'Neon White' makes you feel like a speedrunning god, even if you suck

‘Neon White’ makes you feel like a speedrunning god, even if you suck

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Speedrunning, the art of completing a video game as fast as humanly possible, is a marvel to watch. A good speedrunner cuts through a game like a katana through butter and bypasses complex fights and puzzles with lovely softness. But the best part of speedrunning events – like the one going on right now Summer games finish quickly or Fantastic games done quickly – is not strictly the dazzlingly fast action. Rather, it is listening to runners who methodically explain how they have managed to jump over large parts of a game’s intended path.

The process of gliding beyond the confines of a level and into the crooked, glitchy worlds in between is fascinating – the end result of hundreds of hours of diligent play. By comparison, the run itself is a lap of victory. “Neon White” is a first-person platform game meant to be played this way. It does a masterful job of making you feel like the genius who came up with the hopes that speedrunners trust in popular games – even if you’re actually a little hungry for it.

On its face, “Neon White” is about a deceased assassin with amnesia, White, who competes against other assassins to kill demons and get out of hell. But the real relationship at the heart of the game is that between the player and the individual levels. At the beginning of each windy obstacle course – many of which can take less than 30 seconds – the goal is simply to kill each demon and reach the finish line. You can use various items, which have the shape of cards that act as either demon-killing weapons or disposable abilities depending on how you use them, in service of this. One lets you double jump, another lets you throw down with a crater voice and so on. Playing the specific hand you get at each level – and realizing how to use it creatively – is the key to optimizing your driving times.

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It is only after you first “hit” a level that it develops to its most sublime form. At that point, a gift – which you can later offer to another character to deepen your relationship with them – arrives somewhere on the track. You can then run the level again to try to find out the location of the gift. This simple change completely reworks every place. Suddenly it is no longer about sprinting, shooting and chopping; instead, you are instructed to use each area’s specific set of cards to bypass the main road, which the gift is never on.

Gifts are almost always placed not to reveal a level’s best kept secrets but to make you think. Once you may have used cards that propel you forward at a dazzling speed to ping-pong between enemies on their way to a finish line at ground level, you can continue to discover a gift placed at the highest point of a level, resulting in overall eureka -moment. . If the gift is up there, that must be possible for you also to get up there. And if you can use cards to jump so high in a place on the level, maybe you can hold on to those cards and climb that high almost anywhere on the level. And if you can get to a perfect point where you can jump up a few stories and run forward, maybe you can move on to bypass half the level.

But that is of course theoretical. So then you run the level again with your new theory in mind. And again. And again. You fine-tune and optimize – or you may realize that you are hitting your head against a wall and are completely looking for a new route. In the end, everything clicks. You nail every twist, turn and blossom and hit that sub-17 second sweet spot to unlock an Ace medal. You are a king, maybe even a god. Plus, you still have 120 more levels left, and everyone else in the world somehow has a better time than you.

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This may sound difficult, but it is not. Every step of the process is carefully calibrated to engage the pleasure centers of your brain – and not in the cheap, thoughtless sense that you can associate with, say, loot-driven shooters or mobile games. In “Neon White” you can go from uncomfortably fumbling your way through a level for the first time to going past its trickiest section with pure muscle memory on the 20th or 30th. More importantly, you can feel that development. The levels are so short and cleverly designed that even when you finally master one, you will still remember your Bambi-like first steps through it.

On top of all that, you feel like a devilish speedrunning champion when he does. This is the game’s central illusion – one that reminds me of Valve’s 2007 first – person puzzle classic “Portal”, albeit with a greater degree of freedom. That game regularly made you feel like the smartest person on earth to gradually get fluent in the language of its portal-based game, even if all you actually did was solve a series of linear puzzles. Similarly, “Neon Whites” skips and shortcuts are built into each level’s design, but they feel dishonest.

You constantly cross, under and through obstacles that give the impression of being designed to stay firmly on the rails. When you reveal a new leap – which happens constantly and with a procession of new cards to expand the space of possibility – it is as if you have defied some invisible overlord, even if the said overlord absolutely meant that you should figure out all this. It’s a magic trick of level design that continues to fool me, even when I noticed the stinginess many hours ago.

It is this simple-sounding but perfectly executed formula that puts “Neon White” over in a year light on quantity when it comes to outstanding excellent video games, but heavy on quality when you take into account landscape changers such as “Elden Ring” and indie gems like “Citizen Sleeper”. As cliché as it sounds, in “Neon White” the reward lies in the journey. And by going back through all the early levels and repeatedly beating your friends’ best times.

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