I remember the first time I heard about Neon White: it was during a Nintendo Direct earlier this year. The game looked incredibly unappealing. The limited colour palette in its presentation gave it a somewhat garish appearance, and the gameplay shown made it look like a pedestrian first-person shooter. Couple that with a bunch of quick cuts, and flashing “by freaks, for freaks” across the screen, and, well, let’s just say I wasn’t rushing to add it to my wishlist on Steam.
Boy wouldn’t it have been a shame if that was the last I’d heard about it.
Shortly after launching, people were abuzz about Neon White. I heard nothing but positives about the title. People loved this game. Well, that’s not entirely true – they loved everything except for the cringeworthy dialogue. Regardless, I decided to pick it up and see what all the buzz was about. This wouldn’t be the first time that a trailer pushed me away from a game that I was the target audience for. So I set my sights high and prayed that Neon White would turn out to be something more than a minimalist first-person shooter.
As it would turn out, the magic of Neon White has little to do with first-person shooting. It’s actually a platformer. Are you surprised? I was. You play as the titular Neon White, and are running around heaven clearing out a demon infestation. To do this, you’ll be picking up a bunch of guns, which have been abstracted as playing cards. Their primary function is shooting, but each has a platforming adjacent secondary function. For example, you can discard a pistol card to do a double jump, or a sniper rifle card to dash forward. Despite being the secondary function of each weapon, it’s these ancillary abilities that dominate your time with Neon White, and allow it to shine its brightest.
The reason that secondary abilities steal the show stems from how much utility they have. Through using them in clever ways, players can bypass entire areas within a level. Your first time through each will likely be a straight forward affair. That’s when Neon White hits you with a medal rating, and asks you to do it again but faster. The most effective way to achieve this is through finding time saving shortcuts. Simply gunning down baddies more efficiently isn’t going to cut off 10 seconds from your best time, but chaining together a bunch of rocket jumps to bypass a third of the level will. Finding these shortcuts always made me feel like a genius even if they’re intended parts of the game’s design. It combines the joy of puzzle solving with expressive, free flowing movement. That’s awesome.
This setup of replaying levels while searching for shortcuts works so well, in part, because of Neon White’s pacing. Each new zone introduces one, or two new ideas that players will have to experiment with while searching for shortcuts. This keeps things from stagnating as players need to explore new solutions to problems instead of relying on tried and tested methods. What’s really smart is how the game always throws something new at you just when you’ve become comfortable with a mechanic.
The other half of Neon White that allows it to succeed is how damn good the movement feels. It’s been a long time since I’ve played a platforming game where the movement was this fun to engage with. The controls are extremely responsive, and the jump is just floaty enough to give players a ton of freedom while airborne. That last bit is important, as it makes using your multitude of abilities far more forgiving. You need only focus on pushing forward as you dance through the air.
Speaking of that floaty jump – I believe its designed should allow for a wider range of players to enjoy Neon White. You don’t have to be a seasoned platforming veteran to do well here. That will certainly help, but I found that smart use of the game’s mechanics are often the key determining factor when obtaining faster times. You also only need to earn gold medals (the second highest rating) on about 40 percent of the game’s stages to progress the main story. Again, I believe this should keep the barrier to entry lower, so more players can enjoy this fantastic game. Being inclusive is always better than being exclusive after all.
There’s also an entire subset of the game that is more puzzle oriented than the main game: present hunting. After you complete each level, a present will be hidden somewhere within it. In the overwhelming majority of cases, you’ll probably see the present way off in the distance. However, it’ll be so far out of reach that you’ll question how you’re meant to get to it. The path forward will require the same kind of thinking as improving your personal best, albeit there is no time constraint so capturing each level’s present is a bit more of a cerebral challenge. Plus, hunting these things down clued me into a lot of the skips I’d later make use of, so they felt like a great additional layer of gameplay.
What are these presents for though? Well, you use them to unlock additional dialogue with the side characters. I know the writing in Neon White is an area that no one is fond of, and I fully agree with every take about it being cringeworthy. The difference is that I also find it hilarious. There are far too many games that are completely up their own ass, and it was refreshing to play something that feels like it was written by a horny 16 year old. The dialogue is so bad, but there is an endearing terribleness to it that had me in stiches. I know it won’t be for everyone, but this was some “The Room” level awful, and I’m all about that.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I really enjoyed Neon White. I will admit, there were times where my own sweatiness made me a little frustrated though. However, chasing faster times on the leaderboard is an optional aspect of the game – one which isn’t required to see it through to completion. There’s a lot of smart ideas here that are explored just enough to leave players satisfied for more. If you’re in the market for a new platforming game then Neon White is a must play. It’s an excellently crafted experience, and an easy contender for my top 5 games of 2022.