Neon White is a difficult game to describe. I guess you would call it a card-based speed runner, but that label gives a false impression. Neon White isn’t a card game like Magic: The Gathering or Slay the Spire. The cards are power ups you collect during a run, like shells or mushrooms in a round of Mario Kart. They accentuate the experience, but the gameplay is defined by movement.
As heavenly assassin Neon White, players run, jump, and dash through stages, deploying the cards at just the right moment to attack enemies and/or gain momentum to reach the next platform. Picking up a Soul Card provides the player a gun with limited ammo. Discarding it grants them a unique movement ability. The game requires a combination of lightning-fast reflexes and real-time strategy.
The game’s genre shifts depending on your mission. If you’re not concerned about how quickly you complete the level, Neon White feels like an action platformer. When you’re searching for items that unlock special quests, it’s more of a puzzle platformer. Trying to beat your best time and climb up the global leaderboard turns the game into an arcade-like experience.
Neon White bears a lot of similarities to GhostrunnerThe 2020 cyberpunk FPS slasher with lightning-fast action, in its acrobatic movement and how it builds muscles that help the player accomplish impressive feats. But the addition of Soul Cards makes Neon White‘s gameplay more dynamic. Every card is a new variable that can impact your run in a hundred tiny different ways, depending on when and how you deploy it. The slightest adjustment shaves from or adds to your time, and you can save full precious seconds by using cards to create shortcuts.
After stages of GhostrunnerI was never tempted to go back and replay them. Neon White actually requires you to improve past scores in order to progress, but that’s a joy, not a burden. By the time I needed to go back to improve my rank, I felt fully capable of upping bronze scores to silver or gold or platinum, and was satisfied every time I proved myself right.
The controls are incredibly intuitive, smartly limited to the triggers and shoulder buttons. The character responds precisely to players’ inputs, so every failure feels fair and every success well-earned. The game runs at a smooth 60 frames-per-second on Switch in both handheld and docked mode. The Switch version of the game offers gyroscopic aiming. I needed to turn the sensitivity down significantly before it felt functional using Pro Controller, but your mileage may vary. Once I dialed the sensitivity down, I had a lot of fun with the mode, even though it’s not my preferred way to play.
Neon White and other assassins compete with one other to land a permanent home in Heaven. Only one gets to stay, the rest will burn in hell. Those are high stakes, but the conversations (and there are a lot of them) are mostly made up of quips and clever retorts, rarely conveying the characters’ fears of a fiery fate or any sense of desperation to escape it. I’m rarely a fan of told exclusively through dialogue (all telling, no showing), but the narrative in Neon White is especially lackluster. The story feels stressed on rather than a natural extension of the gameplay. It would have been better served if it let environmental storytelling take the lead, since the character and world design are where the game shines.
I picked up Ben Esposito‘s previous game, Donut County, on a whim, and enjoyed it immensely. Playing as a hole in the ground trying to swallow up bigger and bigger objects was wonderfully bizarre, and the game was a delight. Neon White, on the other hand, is an action-packed thrill ride. Kudos to Esposito for making a game in a completely different genre, with a completely different energy. As much as I loved Neon Whiteand Donut County Before it, Esposito’s creativity clearly can’t be limited to any one type of project, so I eagerly await the journey he and his co-developers take players on next.
Review code provided by Annapurna Interactive. Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.