Ben Esposito has become somewhat of a star in the indie game scene over the last decade. From his work on Giant Sparrow’s The Unfinished Swan and What Remains of Edith Finch, to his part in Arkane Kids’ bizarro titles like Sonic Dreams Collection, you’ve likely come across him somewhere.
However, Esposito is probably best known for 2018’s Donut County — a game about a raccoon who controls holes in the ground through a mobile app so that he can get a quadcopter. Donut County was a breath of fresh air with its great puzzles and fantastic writing; and while it was a tad short, it’s definitely Espositio’s best work to date… until now.
Neon White is a hard game to pin down to one single genre. Part platformer, part first-person shooter, part card game, part social sim. It sounds like a risk of too many cooks in the kitchen, but Neon White has blended them all together perfectly to create a five-star meal.
You take on the role of White, an amnesiac and one of many Neons (“sinners plucked from hell to do god’s dirty work”) selected for a yearly demon-slaying competition, with the grand prize being a year in heaven. Joining him in this competition are fellow Neon’s Yellow, Violet, Red, and the reigning champion Green, all of whom know White in some way from their time in the mortal realm.
While the amnesiac protagonist is a tried and true trope, we were pleasantly shocked at just how strong the storyline was in Neon White. The story behind White’s past from the land of the living is masterfully told and gives you the exact right amount at any time to keep the mystery intriguing. The same goes for White reacquainting himself with his former squad; you learn more about them at the same time White does. We witness characters such as the overly friendly dudebro Yellow and the sadistic e-girl Violet go from slightly obnoxious to people you genuinely care about by the end. It’s a testament to the strength of their character arcs.
If you’ve played Donut County, you’ll likely remember it for its humour. Neon White takes that ball and runs as fast as it can with it; we can’t remember the last time we audibly laughed so much at jokes in a game. While it uses modern internet terminology like “himbo” and “e-girl”, it’s used sparingly enough that it doesn’t border on obnoxious. The character dialogue feels authentic, even when it goes full anime. It’s telling that the dialogue sections never felt like busy work to get through before returning to the fantastic gameplay.
At its core, Neon White is a first-person platformer; throughout each stage, you collect cards which act as your weapons. Gunplay is important, but the main use for these guns lies in their ‘discard’ abilities, where you remove the card from your hand for extra movement options. That ranges from simple abilities like the pistol giving you an extra jump, to the shotgun letting you air dash in any direction. Correct use of discards are paramount to getting through each level and even allow you to craft routes of your own throughout each level, boosting your times.
If we were to describe Neon’s gameplay with one word, it would be ‘fluid’. Everything about the way the game feels, from the movement to the gunplay, feels gorgeous — especially with the smart use of gyro aim. We’re sure a lot of you hear the term ‘first-person platformer’ and recoil in terror. However, the team at Angel Matrix has learned from others’ past mistakes to craft something fantastic.
Each level feels masterfully designed, allowing for the smoothest possible platforming experience. The level design always accounts for which way the player will be facing, removing the frustration of adjusting your positioning. There’s also smart placement of cards in each level, which almost entirely removes the need to fiddle around with switching cards and never distracts from the platforming.
Each level is timed and subsequently graded on how well you performed; each of the four ratings (bronze, silver, gold, and ace) also gives you an insight level. This offers extras for replays, such as player ghosts, global leaderboards, and hint markers to help you boost your best times to reach the ace. Players are required to get a select number of gold ratings to boost their neon rank and progress in the game; however, it’s fairly lenient and never affected us in our time playing the game.
Another one of these extras comes in the form of the game’s only collectibles, the ‘gifts’ which can only be collected after a level’s first run. Initially, it seemed annoying to have collectibles locked behind a second run, but they completely re-contextualise each and every level. The gifts aren’t hard to find usually, most of them are in plain sight — barring some near the end that are a little obtuse. However, the act of collecting these gifts requires an intimate knowledge of the level layouts and item placement. The challenge of these collectibles transforms each level into a puzzle-platformer, and are incredibly satisfying to figure out.
Gifts are subsequently given to your comrades to boost your insight level with each of them (think of it as a variant of Persona’s social-link system). This offers up extra dialogue, memories of their time on Earth, and side quests, which are extra stages matching the personalities of each character. Red focuses on smart use of your discard abilities, while Violet’s stages are sadistic death traps that test your survival skills in this game.
Neon White also packs some fantastic visuals. It runs near-flawlessly in both docked and handheld modes, with the only noticeable hitches occurring in a couple of the later levels. The game also boasts an incredible soundtrack from the drum ‘n’ bass duo Machine Girl, who gives each chapter its own banger to hype you up throughout the game. The aforementioned writing is only strengthened by strong performances across the board, with specific praise going out to Steve Blum and Courtney Lin as White and Violet.
From its excellent writing, music, and presentation to its intense and satisfying core gameplay, Neon White is one of the most exciting things we’ve played all year, and it’s a game we can’t see ourselves putting down for a long time as we try to best our previous times. It successfully brings together elements from apparently disparate genres in new and exciting ways and seems poised to become the next great speedrunning title. It’s one that action game fans and Switch owners in general won’t want to miss.