Release Date: June 16, 2022
Developer: Angel Matrix
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
A couple of months ago, we had the absolute pleasure of being invited by Annapurna Interactive to a private showing of Neon White with creator Ben Esposito to showcase everything the game had to offer and pick his brain about all of the creative inspirations. It was a telling and exciting preview event that increased excitement tenfold about what to expect. The game was immediately striking thanks to its flashy art direction and fast-paced nature of platforming and speedrunning that saw a group of people referred to as Neons that were formally alive be introduced into heaven and having to compete to prove their worth by ridding of all the demons that have been plaguing heaven. The most impressive part about it all is that Neon White feels like a divine adrenaline rush that is proud of its finesse and panache without ever feeling like it’s being cocky or overbearing, creating a seamless speedrunning experience that surprisingly lends itself to the Switch beautifully.
Neon White is a mostly linear experience with visual novel elements that help drive the story forward, but thanks to the replayability of the levels including leaderboards to see how the rest of the world performs, it never gives off that traditional linearity that can sometimes make or break the flow of a game due to random difficulty spikes and roadblocks with no way around it. Instead, the title’s rapid-fire levels and fluidity keep the action at a fantastic pace with a fair amount of flexibility to make the player feel like they’re entirely in control rather than going along a predictable and scripted sequence of events. The replayability is heavily emphasized as well, with multiple medals – Platinum, Gold, and Silver – outside of the basic Bronze that can be attained simply by completing the level even if one doesn’t meet the recommended times set for each tier. These levels and medals are a blast to collect, and competing against yourself and the times set to beat can become incredibly addictive, giving that amazing feeling of a modern arcade title that almost lends itself to wanting to pass the controller over to friends to see who can do the best.
Replaying levels also adds another layer of depth as White will gain Insight, which will increase not only his Neon Rank that works its way down from 100 to 1 allowing for more missions to be unlocked, but it unlocks the ability to gain gifts and see hints that may help in utilizing shortcuts for quicker times to beat their score. The gifts gained vary from level to level but tend to rotate between a predetermined set, with each particular one also meant for specific characters so that way gifts aren’t accidentally given away to someone who has no interest in it. The gifts, in particular, are always in obscure places that may or may not always be visible, so it’ll take a bit of looking around when replaying a level to grab a gift once it becomes available, though thankfully this doesn’t count towards your time as collecting the gift immediately completes the level, and restarting the level once more to obtain a better time won’t rid of the gift you’ve collected either, leaving for peace of mind when continuing or replaying a level.
It’s worth mentioning that games like these need quick precision and movement which is why PC is the platform of choice for this type of genre, so I was admittedly worried as Neon White spoke to me as someone who loves fast-paced FPS, action, and platforming. However, to a shocking and most pleasant surprise, the game feels fantastic to play on Switch, which I know was an extremely important focus for Esposito and his team to accomplish as titles like this usually are in huge favor of a keyboard and mouse for the absolute best techniques while running, gunning, and platforming. Whether you’re playing with or without gyro enabled, Neon White is extremely responsive, and fluid, and feels great to play in both TV and handheld mode as well.
Right away the platforming and physics feel right where they should be, so it didn’t take long for me to grow accustomed to how far I would jump when pushing the stick fully forward and combining that with a lot of the traversal that comes from the multiple Soul Cards you’ll be acquiring alongside their combat capabilities which can come in the form of dashes, double jumps, stomps, and more. The aesthetic of not only the characters but the design of the levels and the cards themselves is so slick, and everything is easy to read as you spend your bullets to take out the demons in your way – which is necessary to complete a level. The cards are all beautifully designed in a simplistic way that rids of its color the more that ammo is expended, and it takes up just enough screen space that it’s easy to read without even having to directly look at it, keeping the focus entirely on the level as the rest works passively and intuitively. Neon Whites is the perfect pick-up-and-play game that is accommodating for both short and long sessions, so those that want to jump in for a few levels at a time can do so, but those that are wanting to invest the bulk of their time into Neon White will find themselves in a divine world beautifully crafted by Ben Esposito and co.
One would think that with a certain aesthetic that repeats itself thematically throughout that the levels would eventually feel rehashed or remixed, yet not once did I feel like Neon White was recycling itself the more I played. Every level feels like its own mini-skatepark where you’ll test out new maneuvers and combinations of skills between the demon-slaying and card combat and traversal, and think of new ways to ascend and get to the end of the level as quickly as possible is thrilling no matter what level you’re on, and even during the levels that just make use of one Soul Card. These, along with the side missions that serve as difficult challenges with a multitude of potentially fatal obstacles, all help expand Neon White’s breadth of content which is deceptively large. At a smooth 60 frames per second, the assets that have been rebuilt to make the Switch version run with little to no issue was well worth it, and the levels shine in a way that makes the overall aesthetic pop even with a slightly lower visual fidelity – but it works massively to its advantage and never once feels like it’s inferior to its PC version.
Outside of the fluid, fun, and sometimes intense levels of Neon White, White will find himself in Central Heaven with lots of people to talk to and locations to jump around in. While the locations themselves won’t necessarily hold a 3D space for White to run around in like the main missions and sidequests, each holds a reason to visit as they’ll be representative of not only further dialogue choices and interactions with other characters, but be used as a way to revisit past missions and reflect on current relationships. There aren’t romantic involvements in a traditional sense, but giving gifts to just about every character will increase their affinity and “Insight” with White that will unlock bonus levels and deepen the lore of each character’s background. Getting the chance to speak to each character more privately rather than in a group shows a lot more depth to their characters, and the mechanic of giving gifts and what happens in between each sequence after doing so reminds me a lot of Danganronpa. The overall offerings of Central Heaven are healthy and diverse enough that the art pops in each, so whether you’re visiting Heaven’s Gate, the Beach, the Neon Bar, Believer’s Park, Heaven Central Authority, the Cathedral, or White’s Room, each holds enough importance that you’ll find yourself revisiting them rather frequently whenever you decide to come back to the hub after a level or complete a string of missions to complete an episode which is represented in the form of “days left” before Judgment Day. The hub is easy to understand and go through if you’re familiar with other, more obscure RPGs, and to me was reminiscent of the likes of Conception, which hold a similar system of having a campus-like center for players to select prompts and menus in giving the illusion of walking around that way.
Neon White is without a doubt the biggest surprise this year in terms of sheer fun you can have with the title, and while we knew it was going to be great, I don’t think anyone was prepared for just how good it is. The diversity of content, characterizations, and options available to allow for maximum accessibility for anyone and everyone interested in the game makes Neon White a stylish and freaky paradise of slick, cool, and classic anime that’s celebrated through its dialogue and breadth of content, complemented by both story and tight controls that feel ergonomic and polished. The title isn’t afraid to be nerdy, it’s not afraid to be edgy, and it’s not afraid to be itself, and oddly these characters are relatable in a lot of ways, with constant reflections of a life once lived, what could have been done differently if you got that second chance, and what exactly our interpretation of heaven and religion means at the end of the day. Neon White shows that when one is willing to put the work in, Switch can be just as wonderful of a home for these types of games as anywhere else, and it’s pure excellence all the way to hell and back.
Neon White may just seem like “another speedrunning game” on the surface, but it’s so much more inventive and methodical than what the speedrunning community and parkour enthusiasts are used to seeing. While other games like Super Cloudbuilt, Ghostrunner, and Severed Steel test a player’s versatility, precision, and survivability, this one is all about besting your times in quick levels with high replayability, including a great story with a cast of characters that exude such style and panache that it’s hard not to get invested in the world. Being able to have stuff to do outside of levels like getting to know the other Neons and folks of Central Heaven adds a lot of depth that keeps the experience consistently fun and engaging in and out of its levels. It’s arguably one of the most stylish games seen in years thanks to the number of anime influences it wears proudly on its sleeve that it also utilizes to its advantage unabashedly, and it’ll make anyone who especially grew up in the late 90s and early 2000s smile with the most nostalgic of charming cringe. The Switch version is a top-notch build that is no doubt on par with its reflexes and precision on PC, and it shows the time, effort, and care that went into making Neon White an equal experience regardless of the platform of choice, unhindered by what the technical build of a device would tell otherwise.
Neon White copy provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.
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