Running up that hill
Neon White is the latest game from Donut County creator Ben Esposito. He and the Angel Matrix team bill this level-based first-person shooter as “for freaks, by freaks.” They’re not wrong, either. Despite some rough narrative moments and occasional hiccups, Neon White is a blazing-fast shooter with style, precision, and a lot of dead demons.
Sinners, saints, and salvation. All of these potentially await in the heaven of Neon White. To reach the end, though, you’ll have to learn to go really, really fast. And, as it so happens, Neon White is a pretty good tutor.
Surfacing in the ocean of heaven as Neon White himself, the player is a dead, amnesiac assassin stuck in a rut. White’s lost soul can be ferried into heaven, but only if he can seize the number-one spot against all the other damned, color-coded Neons.
Over time you acquaint yourself, or re-acquaint yourself, with the other denizens of heaven’s competition. There are some nameless Neons, the Believers who maintain the game and punish rulebreakers, and the pencil-pushing angels who task White with his daily missions. Mikey, the cigar-chomping Garfield-alike, is a particular favorite of mine, and SungWon Cho’s delivery as the inconceivable presence that White’s mind can only rationalize as an angelic cartoon is very endearing.
Friends in low places
A few key Neons make up the core of the story though, as former life acquaintances of White’s. They start out divided into tropes; Yellow the best bro, Violet the homicidal but childish tagalong, and Red the enigmatic femme fatale. Add in Green, the imposing top-ranker, and it’s a pretty colorful crew competing for the top spot.
Though some of the gags do wear on after a while, the crew is overall pretty likable as long as you enjoy a little bit of online humor. References to memes and jokes about other video games are pretty frequent, and it definitely has a self-aware sense of humor.
When the story gets a bit more serious, it’s pretty good. Neon White quickly goes from demon-slaying and gags to questions of how one’s deeds carry over into the afterlife, and whether those actions merit eternal condemnation. As the portrait of White in the bottom-left constantly asks, “who deserves a place in heaven?”
It’s got some Cowboy Bebop vibes, which makes casting Steve Blum in the role of Neon White all the more appropriate. Really, the whole voice cast does a pretty great job across the board. But I did feel like the narrative was ultimately where Neon White falters a bit. It certainly works and provides some lighthearted asides, but aside from a few twists and cool moments in levels, it really felt like it took a backseat to the running-and-gunning that physically drives White towards redemption.
Make a deal with God
Of course, to reach any of that self-realization and affirmation, White has to slay a lot of demons. Each day of the Days of Judgment tasks you with tackling a host of levels, spread out across the kingdom of heaven. There’s a bit of a demon outbreak around this time of year, so the Believers host this competition to clear them all out and see who slays best for God’s salvation in the process.
Each one is a race to the finish, navigating the environment, obstacles, enemies, and their glowing bullets. Of course, White has some tools of his own to use too. Scattered everywhere are Soul Cards, which can be either primary-fired for a bullet type or discarded for a secondary-fire effect.
Elevate, for example, is a handgun that can be discarded for an extra jump. Purify, meanwhile, is a machine-gun that also fires a time-delayed bomb that can clear an area or give you a rocket boost. There’s a pretty good variety of cards, as well as a very important economy: White can only ever hold two types of cards, at three apiece. Hitting Ace, the highest medal in the game, on levels usually entails clever use of resources to clear what you need to clear while moving as fast as possible.
Really, Neon White feels like a tutorial for speedrunning. And I don’t just mean that it makes running fast through these levels fun and enjoyable. It’s not even that it necessarily encourages speedrunning itself. It’s that Neon White is remarkably good at teaching the player to speedrun.
Medals are given at different time markers cleared, to give a sense of gradual progression. At Gold, the player is given a hint specifically for bumping their time up to Ace; a ghost helper can show a place where a well-timed jump or boost can completely circumvent otherwise tedious navigation. The dual-use cards allow for a surprising number of interactions, but keeping it to two-and-two (two fire types, two in your hand at any time) keeps the effectual verbs at your disposal easy to remember.
Neon White‘s levels are gorgeous to speed through as well. It’s full of vaporwave, sharp-angled polygons, neon colors, and anime. But the architecture is also enormous and even imposing at times. In a few cases, I slowed down just to take in the breadth of an area. And the levels themselves play home to some interesting storytelling too. While the boss fights are fine, at least a couple of levels had some really compelling story tie-in moments that propelled them along.
Need for speed
It is amazing how good it feels to finally feel like you’ve mastered a level in Neon White. And once you’ve cleared the premade markers, the global leaderboard opens up, adding a new level of competition. It was always exciting to hit a new Ace time and see if I’d gone up or down in the standings, and (on Steam at least) there’s also a Friends filter. Beyond that, there are even more options to run that shuffle level orders and add a few extra ticks of difficulty, like no health recovery.
If you’re not eager to compete, Neon White is still fairly finishable without Acing every run. There are a few medal hurdles to clear, but they’re set fairly low compared to where a completionist would be. It’s certainly a challenging game, even though it’s fairly short in length — I’d guess anywhere from eight-to-ten hours to see credits roll — and I’m still plucking away at getting the optional off-the-beaten-path Gifts in each level that unlock visual novel chats with the cast and challenges in the hub.
Everything in Neon White revolves around running though, especially if you want to see the optional ending. Whether you dig Neon White or not will depend heavily on whether a shooter built on speedrunning through levels appeals to you. Some of the best writing and in-game moments lay behind the optional social content, and that’ll add a little challenge to the fold.
If shoving Toonami and the Titanfall 2 Pilot’s Gauntlet into a blender and turning it to the highest speed sounds like a good time, then Neon White might be what you’re looking for. It’s a blood-pumping, speed-infused anime shooter with style and a decent bit of heart. While it’s short and sweet, Neon White gives just enough to get the player keen on shaving off seconds and fractions of seconds until they are, indeed, a speedrunning freak. For anyone who likes to go fast, that’s at least worth the price of admission.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]