REVIEW: Neon White is heaven on Earth
For a lot of people, first impressions are everything. This is especially true when it comes to entertainment. That initial introduction, be it through a teaser trailer or piece of promo art, can set expectations and steer opinions. Is it fair to lock in ideas or assume things based on a single image or a minute-long video? To some small extent I’d say yes, but to a much larger sense, I’d emphatically say no. The thing is, when it comes to TV shows, movies, and games, that’s the nature of the beast. You have to get out in front of the potential audience somehow, and that debut can be a make or break moment.
I always keep this in mind when I’m being introduced to any kind of entertainment. I think about the teams behind the project, the effort put in, and the impossibility of getting the full gist of things in a matter of moments. These thoughts were very much present when I watched the reveal trailer for Neon White, which debuted during a Nintendo Direct. What was shown seemed somewhat fun, but overall, I wasn’t too interested. That said, due to the unfair expectations tied to first impressions, I always keep my mind open to be wowed later on. I’m always (perhaps to a fault!) willing to give something a shot, even when I’ve seen absolutely nothing that intrigues me. With Neon White I saw a tiny sliver of something, but nothing to write home about.
It’s hard to write about giving entertainment a chance, as it comes off as preachy to some and condescending to others. I don’t want any of this to seem like a critique towards peoples’ unwillingness to give new things a shot. I understand people place great value on their freetime and they don’t want to ‘waste’ it with a game/movie/show that didn’t entice them through promo materials. That said, I think we’ve all had moments where we judged a book by its cover and it came back to bite us in the ass. With Neon White, if I had gone on nothing but first impressions and wrote the game off, I now know that I would have missed one of the most enjoyable games I’ve played in the last decade.
I think one of the things working against Neon White is just how hard it is to convey the game through traditional means. Sure, you can see a trailer and glean some gameplay details or visit an official website for lore, but nothing is going to drive the point home like pure, uninterrupted gameplay. It seems like an incredibly hard game to market, and I certainly feel like publisher Annapurna Interactive tried their best. With Neon White, like a handful of other games before it, sometimes things don’t click until you have the controller in your hand and you’re jumping into the adventure.
Once you do pick up that controller, you’ll realize Neon White does what all great entertainment does by offering an amalgamation of proven ideas in a new package. Those who’ve played a bunch of games in their day will no doubt see some nods and inspirations at play here. Obviously, the easiest element to pick up on is the game’s speedrunning attributes, which are pretty much front-and-center with everything you see. Neon White is very much a love letter to speedrunning fans, but it’s also so much more than that. Those who enjoy the games of Suda51, particularly Killer7, will definitely pick up on a similar vibe/tone here. Fans of anime in general will see influences all over the place, from character design to story beats. I’d say there’s even a tip of the hat to games like Jumping Flash! (a personal favorite) in a few of the gameplay mechanics. All of these are woven together to create something that feels extremely modern, endlessly intriguing, and downright addictive.
So what the hell is Neon White actually about? Well, the title is easy enough to explain, as you play as a character named Neon White. From there, things need a little bit of explaining.
In Neon White, you’ll quickly find out that you’re in Heaven alongside other Neons, but you aren’t meant to stay there. Your past deeds in life made you destined for Satan’s domain, but the angels pulled you up to the clouds for one last chance at redemption. If you can help the angels clear out some demons from Heaven, you might just find yourself the winner of a year’s stay in paradise. Oh, and only one of the Neons can win the honor when all’s said and done.
That’s a considerable challenge for anyone to tackle, but it’s doubly troublesome for Neon White considering he’s forgotten pretty much everything about who he was before his arrival in Heaven. Can he trust any of the Neons along the way, or the angels for that matter? You’ll find out all this and more out as you make a mad-dash through Heaven to save your soul.
Make no mistake, Neon White will literally have you dashing all over the place to destroy demons. You’ll also be double jumping, slamming through gates, tossing explosives, and more along the way. The thing is, you can only perform moves like the ones mentioned above through the use of Soul Cards, and they are (pardon the incoming pun) the heart and soul of the experience. How you use these Soul Cards can be the difference-maker in any level you tackle, and finding the exact right combo of Soul Cards and places to use them is the key to success.
Almost every level in Neon White has exactly one two-part task; clear all the enemies and get to the goal. You can’t enter the goal without defeating all the enemies, so you’ll have to hunt them down to complete a stage. The faster you complete a stage, the better medal you get. The better the medals, the higher you climb in the ranks. Finally, each ‘Chapter’ in the game requires you to be at a certain rank or better, so figuring out quicker ways to make it through stages isn’t just fun, it’s somewhat required. All this brings us back to the importance of Soul Cards.
You’ll find Soul Cards sitting in areas on the map, left behind by fallen enemies, or inside vending machines. Each card gives you access to a new weapon as well as an ability. For example, Yellow cards give you a pistol, but they also give you the ability to double jump. Now here’s the real kicker. As you use the weapon on a card, it slowly depletes until it’s destroyed. In other words, you can fire off a few rounds at demons to take them out, but you don’t have an infinite amount of bullets. What if you want to use the double jump ability? You get exactly one use from each Yellow card, so perform one double jump and the card is destroyed.
It’s this little mechanic that makes Neon White absolutely sing. You’re constantly trying to figure out what combination of moves and weapons will help you get the job done as quickly as possible. There are countless ways to destroy every enemy and reach the goal, but there’s likely just a handful of paths that will get you there in record time. You’re very unlikely to figure these optimal paths the first time you play a stage, but with each repeat session, you’ll start to see the invisible elements that can be tied together to optimize speed. Then, of course, you still have to have the skill and timing to pull them off!
For me personally, multiple levels in Neon White ran me through the same process. I’d run through a stage, defeat all enemies, and hit the goal. Then the next screen would come up and show me that I hit a bronze medal, which then shows you the times for higher medals. I’d often scoff at the times for gold or ace, as those times were just so much better than what I had just pulled off. Even though you know the better times aren’t impossible, some of them sure feel that way! Begrudgingly, you hop back into a stage to run it again to see where improvements can be made. Then, slowly but surely, you start to work out a path that leads to a much better time. This routine is incredibly rewarding, and when you actually pull off an ace medal, you feel like the best player in the world (just don’t look at the leaderboards!).
What takes the experience up another level is the cool factor. You feel like an absolute badass when playing Neon White. Stringing together a combo of moves and perfectly-timed jumps put the biggest smile on my face. I have never, ever thought of myself as a speedrunner, and I’m sure my times in Neon White are nowhere near world-record level, but I’ll be damned if the game doesn’t make you feel like you’re king of the world. Blasting enemies with shotgun shots, whizzing by doors with a forward burst from a Soul Card, double-jumping around corners and shooting laser enemies that set off chain reactions makes for an insanely satisfying experience. Truth be told, it looked a billion times cooler than anything I ever thought I could pull off, and it somehow felt even better!
If you’re worried about needing insane skill in order to progress through Neon White, please don’t be. The game is finely-tuned to make sure anyone who has even the most basic grasp on gameplay will be able to see it through to the end. You’ll never be forced to grind out ace medals on every single stage in order to see the end of the game. Neon White also eases you into getting better medals once you pick up a bronze by adding in little markers that will show you a portion of the optimum path to take. These helpful hints always give you a nice piece of the puzzle that should help you work out the path to at least a silver, but more likely gold medal. Trust me, you won’t need to work too hard to feel incredible about your performance.
Neon White pumps up that amazing feeling even more with what could be the most perfect soundtrack for a game since DOOM 2016. Composer Machine Girl crafted the entire Neon White soundtrack from start to finish, and they absolutely killed it. I don’t even know how to describe the sound of Neon White, but Machine Girl themselves say their music is “f@#%ed-up electronic punk,” and I’d say that fits the bill perfectly. The soundtrack gets your blood pumping and toes tapping, and it sounds all kinds of unique, grimy, and downright infectious. This kind of music makes running loops through stages that much more additive, and pushes you to keep going harder.
I both could talk about Neon White forever while also being at a loss to describe it. All I know is that I’m in love with the game, and it’s easily one of my favorites in recent memory. It all comes down to the gameplay, which is compelling on an extremely deep level. That core experience scratches an itch I didn’t even know I had, and in a way I don’t think I’ve ever felt before. Throw in an absolute banger of a soundtrack, some trippy visuals, an intriguing story with fantastic voice actors (especially the incomparable Steve Blum!), and you’ve got the total package.
Neon White is so impressive it’s scary, and it more than deserves a spot in your Switch library. If you were on the fence before, I suggest leaping off and running over to the Switch eShop right now. If even a tiny bit of what I shared in my review made you perk up, I promise the game itself will take that feeling and increase it a thousand times over. Don’t let missing out on Neon White become one of your gaming regrets.