Neon White Review: "First Person Platforming Utopia"
First-person platformers have had a rather arduous history, finding it troublesome to balance difficulty with the rather restricted viewing experience. While some other games have overcome this feat, Neon White takes an exciting new approach to the sub-genre, introducing a barrage of unique mechanics combined with a visual style to match its extraordinary speed. Although the heart-pounding action of Angel Matrix’s latest title is certainly a sight to behold, can Neon White actually keep up with the eccentric and explosive style it is so strongly aiming for?
Atonement Through Destruction
The narrative in Neon White is one of rather grand proportions. You play as White - soon to be Neon White - a punished soul that has found himself in Heaven after a rather troubled life. Unfortunately, this Heaven is a bit different than you would expect, as it is operated by a mysterious set of Believers who love the beach and can’t get enough of piña coladas.
What the Believers also love is allowing certain punished souls - now known as Neons - a chance to redeem themselves and enter Heaven, but only if they get the highest rank in a ten-day demon-killing tournament. It is up to you as Neon White to become the champion of the Ten Days of Judgement, besting your fellow Neons and a few familiar faces for a shot at paradise. Thus, the general structure of the game is laid out in line with the Ten Days of Judgement: each day brings a new mission and a new location overrun with unwanted demons.
Heaven Forbid You Forget
Thankfully, the narrative extends beyond this introductory framework, slowly unravelling a story that has more to it than it initially seems. Across the course of the opening missions, you come across and interact with a number of different Neons that appear to have a place in a past you have no recollection of. These various fellow Neons appear perpetually throughout each mission, teasing, encouraging, and even sometimes flirting with our oblivious main character.
Unfortunately, competition is at the heart of every person’s mind as you persistently swing on a pendulum between redemption and death, so knowing who you can trust to help you along the way is critical in achieving the highest ranks.
Thankfully the story never overstays its welcome, giving you enough motivation and background to carry you through each zone without detracting from the core gameplay loop. It could be worrying that an overbearing narrative would weigh down the speed of the game, but there are only really short interludes between the game’s outlandish characters that give you the motivation to keep going - often with a sprinkle of humour to lighten up the situation too.
You will often find yourself enamoured by the oddities of the not-quite-Heaven you are thrown into, finding yourself speaking to cats perched on clouds, and trading reward tickets for often-disappointing surprises. The cast of characters all have their particularities, and uncovering the truth behind their masks - both proverbially and literally - is often the fire that fuels you to keep going. It is far from the most complex narrative that you will have ever encountered, but it is certainly enough to tide you over between each mission.
Surfing On The Path To Retribution
However, the real draw of the game lies within the missions that propel you closer to the truth. While it might seem logical that Neon White is a first-person shooter first and foremost, it is far more attuned to platformers and racing games as it challenges you to strive for the best routes and the fastest times.
Soul cards emerge as the primary function of Neon White’s action, taking the form of various weapons like pistols and rocket launchers. What separates these weapons from what you would usually expect is their secondary function - to be discarded. Throwing away each card doesn’t just expunge it from your inventory, but allows you to perform a special action required to traverse through each stage.
Cards give you abilities ranging from a double jump to a grappling hook, and are truly the key to achieving the magic of Neon White. Each level is crafted with a precise number of soul cards, giving you a superbly designed route with enough deviance to put your own spin on things. Mastering each ability and using them intelligently will likely see you soar up the rankings with some astronomically quick times.
And it is the desire for faster times that is at the heart of the Neon White experience. Each stage gives you a medal based on your completion time, and whilst you only need a fraction of gold medals to progress through the narrative, the desire for the fastest times far overrides this. I very rarely settled for anything less than a perfect run, aspiring towards the Ace medals whenever I capably could as the game dangled the time requirements in front of me like a carrot on a stick. How could I not keep trying if I was so close before?
Furthermore, the game does an excellent job of pushing you towards each higher rank. Each new medal tier gives a fresh reward incentivising replayability, from gifts, to level hints, to even the global leaderboard behind the highest medal tier. It really is a genius decision to only let you see how well you’ve done once you’ve earned the right to be near the top.
The challenge of many of the levels can make achieving this feat rather tricky, though that is not a fault in the slightest. Neon White approaches the ramping up of difficulty in a very astute manner, gradually introducing new cards, mechanics, and enemies as you progress through each mission, allowing you to digest them before they’re frantically thrown at you in unison. It is like progressively unlocking a larger puzzle with each new soul card, weaving it into your muscle memory to a point where you could justifiably complete some levels with your eyes closed.
Not Bad For A Dead Guy, Huh
The single most important feature in facilitating the difficulty of Neon White is the inclusion of an instant restart. I can’t tell you how much frustration this feature alleviated being able to instantly reset and try again no matter what stupid mistake I made on each run. And while Neon White is far from the first game to include this feature, it is no surprise that a game that so heavily leans on themes of atonement and redemption gives its players so much recourse in the face of punishing difficulty.
The trade-off for this is, of course, a level of difficulty that begets the use of an unlimited restart. Each mission is intricately designed with the purpose of piling moments of danger on top of each other, requiring quick thinking and instant reactions to deal with each new problem thrown in front of you. Usually, it is in situations like this that the first-person perspective struggles, but instead it is what thrives at the heart of Neon White. Never before have I felt so invigorated throwing my mouse across my mousepad in an attempt to flick to the next enemy or interactable object, making it an extreme test of both mechanics and in-the-moment puzzle solving.
Furthermore, Neon White erupts in an overwhelming crescendo that is up there with not only some of the hardest platforming levels, but also some of the best, having you fly through the air at speeds so fast it is hard for your brain to catch up sometimes. Perhaps one of my only complaints is that some of the boss fight sections felt in part at odds with the movement focussed action of the rest of the game. At points, it still does work just as well as the rest of the game, but at other times it interrupts the forward momentum that dictates and drives so much of the rest of the levels.
Real Songs Of Praise
In tandem with this heart-pounding action are the stunning Frutiger Aero-esque environments that you traverse. Stunning blue skies and glistening waters are contrasted by the murky and dark walls of lower Heaven and the Old City, crafting a unique atmosphere that makes each new mission feel different from the last.
And what better way to accentuate that aesthetic than with the energising chaos of Machine Girl’s pounding electronic soundtrack. There are very few better ways to replicate the anarchic motion of Neon White than a soundtrack that appears to boom and bounce with each step of your character. Mixing this in with moments of ambience creates the perfect blend of silence and violence to power you through each level.
Since finishing the game I have already returned to it several times, itching for another taste of the action to get my heart racing and thankfully it couldn’t be easier to replay. Returning to completed levels is incentivised by features unlocked only after specific medal clears, and that often leads to further content such as memories and hidden missions. Moreover, completing the game unlocks a level rush mode, where you race for one giant speedrun, with the option to shuffle the levels too.
If you’re searching for an experience that gets your heart pumping and your brain working then you really cannot go wrong with Neon White. It is an outstanding take on the rather untouched subgenre of first-person platformers that consistently reinvents itself at every turn. Near enough every one of its 90 plus levels across its roughly ten-hour playtime offers a heart-racing challenge that encourages you to master the intricacies of every stop and turn. Couple this with an electronically bathed aesthetic and an ever-present pounding bassline and you have a first-person platforming utopia that is crushingly difficult and exceptionally crafted.
Reviewed on PC. Code provided by the publisher.