Neon White Review - Speed Demon

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A Neon White character stands in front of a clock about to strike midnight.

Morality is such a hard thing to quantify. When can we ever do enough to justify calling ourselves good? When we stop, is this us admitting defeat? Is the mere act of stopping itself an immoral act? Neon White manages to bring up so many questions in the inertia of its own movement but manages to stay surprisingly consistent in the blur.

Neon White is a game that wears its influences proudly and comes across as surprisingly earnest because of it. Feeling ripped out of the mind of an anime geek, it manages to take little bits from its aesthetic, presentation and storytelling to feel oddly fresh.

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The same can be said for how it feels to play. It takes a surprisingly approachable take on speedrunning old boomer shooters and enthuses it with many of the privileges we come to expect from modern games.

A Neon White screenshot showing the cityscape.

Heaven or Hell?

In Neon White, you play an assassin damned to hell who has been given the chance to get into heaven, as long as you're willing to exterminate as many demons as possible over a ten-day span. You are functionally competing against 99 other souls to see who is the most worthy. In a sense, Neon White is kind of a battle royale game.

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Think less Fortnite and more Battle Royale, the Japanese thriller from 2000. When you aren't fighting, you are left to explore a handful of areas, visual novel style, where you can connect with a cast of other assassins to figure out who you are.

Afflicted with amnesia, you must find gifts in every level to increase your insight into your relationship with each character. Levels rarely take more than a minute and the optimal path required to ace a level is often very different to the one that leads you to a gift.

This leaves you repeating levels, figuring out what makes them tick. Luckily, with a quick restart button and some very intelligent level design, peeling back the layers of each level to reveal the puzzle at its core is a joy.

A first-person screenshot of Neon White with a card ready to be used.
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Play Your Cards Right

As you make your way through levels, you can use cards that give you different guns. By discarding them before you're done, you access one use of an alternate fire. This can give you an extra jump, a leap, a grappling hook and more. Making your way through each level at a high speed requires knowing which cards to use at any point and how long you should hold on to them. If you hold them for too long, you may just waste them.

Neon White only continues to build as you get further in. It starts out very simple with a few platforms and a single gun but soon gets so fast that you are constantly anticipating the next corner. In this sense, Neon White is almost more of a puzzle game than a straight-up shooter. Being good at aiming is a plus but the best speedrunners are those who can figure out the optimal path and learn it. It's engrossing and can be quite tough, but it only offers enough difficulty to keep you engaged. In this sense, the game is as hard as you want it to be.

Acing every level is a pretty easy task. You just have to find out the right combination of moves and paths. Getting into the top leaderboards is much harder. It plays into the illusion we often create when playing a game. We know, when we're close to death in a shooter, the game is artificially changing the AI to challenge us yet we don't mind. There are millions of little ways that games play tricks on you yet we opt into the illusion that we're battling against the odds and winning.

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It took me just over 11 hours to ace every level and get every gift but I have since gone back to get all new scores and continue playing levels I've already finished. I continuously challenge myself in the comforting confines of its post-neo-classical vaporwave aesthetic. Evoking visions of heaven, levels are often placed on a bed of clouds where only white buildings are left. These make excellent platforms to get around all those demon baddies.

In a sense, its aesthetic is a good metaphor for most of Neon White's design decisions. It fits so well into the general atmosphere of the game yet also works as its own distinct thing. Through nothing but a screenshot, every inch of it feels distinct. It draws upon the brilliant weirdness of vaporwave whilst pumping electronic beats into your ears from Machine Girl.

Neon Red says 'Do you think this will end for us the way it did in life?' in Neon White.

Ight, Imma Head Out

Neon White's dialogue can be a little mismatched sometimes. Where its reference-heavy writing and almost flanderized character design can hold it back, its willingness to do that in the first place is oddly charming. Most of the time, it manages to nail its tone and atmosphere with surprisingly likeable character dynamics but, sometimes, it can get a little too much. Some dialogue is overly memey, relying almost entirely on outdated internet references. Other times, its weirdness is just the right amount for a group of whacky assassins essentially trying to shoot their way out of hell.

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Sometimes, playing Neon White is like talking to your little brother about that really big stick he has just found. He's going so fast that it's hard to fully appreciate why he loves it so much but their passion is just so infectious you can't help but enjoy it a little yourself. You may not get his fascination but, when you pick up the stick, it transports you back to when you felt the same way. Even when he stumbles over his words and comes across as barely coherent, you love your brother anyway.

Neon White
Although Neon White goes by in a blur, that fast pace is only made greater with excellent level design, fun characterisation, and so many little secrets to find. Though I was expecting to be entertained by Neon White's gameplay for a few hours, its likeable cast and surprisingly sincere geekiness has managed to stay in my mind long after the credits have rolled. It's hard to really grasp its long-term staying power but Neon White has secured its place on many lists for the end of the year.
PC
Nintendo Switch

A copy of Neon White was provided by the publisher.