One of the best platformers of the year is in … first person?
First-person platformers might be one of the most underrated genres in all of gaming. Its entries are few and far between, but Ghostrunner is proof that the genre deserves more attention. Ghostrunner takes all the precision and skill that’s normally limited to 2D platformers and pulls it into the first person without ever making you feel like you’re missing out on precision, while adding all the speed and intensity that 2D games can struggle to convey.
For a game to fall into the “first-person platformer” category, it needs to be more than just a first-person game that requires jumping every now and then. A game like Halo has jumping, but it would be a stretch to say that platforming is critical to the game. Instead, it needs to make precise platforming a core element, showing up throughout the entire experience.
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But even most of the games that fit this definition only use their platforming as a garnish to give players a break from their main mechanic. In the last few years, there have been games like Doom Eternal, where the platforming only serves to distract from the simple joy of gunning down demons. In other cases, like Dying Light — which features wall running and rooftop-to-rooftop jumping as you try to evade zombies — the platforming is so much better than the game’s melee-focused combat that it makes the frequent zombie fighting feel like a drag. But rarely does platforming take up the bulk of a first-person game. In fact, in terms of major titles, the only notable example might be Mirror’s Edge and its sequel.
The rarity makes sense. Platformers are all about information: how far away your next jump is, and where you’ll need to go after you make it. The perspective in a first-person game is limited to what’s directly in front of you, while a 2D platformer might let you see more of a jumping puzzle before you begin, or even while you’re in the middle of it. This lack of information in first-person games can make platforming tricky, and at worst can make it feel like trial and error, without the ability to correct any mistakes on the fly.
But Ghostrunner finds a clever way around these perspective issues thanks to a brilliant mechanic. Players take control of a cyborg ninja racing through a futuristic tower. It has all the things you might expect from a first-person platformer, like wall running, sliding, midair dashes, and even a grappling hook. But the game’s best and most unique mechanic allows me to briefly slow time while I’m in midair. This is great for combat, letting me dodge bullets and capture the full fantasy of a cybernetically enhanced ninja, but that isn’t its only purpose.
When things turn to platforming, the time slowdown lets me make tiny micro corrections after I’ve already made a jump. While I may not have been able to see a whole jumping puzzle the moment I entered a room, I do get the ability to adjust on the fly. This makes platforming a combination of carefully executed moves and spur-of-the-moment improvisation to save a botched jump that was farther away than I originally guessed.
Ghostrunner integrates this mechanic into its limited combat as well. Everything is a one-hit kill, whether I’m cutting a guard in half or dying to a single stray bullet. This means that every enemy encounter is really a platforming puzzle where I have to figure out how to clear a room as safely as possible. This forces me to start looking at obstacles in very different ways. If I jump at someone straight-on, I’m probably dead, but if I grapple behind them and then wall-run back, I can reach them before they can properly aim at me.
Boss fights also channel the platforming focus, like one where I’m battling a giant computer. Rather than a normal fight, the encounter is all about platforming around the computer’s laser defense grid. It’s an extreme challenge, especially compared to anything else in the game at that point, and requires perfect timing for dozens of jumps in a row. Miss by just an inch, and I’m back to the beginning of the phase. It’s exactly the type of boss that would be perfectly at home at the end of a particularly difficult 2D platformer, but I’ve never seen it attempted in first person, and it works brilliantly.
Image: One More Level, 3D Realms, Slipgate Ironworks/All In Games, 505 Games
Later levels feel like a perfect culmination of everything I’ve done in the game so far. There are dozens of walls to run on, grappling points to grab, and rooftops to explore in order to find the perfect routes. Enemies are frequently mixed together for the hardest possible combinations; finding my way around their guns, shields, and swords requires me to come up with strategies I’ve never considered before.
There’s something extra special about hurtling through space from one wall or platform to the next in first person. Compared to a 2D platformer, the motion seems faster, the timing is tighter, and the penalty of missing a jump — that feeling of the ground rushing toward you as you fall — is way more intense. Ghostrunner is a perfect example of what happens when a developer works within the limitations of an underappreciated genre and pulls the absolute best from it.
Ghostrunner will be released Oct. 27 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed on PC using a download code provided by 505 Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.
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