones that I’ll mention in the review, but just know that all of the shooting feels great and the abilities are all a joy to use.

In the later game, the abilities that you unlock start ramping up the intensity and speed even more. The ways in which you use those abilities in quick succession are what makes the platforming in Neon White so so SO addictive.

Level Design and Racing Your Ghost
Neon White's level design is some of the best that I've seen this year. There is a healthy mix of straightforward levels built for speed tuning, and open-ended levels that are still mainly linear but give the player many opportunities to use every tool and ability at their disposal - the latter of which I mostly found in boss fights near the end of the game.

While there are a lot of carefully thought-out levels, and the game does let you have options, the gameplay can feel very linear with not a lot of space for creativity on your runs. This is because you can’t finish a run without killing every enemy, and some shortcuts that you theoretically could take would just skip the enemies that you are required to eliminate before you can finish.

At first I wasn't a big fan of this. But the deeper my play-through got, the more I realized I was finding small shortcuts that gave me a slight edge over my ghost to give me that millisecond difference to beat my time. The game rewards experimentation, even if that experimentation can feel intentional and thought out by the developers. So while the game may not have open-ended gameplay that truly lets players get experimental, it trades that for gameplay that is more focused on feeling like a roller coaster where you are responsible for every turn. There was always that feeling of “I know I can do better,” and that kept motivating me to go back to levels that I completed without dying on the first try because I noticed what I could improve from the first run.

I mentioned something about a ghost earlier, and I want to elaborate on this feature a little bit further.

Once you complete a run for the first time, you will see you are being timed, and on subsequent runs you'll notice that you're running alongside your ghost from your best run. I love that this is a feature already on by default because playing against yourself after completing what you think is your best time can be really challenging. Replaying levels also lets you explore them a little bit more with no worry about what youre time will be. There are gifts you can find that usually consist of solving a puzzle to attain an item. You can then give these to NPCs in the hub world where they will give you small bonus levels. The game has replayability baked into its DNA. 

You can also race against your friends. Not in real-time, sadly. But I was able to see one of my Steam friend’s best times, which made me want to beat them so that's exactly what I did. Milliseconds make all the difference.
Final Verdict
We should all be keeping track of whatever Angel Matrix is making next. Whatever it is. Whether it's more fast-paced speedrunning like this or something different, I will be there. The delay from a 2021 release date was the right move because Neon White turned out to be one of my favorite games of 2022.

8.5/10

Neon White is available on the Nintendo Switch and Microsoft Windows.
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