Neon White Review
Developer: Angel Matrix, Ben Esposito | Publisher: Annapurna Interactive | Genre: First-Person, Action-Adventure | Platform: Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows | Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch
Since its announcement, Donut County creator Ben Esposito has been claiming that if Neon White “is for you, it’s your favorite game.” While that may sound like typical self-promoting high praise from a game creator, his sentiment does not fall short of its intentions. Neon White is a glorious gift from Esposito and his new developer team, Angel Matrix. Once a player steps into heaven and pulls their first trigger, they will be locked tightly into Neon White’s premise of exterminating every demon in its stylistic bloodbath.
Neon White is shockingly addicting, exhilarating, and heartfelt as it seamlessly jumps between a captivating tale of forgiveness and lightning-quick speedrunning action.
Playing With The Right Souls
In Neon White, players take control of the titular White who was killed and sent to heaven with amnesia. Once White reaches the gates of paradise he discovers that his soul was actually intended to go to hell. Heaven is in dire need of demon slayers known as Neons, color-coded mask-donning assassins that can keep the spirling number of evil in check. In a cruel scenario seemingly created by God, those from hell that the almighty pluck into his domain are given the opportunity to partake in a tournament. The winner who kills the most demons and overthrows their opponents will be given a halo that allows them to live in Heaven and enjoy its glories for a full year until they must partake in the competition again.
Fueled by a competitive itch and a desire for answers as to who he really is, White accepts entry into the competition while attempting to befriend Neons who have a previous connection to his former life. The player’s goal in Neon White is to complete a series of levels and their slate of repeating objectives, move on to the next mission, and talk with your friends at Heaven’s hub world to build relationships, unlock more challenges, and recover memories. While the structure may seem repetitive at first glance, the execution is absolutely marvelous and plays a hand in consistently developing both addicting gameplay ideas and a strong narrative.
Neon White is a first-person speedrunning action game that never tips the scales between wanting players to engage in gameplay and story. Angel Matrix’s debut title perfectly intertwines the two as it allows players to put a robust amount of time into killing demons and making friends. Gameplay and narrative always go hand-in-hand in Neon White. The two always build off one another. Together they expertly articulate a literal world of competitive action. The game will constantly make players questions what is possible as they explore a twisted interpretation of the afterlife by manipulating the game’s mechanics and fighting for leaderboard glory in more than just an online-driven way.
Neon White first introduces players with visual-novel cutscenes before sending them off into a series of levels dubbed under a single mission name. The game’s 12 missions are divided into an episodic format that plays into its visual novel inspiration. Each mission has a repeating structure where the player will watch fully voiced cutscenes during the beginning, middle, and end of the chapter, and in between the still scenes are the actual levels. The story dares to rely on its gunplay and platforming, helping to create a cohesive narrative.
Lighting Quarrels and Quips
On the surface, Neon White seems like your average first-person runner blended with basic first-person shooter mechanics. The core gameplay will have players on edge and headbanging to Machine Girl’s techno soundtrack, but like the best runners and platformers, it will also have its assassins on their toes and deep in a tense mindset. At its core, all the player has to do is either kill every demon in sight or make it to a level’s end gate in a select amount of time. What makes Neon White special though compared to every other speedrunning first-person action game is its concept of limited use Soul Cards and a layer of depth to its timed medal system that fuels competition.
In Neon White, Soul Cards act as both the player’s weapon arsenal and special abilities. When the player picks up one of these items they are given access to a gun with a limited amount of ammo. Once they are out of bullets, the Soul Card is discarded. Alternatively, the player can discard their Soul Cards immediately to activate a godlike ability vastly different from the weapon’s standard action. For example, regular pistols provide an extra jump, shotguns can send the player flying like a rogue fireball, and rocket launchers shoot grapple hooks.
While the different Soul Cards are slowly introduced over the course of the game, each card’s mechanics are never wasted. They keep what should be a repetitive gameplay loop fresh and allow players to choose whether they would like to stick to a linear path or make some hectic off-route excursions. By learning to use Soul Cards to their maximum potential, the player can blast through stages at top speed. As to be expected by this, the Soul Cards play into the driving progression system of Neon White: speedrunning for medals.
Every time a player manages to complete a level in a select time frame, they are awarded up to four medals. By collecting these medals, players gain what is called insight: the game’s experience point system that allows White to lower his Neon Rank. In the story of Neon White, Neons who manage to lower their rank on Heaven’s leaderboard (the top percentile) are given access to more dangerous locations. Without spoilers, this concept is cleverly used to double down on explaining aspects of the story and keeping the narrative in a clear direction as the gameplay becomes more challenging.
Between accounting for Soul Cards and medals, every level has been fine-tuned to be completed in a creative number of ways that present few restrictions and multiple options. Neon White’s players can either take a linear route to each level’s end or swap between Soul Cards to create their own paths. Aside from the final four levels, all of Neon White can admirably be completed without ever having to use advanced techniques like shuffling between Soul Cards. The game was designed with specific routes in mind for each level that would have players attempting to tap fewer buttons. However, these routes urge players to also make their own choices and abuse location layouts.
To add to this sentiment, a global leaderboard that allows players to see how they ranked against everyone else after each level inspires competition. From its plot to its gameplay, Neon White gleams with a competitive spirit. It openly invites players to think outside the box with their arsenal and find ways to annihilate the timer. The ranking directly tells the player that more is possible which in turn helps players feel the need to jump back into levels multiple times. The payoff for tackling levels again and again until the player discovers a perfect route to completion is exhilarating. In the vein of its story of forgiveness, Neon White wants players to try again until they find their rhythm.
Besides collecting medals in each level on a replay, players can hunt down present boxes that allow them to increase the insights of their friends. Like the Persona series and its confidant system, collectible gifts are used to flesh out Neon White’s cast with unlockable conversations only accessible during the player’s hub world exploration “free time”. In between missions, each character can be gifted a select item that is exclusively found in a specific set of levels across the game. When the player manages to fully fill a level of a character’s insight, they will be granted either a unique dialogue conversation, a sidequest level challenge, or a memory.
While the story of Neon White initially captivates audiences with just the protagonist, players will become enthralled by the character’s whole friend group, his antagonist, and some of the beings casually strolling around Heaven. Once again using the Persona series as a reference point, the friends of the protagonist are real characters the player will want to spend time with. Speaking with all of these characters may be portrayed as an optional objective for those wanting more story, but they all have engaging arcs that intricately help the game’s world evolve.
While the memory scenes are also worth giving a spotlight and some of the sidequest levels really make the player rethink how they can utilize their arsenal, the real highlight of doing these optional challenges is actually the act of unlocking them. None of the gifts players can obtain in each level feel aimlessly tacted on to levels to fill playtime. Collecting gifts can be a legitimate challenge that requires both reconnaissance and deep thinking–they easily turn levels that are intended to be completed in less than a minute into delightful excursions coming in at five times the length.
Fine-Tuned For The Angels
In terms of controls and presentation, Neon White undeniably blows away every other runner on Nintendo Switch. Angel Matrix clearly designed Neon White for the Nintendo Switch on every angle of its technical front–there is only one noticeable issue in the game’s presentation, but it is not one that derails the entire experience. Whether you are playing with a pair of Joy-Cons or a Pro Controller, the game plays as fluid and razor-tight as some of the best first-party platformers on the system. Running, shooting, and platforming all feel buttery smooth as the player is given a perfect amount of weight to perform every maneuver they need.
Neon White does have quite a bit of sharpness in areas of its presentation, but the minimalistic stylization blended with satisfying moves, detailed character art, and a fantastic gameplay interface holds the game on a high pedestal. Not only is Neon White a pleasure to look at despite having to work with the limited specs of the Nintendo Switch, but the game runs at a seamless sixty frames per second and sounds fantastic. It should be noted that the game’s voice cast–and again the soundtrack–will have players keeping the volume on and high at all times. As to be expected by the legendary voice actor, Steve Blum (Cowboy Bebop, Legend of Korra) steals the show with a standout performance as the protagonist White and his costars like Alicyn Packard keep the story’s emotional weight in check.
As mentioned before though, there is sadly one hurdle for players to overcome in all of Neon White’s glory: a micro-sized user interface that can occasionally hurt the eyes. Outside of the core gameplay, the user interface can be minuscule, especially when playing in handheld mode. The game could really use a text-size boost all around on its menus. Neon White runs flawlessly in handheld mode, but it definitely has not been entirely optimized with on-the-go reading in mind as objectives and some parts of the hub world can admittedly cause users to squint at their six-inch screen. The small text is a forgivable mistake but Angel Matrix should fix this accessibility issue in a future update.
The Perfect Paradise That Keeps Running and Gunning
Neon White is indie lightning in a bottle and a star-studded debut for Angel Matrix. Aside from its user interface that can sometimes be troublesome to read, the first-person action speedrunner title has been shaped to near perfection. It may not be revolutionary in terms of providing ideas, but the way Neon White refines and combines its runner, first-person, and role-playing aspects together is gratifying. Between the time challenges, gifts, missions, and side conversations, there is more than enough content in Neon White that will keep players engaged right up until they see the game’s two different credits roll.
Ben Esposito may be aiming to please a niche audience with Neon White, but there is no doubt that this absolute knockout will likely find an audience far beyond its cult following target. Once a player steps into the shoes of its titular assassin, they will not be able to stop running. It is the best of its genre on Nintendo Switch and across all platforms.