America - Front
America - Back
By Paul Broussard 21st Mar 2022 | 1,161 views
After Ghostrunner largely came out of nowhere and wound up being one of my favorite games of 2020, the promise of a full blown story expansion was certainly enticing, although I should hasten to add that the “story” component still isn’t pulling its weight. If there’s one area the original title failed miserably, it was its narrative, and Project_Hel continues Ghostrunner’s dubious tradition of having the least interesting plot based in a dystopian cyberpunk setting ever. Project_Hel focuses on a boss from the original game that only showed up at the end of one mission and had about as much story relevance as the color of the main character’s jacket. As a result the narrative winds up being more of an excuse to just do some cool platforming rather than develop any actual interesting worldbuilding.
That's still disappointing, but whatever. One More Level has made it clear that we’re here for the gameplay and not the story, so let’s judge it on that actual gameplay, which transitions over from the base title mostly intact. The original Ghostrunner is, in my mind, the best example of the fast paced, first person platforming popularized by titles like Mirror’s Edge, and thankfully that element transitions over mostly unscathed. You run along walls, jump, and slide through various obstacles to reach the next parts of the stage.
There are a few new tweaks, however. The biggest by far is the addition of a mid-air dash that can be performed in slow motion. While this was present in the base game, it was limited to moving from side to side (mostly helpful for dodging incoming bullets and other projectiles mid jump). The titular Hel’s jump, on the other hand, can move you forward as well as side to side, and even up and down to a limited degree, which gives her a much greater range of versatility when platforming.
In theory, more options sounds like an improvement, but as anyone who has stumbled across MatPat’s YouTube channel can tell you, theories are often unpredictable, unreliable, and can make you look really stupid. One of, if not the, main appeals of the original game was the challenging platforming. You often had to move precisely in order to have the right height and angle necessary to reach the next platform, and do so while moving pretty quickly. Having an option at hand that slows down time and allows you to basically reposition yourself wherever you want within a fairly sizable range is like having an instant get out of jail free card. I’m all for giving the player more tools to experiment with, but innovations should enhance the gameplay, not just simplify it.
The other big mobility change comes from the changes made to the jump. Hel’s jump sends her much, much higher and longer than Jack's, propelling her into the air like a drug addled kangaroo. This both makes the game easier and harder at various points, and unfortunately both are to the detriment of the DLC’s quality. The higher and longer jump is useful in platforming, as it makes it easier to land on platforms and cross large gaps, which, combined with the improved air dodge, serves to make platforming even less challenging. Conversely, it winds up being much worse in combat, as an attempt to nimbly leap out of the way of an incoming projectile will often leave you hanging in the air as free target practice for everyone within the same zip code.
Project_Hel also has a much greater emphasis on meter management than the base game. Unlike the original Ghostrunner, which had a series of one use powerups that drew from a single meter pool which filled slowly from killing enemies, Project_Hel narrows that set of options down to just two abilities. There’s a projectile that consumes a small amount of meter, and a shield that will automatically activate and save you from death if you have at least half of your meter available. The catch is that the meter depletes slowly over time, which provides a much greater incentive to play combat aggressively, at least during the fights where the devs don’t just plop down a point that endlessly respawns meter.
When firing on all cylinders, Project_Hel does capture the chaotic whirlwind of Ghostrunner gameplay that drew me so much to the original game. Perhaps even the combat is slightly better than the original game’s at its peak. But the platforming is heavily gutted, and the combat is rather hit or miss, which adds up to an experience that just doesn’t feel as satisfying to play as the original release. The ingredients are all here, but the recipe isn’t quite up to snuff.
The one thing that I will definitely attribute as an unquestioned improvement is the removal of those god awful matrix-esque platforming stages where all your powerups got taken away and you had to listen to the world’s most boring narrator drone on about some meaningless backstory. That is thankfully gone and buried. Project_Hel does have some of its own points where the pace gets inexplicably ground to a halt, like when you have to stop and move a bunch of sliding tiles around to open a passageway through a tunnel, but there’s at least some interactivity there.
Value wise, Project_Hel is 7 missions for $15, which is a reasonable enough value proposition, although 2 of those missions are boss fights which are very short and not all that interesting. Truth be told, I wouldn’t mind scrapping boss fights entirely from future Ghostrunner titles; they’re impressive visual spectacles, but they generally wind up being relatively light on platforming (the best part of these releases) and too heavy on just learning patterns and trial & error.
At the end of the day, the thrust of this review is that if you liked Ghostrunner and want more of it - albeit significantly less challenging and with less interesting platforming - then Project_Hel is Christmas in March. Personally, though, I can’t help but feel like there was potential to do a lot more with this. There are very few original ideas on display in Project_Hel, outside of the new meter management system, and too many poor decisions that undermine the core ideas of the original, so it fails to reach the highs of the base game.