First-person platforming is hard to get right and is often the weakest part of first-person games. I was curious to see if Neon White, an FPS platformer from Angel Matrix and Annapurna with an emphasis on speed, would pull it off. The answer is a resounding yes! Neon White serves up fluid exhilarating action in sharp colorful style.
Heaven Is a Place Like This?
Heaven is paradise for the believers. They even have a spa! But once a year, on the Days of Judgment, demons threaten to overrun this utopia. So the believers dredge up the worst sinners from hell–thieves, assassins, and murders–fit them with masks, and call them Neons. The Neons have one job: clean out the demon infestation. The reward? A year’s stay in heaven. But only for the top-performing neon. The race is on to claim the prize.
This is Neon White’s first Days of Judgment, and to make matters worse, he has no idea who was in life. All he knows is that a katana feels natural in his hands. Heaven definitely isn’t what he expected, and it seems like a few of the other neons are scoping him out. But hey, it’s still good to be out of hell, and slaying a few demons sounds like fun.
Aim for the Heavens
Once White gets his orders from his angelic overseers, it’s time to head out on a mission. Missions are divided up into the ten short stages where your goal is to kill all the demons and reach the finish as fast as possible. White starts armed with his signature Katana and can grab soul cards along the way that provide a variety of abilities. Each soul card serves as a different type of gun, for example a pistol or a shotgun, that White can use to mow down demons. In addition, White can discard a soul card for a one-time movement ability like a dash or double jump. Managing the soul cards is a huge part of success and where the FPS platformer fusion happens. Waste all your ammo with spray and pray, and you won’t have the movement ability you need to advance. Conversely, if you discard too soon, you might be left helpless against a horde of angry demons.
Top-notch level and mission design allow the soul card mechanic to shine. Whenever Neon White gives you a soul card, you’ll find a clear use for it soon after. It might not be the only possible use–more on that later–but levels do an excellent job guiding you through with card and enemy placement. In the larger picture, the mission structure gradually acclimates you to the mechanics, introducing each card in isolation and letting you get a feel for it before ramping up the complexity and challenge. Levels are bite-sized, rarely lasting more than a minute. It’s expected you’ll take a few tries to get the hang of it, and retries are quick. Neon White can be difficult but always feels achievable and provides you the scaffolding to get through. It reminds me of the similarly excellent Celeste in the way it builds you up step by step to conquer what are in retrospect substantial challenges that might have seemed daunting if dumped on you all at once.
Getting through each level is just the beginning. If White wants to be the one to stay out of hell, he has to be the best which means blazing through as fast as possible. After each level, you’re awarded a bronze, silver, gold, or ace model based on your time. A gold medal can be earned with sharp shooting and quick reflexes. However, an ace medal often requires sequence breaking. Usually there’s some less obvious use of your soul cards that can form a shortcut and shave a few seconds off your time. Don’t worry if it’s well hidden. Earning enough insight–gained by replaying the level–reveals a hint. Gold and ace medals aren’t just for show. They increase White’s neon rank, which is needed to unlock later missions. Neon White thus requires some level of mastery rather than just limping long before it will let you on to the next mission, which is a good way to ensure you’re practiced enough for the challenges to come. Even if it wasn’t required, speedrunning in Neon White feels awesome. I frequently got sucked in trying to see if being just a little quicker on the draw or taking that corner slightly differently could shave a few tenths off my best time.
Ultimately, for all of this to matter Neon White needs to nail the fundamentals, and it does. Guns are distinct, satisfying, and give you enough leeway with your aim to be usable while running at top speed. Missions test said aim, as well as your reflexes and ability to think on your feet, but don’t require the kind of precision platforming that simply doesn’t work in 3D. You never need to do things like stare at your feet to make sure you’re at the very edge of a platform before you jump. Big air on jumps means claustrophobic camera angles aren’t a problem and gives you time to adjust your landing. Above all, every movement feels smooth, crisp, and responsive. When I failed, it was because I made the wrong decision or missed on my timing, not because Neon White is finicky. And when you do put it all together, you’re rewarded with fluid runs that build into an ever wilder and more frenetic crescendo of joyful motion.
Levels contain optional objectives in the form of gifts. Once obtained, gifts can be given to various NPCs to unlock additional dialogue, sidequests, and ultimately, White’s memories, which are key to piecing together the story. Like ace medals, reaching gifts often requires using soul cards in different ways, and some gifts are quite well hidden. I enjoyed looking for gifts less than speedrunning the levels. It lacks the same high-paced excitement, and it’s easy to get stuck. The sidequests, which are extra levels that focus on particular aspects of the mechanics, aren’t as good as the main levels either. The few times Neon White was frustrating rather than fun were in these. Technically, you don’t need gifts or sidequests to finish the game. However, you do need them to see all of the story and unlock one of the endings. At least there are guides out there.
Ghosts of the Past
Neon White’s story is simple but endearing. White may not know what’s going on, but a lot of people seem to know him. Between missions, events play out in short visual novel style scenes as White tries to remember his past, his connections, and his place in everything. The story is exciting with plenty of twists and turns, but wisely keeps exposition and lore brisk. Characters are likewise big and bold enough to make an impression during the brief interludes. Even in your brief time together, everyone, from the angelic bureaucracy to White’s Neon comrades, manages to be compelling and memorable in their own way. Outstanding voice acting helps too. Neon White landed some impressive credits, and everyone does good work, especially Alicyn Packard as Neon Red.
Additional scenes and dialogue can be earned via gifts as mentioned or by exploring the believers’ headquarters in central Heaven. Dialogue and the prizes White can cash out by redeeming heavenly delight tickets are fun extras that let you spend a little downtime with the characters and lighten the mood between the intensity of the missions. White’s memories are the key to filling in his amnesiac background and identifying the threads that connect everyone. Only once White remembers who he is and why he’s here can he realize what he needs to do.
Neon White packs killer style to complement its electric gameplay. Machine Girl’s adventurous electronic soundtrack has the perfect groove to make you want to start moving and never stop and impressive variety to backdrop the different regions of heaven. Visually, heaven is a trippy place, but in a good way. Floating platforms and celestial spires both form parkour playgrounds and define an architectural style that is inscrutable yet familiar. Character designs are quirky and bold to match their personalities, with each Neon highlighting a color and rocking a whole lot more belts than needed to keep their pants up. Gnarly skull masks obscure their faces, and the touch of macabre prevents you from getting too cozy, even if you are in heaven.
Several extra features are designed with speedrunning in mind. You can easily replay any mission or level from a menu, and once you unlock the ace medal, upload your time to a global leaderboard. You can also play through all the missions in sequence in level rush, either in order or shuffled. For those interested, I expect speedrunning will add a lot of additional life to the game. Finishing the story and even earning the ace medals are likely achievable for most players because of Neon White’s scaffolding. That said, the skill ceiling is high, and I’m excited to see the wild combos hardcore players will manage to pop off in their quests for ever faster times.
Neon White is slick, exciting, addictive, and most of all, exhilarating fun. Strap on your belts, and get ready to race through heaven and ice some demons because this is one you won’t want to miss.
NEON WHITE IS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Many thanks go to Annapurna Interactive for a PC review code for this title.
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A veteran of Oregon Trail and Battletoads, Wes has been playing and talking about games for as long as he can remember. He’s down to try almost anything, and he especially enjoys games with gripping narrative experiences.