Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
I don’t know if Sam knows it, but we’re feuding right now.
That’s Sam Barsanti, my friend and colleague here at The A.V. Club, who I’ve worked alongside for the better part of a decade—and who I’ve only just this week come to perceive as my greatest enemy, all thanks to Neon White.
See, Sam keeps topping my times on the new PC/Switch game’s leaderboards, which it displays at the end of every single one of its brightly lit, hyper-kinetic, snack-sized levels, as part of its utter devotion to being a speedrunner’s delight. And every time I see “Sam” sitting above my name with some implausibly low time to get through the game’s latest gauntlet of jumps, dives, and demon-focused gunfire, I feel a deep need to hop back in, study the level, and shave a few more seconds off my time, because while Sam is my friend, he also must be destroyed.
That’s the genius of Angel Matrix and Annapurna Interactive’s Neon White, which might be the most immediately intuitive parkour game in recent memory—in part because its abstracted vision of a pit-filled, demon-infested Heaven is very good at suggesting natural “lines” for players to run through, employing a series of gun-based movement techniques to rise, fall, dash, and leap through its levels. “Flow” is an underrated trait in action games, but Neon White moves like water; it has that wonderful trait of making your instinctual choice for your next action almost always be the right one, allowing a (possibly artificial) sense of mastery to easily set in as you disassemble a level in record time.
At least, until you load up the goddamn leaderboard, and, again, see “Sam” taunting you with a run that’s like five seconds shorter, somehow, what the fuck?
As someone who’s never really gotten into speedrunning (as anything other than a spectator sport, at least) it’s just another way Neon White tricks me into feeling like I’m suddenly a master at this shit, without forcing me to spend five years learning the ins-and-outs of every level of Metroid or Mario or whatever. In a clever touch, the game won’t even let you look at the global leaderboards for a level until you’ve posted a halfway decent score, keeping you focused on rivalries with friends without the constant, demoralizing reminder that your best effort is, like, the 80,000th best in the world. And so it feels at least somewhat do-able to hop back in, look for new lines, and kill my way to victory.
None of this would work if Neon White wasn’t smooth as hell, but, see above re: that all-important sense of flow. The game somehow even makes its boss fights take on the cadence of a Mirrors Edge-y/Doom-y take on rhythm and running games, hybridizing its shooting with ever more climbing, dashing, and rushing in a way that almost never breaks up that relentless sense of pacing. And while there are secrets in each level, which allow you to progress things in the game’s pleasantly anime visual novel-y plot, you’re wisely locked out of them until after you beat the level for the first time, forcing you to more thoroughly reckon with each chunk of space after you’ve treated it as a pell-mell, desperate dash. And as a bonus, the small size of each level makes the game exquisitely pick-up and put-downable—at least, until you get caught up in a half-hour-long quest to put That Damn Sam Barsanti back in his rightful place, half a second slower than me on the boards.