I’ve never been a huge fan of games built for speedrunning. I’m talking about the games with timers in the corners, that rank you at the end of each level, place in you a leaderboard, and then it’s off to the next level. It’s a vicious cycle of seeing how much faster everybody else is than me. I feel like they lend themselves to you getting easily frustrated if you aren’t able to get good at them. The competitive person in me gets placed on a global leaderboard and then I feel ashamed of what I couldn’t do, as opposed to what I did do.
Look, I like to play games to have fun, but I also like WINNING and feeling like I’m good at games. Most of these experiences stem from a childhood filled with flash games on Newgrounds, and since then I’ve preferred level up systems where I get better at a game by just building up in-game stats as opposed to building up my real life ones. NEON WHITE comes along, though, and suddenly I can’t stop playing levels clearly crafted for speedrunning and I constantly find myself feeling like I’m just seconds from greatness. There’s no leveling up or stat grinding, but it feels like I get better every time I run a level. Instead of feeling slow, I feel like a total badass zipping around killing demons, thinking on my feet, and continuously jumping back in to shave a few seconds off the clock.
NEON WHITE is a few things, but first and foremost it’s a first person action-adventure platformer. You play as titular character White, an amnesiac resident of Hell who’s been hired by angels to exterminate demons in Heaven. You and all the other Neons (A.K.A. other damned souls) are racing to be the best demon slayer in Heaven for a chance to stay there after the competition is over. The entire game is focused on you jumping, shooting, and always looking for the fastest way to get to the goal. The goal doesn’t open for you unless you defeat every demon on the level, and to do this you’re given weapon cards. These cards serve a dual purpose, one button shoots the gun at demons (the cards are almost all guns) and another button “discards” the weapon and in doing so activates a movement ability. Each weapon type has a different movement ability, the handgun grants you an additional jump, the machine gun lets you crash downward through enemies and destructible doors, etc. Every card feels important and hints at the type of maneuvering you’ll have to do for each level. There are environmental traps and varied enemy types that also continue to grow as the game goes on, but its basic mechanics of gunning things down and then exchanging your gun for extra movement is always key.
This never really gets old, and I always felt really cool completing a level I had been gritting my teeth through previously. Some of the levels were head-scratchers, and not all levels felt as good as others, but I eventually always found a sense of control and an ability to figure my way around the more complicated ones. While these are meant to be done fast, it’s also okay to take your time with a level the first go around to get familiar with it. The thrill of it all is never knowing exactly where you’re gonna go until you’re already floating in the air.
The other thing NEON WHITE is a quasi-social sim. It’s not deep, mind you, but it does feel like a very important component of enjoying the game to the fullest. Within each level there are presents you can find—each color coded to represent who they’re for—that can be given out in the overworld section in between missions. Giving presents to your friends allows for extra dialogue cutscenes, and even bonus levels which were some of the most fun for me. The colorful cast is equal parts chaotic and hilarious, sometimes veering into the occasional cringe, but in a way that’s always lovable. It’s like when your parents make an outdated reference, it’s cute that they are trying at the end of the day.
Your band of Neons gets introduced as walking tropes, and they never really expand past that. Yellow is your (allegedly) best friend and loveable oaf. Violet is chaotically cheerful. Red’s thing is being a hot woman who likes teasing you. Green is your evil rival. And Mikey is a cigar smoking angel cat that explains MacGuffins to you. It’s the core three of Yellow, Red, and Violet that have unlockable bonus stages, each with unique rules. You aren’t allowed to discard cards in Yellow’s, you can’t shoot in Red’s, and Violet’s levels are covered in spikes and instant death situations. Violet’s levels are the stand out, being both being really difficult and thrilling to complete, constantly having to narrowly dodge spikes and slip through cracks just in time before walls close in on you.
Even if these characters don’t have a lot going on, they’re really brought to life by the snappy writing and banter, and ultimately they play really well off each other. I never got tired of Violet trying to blow everybody up and them all just laughing it off, or Yellow and White’s occasional references to THE MATRIX. Tropes are tropes for a reason, people like these “defaults,” and NEON WHITE is a great example of how sometimes that’s all you need.
While the cast is always a fun time, the narrative doesn’t really hit as hard. As an amnesiac, White is sort of bumbling around having a good time completing missions, while everybody around him teases him for not remembering what his relationships are to them. The reveals of these relationships were never shocking, nor did they elicit strong feelings from me as it’s pretty obvious who’s who early on. Maybe it didn’t matter as much to me what my previous relationship was because they were already fun to be around without memories. There’s this whole other story about saving Heaven and taking down your rival who is trying to usurp God in some weird roundabout way that’s played seriously and feels underdeveloped. Mythical objects are suddenly introduced for the sole reason of having another level to go, it’s fine, but I ended up wishing it didn’t drag on so much. Or that the game would pay more attention to the cast rather than the expanding on what could have been a very simple narrative setup.
These issues with the pacing of the story really don’t matter much when playing the game can feel so damn good. The levels are crafted in a way that makes it easy to understand what you need to do without any real explanation. I can’t say I didn’t get frustrated with a few, but for the most part, everything was fun to run once I figured it out. As soon as I finished a level, I immediately wanted to replay it to try a new tactic or get the present I knew was hiding somewhere just out of sight. I knew I could shave a second off by turning a corner tighter or a few seconds by skipping a ledge here and there. I always felt like I could improve as opposed to feeling like mastering these levels was some sort of insurmountable task. There are leaderboards for each level, as well as a separate leaderboard for just you and your friends. That’s a great inclusion for someone like me who doesn’t care to be the best in the world, but does care about clout in my friend group. It all feels good when you get into the groove of it, and it can be so hard to put down. The bite-sized levels make it easy to convince yourself to just keep doing one more, and then another, and then another, and then another.