Co-created by creative power couple Ben Esposito (Donut County, Tattertail) and Geneva Hodgson (OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes, Tattertail), Neon White is as unlikely as it is amazing: a winning combination of card game meets high-speed puzzle-platformer meets Quake-style first-person shooter meets visual novel.
In Neon White, players take up the mantle of White, an ex-assassin who, upon dying, is temporarily sent to heaven instead of hell so that he can become a Neon – a hunter tasked with eradicating the demons which have somehow infiltrated heaven. The reward? A chance at salvation. White is also joined by his ex-crew members Yellow, Violet and Red as they race each other and other Neons to gain the favour of heaven’s angels.
Now, of course, everything is not quite as it seems and there are quite a few bold twists and turns which are best kept secret for now, but, overall, the story is just a notch above standard-fare, save for the writing itself, which is clever, witty, and more than occasionally hilarious. Neon White truly shines when it is self-aware and does not treat itself too seriously, and I honestly can’t remember a game that did internet humour better.
Neon White is also unabashedly an anime game, at least partly influenced by series such as Death Parade, Cowboy Bebop, and Bleach as White and his troupe fall into shōnen stereotypes: White is the broody, somewhat quiet amnesiac, Yellow is his himbo best friend, Red is the party’s sultry but ferocious sniper, and Violet is the designated masochistic klutzy-but-in-fact-capable alt-girl. It all works together just fine, and the crew is really very likeable, but I still would have liked to see something more different, especially from a game that is otherwise wonderfully unorthodox.
In terms of the presentation, too, Neon White wears its anime DNA on its sleeve. In heaven, for example, the skies are a gorgeous, glassy blue that brings to mind Neon Genesis Evangelion or Dreamcast-era SEGA games. In general, the art style is lucid, striking, and great, with enemies and parts of the path contrasted just enough so that you are almost never lost. And if that wasn’t enough, Neon White is supremely cool as well. White dons an immaculate white (obviously) tailored suit complete with a black belt that is the envy of everyone from me to #1 belt fan andKingdom Hearts creator Tetsuya Nomura.
“Neon White truly shines when it is self-aware and does not treat itself too seriously…”
It also features Mikey, a cat angel who issues jobs to White and is perceived as a cigar-smoking, razor-sharp black sunglasses-wearing orange cat. The demon design is cool just as much, with enemies ranging from a Homunculus-ish blob, something straight out of Fullmetal Alchemist, to turret-like human heads that strain their bloodshot eyes as they target White and co.
My one irk with the art design is that even though Neon White does shake up its areas, the environments are still largely similar looking. I believe this is largely intentional, as you’d spend most of the time whizzing past at high speeds anyway, but I still would have loved more variety. Variety is also a problem I have with the heart-thumping electronic punk soundtrack by machin3gir1, which I don’t quite like enough for how much it repeats itself. I was exasperated by how much I heard the vocalists shout ‘girl!’ or ‘white’ as I tried the same level over and over again in pursuit of a better time. On the contrary though, I really liked the voice acting and I couldn’t get enough of internet celebrity Sungwon Cho AKA ProZD as Mikey, the aforementioned cat angel.
Speaking of repeating the same level over and over again, it is credit to Neon White’s addictive gameplay and how it bizarrely, but successfully, mashes up something like Quake with The Witness that I desperately wanted to improve my time, especially as I don’t usually care for time trials, my position in various leaderboards and the like. And whereas fans of Esposito’s previous game, the adorable physics-puzzler Donut County, might, at least at first glance, find this latest project to be quite the departure, at its core, Neon White is more of a puzzle game than anything else.
“…Neon White is more of a puzzle game than anything else.”
This is because the challenge at the heart of its levels is to use whichever resources you have available—weapons and abilities in the form of Soul Cards—in order to cross the finish line as fast as possible. Having said that, if this sounds a bit like speedrunning to you, that would be exactly right, as Esposito himself explained how he was originally inspired by ingenious speedrunners and how they come up with their nearly-impossible times. So, like in speedrunning, the most difficult part of Neon White is devising an optimal and time-efficient path and so solving the puzzle behind each level.
Levels are the building blocks of Neon White as there are about 120 levels to complete, spread across a total of 12 ‘missions’. The goal of almost every level is to defeat all enemies and get to the end as quickly as possible. Levels are fully replayable, and each one is actually meant to be completed at least a few times: first to get the best out of four possible medals, ace, and second, in order to find gifts which you can then offer to your friends in exchange for extra dialogue, side quests and insight into White’s lost memories.
Each level starts with White holding a katana Soul Card, which is, in this particular case, how you have access to melee attacks. You can typically use each Soul Card in two ways: first, you can decide to play it and deplete a portion of usage in order to slash or fire, depending on the weapon; or second, discard it completely in order to gain access to the card’s special ability. You can also at any time switch between the cards in hand. Important to note is that you can only hold three of each type of card in a maximum of two stacks, excluding the katana card. This all may sound complicated when put in writing, but I found it quite intuitive after the first few minutes of play.
Despite this, the game is a mountain to climb in terms of mastering its systems, as it can be quite tricky to know when it’s best to use a card, either partially or fully, or when it’s best to discard it entirely. And even if at first the gameplay may be deceptively simple, the game builds upon itself to such an extent that I eventually had to make a decision at almost every single moment, hands sweating on the controller as I flew past the goal post. It was simply exhilarating to achieve a really good time and to use every single tool in my arsenal to get better and better.
Neon White did an excellent job at easing me in as every few levels the game evolves in interesting ways: new abilities, more enemies, traps set by your frenemies, etc. To be honest, I came in nervous about the card mechanic thinking that it would be an impediment rather than a great feature and that it would be a gimmick that would get old quickly, but I’m very happy to report that it worked out unreasonably well, with Neon White reminding me of Crypt of the Necrodancer in this way.
“Neon White did an excellent job at easing me in as every few levels the game evolves in interesting ways…”
By the end of the game, I was taking full advantage of my weapons and abilities and was rocket jumping, dashing forwards at high speeds and stomping demons left, right and everywhere around. I greatly enjoyed how expertly designed the levels were and that I truly got the chance to flex my new-found abilities at every corner and in new, interesting ways. There are also side quest levels to unlock which offer a nice break from the main ones as they more often than not mix up the gameplay in significant ways. These side quests are unlockable after finding the one gift hidden in each of the main levels. And, to make this better, finding the gift is itself a new way of playing the game as the process involves you thoroughly examining every level to find the gift first and then to figure out how to get to it second.
Neon White also gave me more than enough incentive to try again for a faster time since for each level you can eventually unlock the global leaderboards: I loved chasing after Kinda Funny’s Andy Cortez and Roger Pokorny, the reviewer at The Escapist and even Ben Esposito himself, who is, at the time of writing, number one on the leaderboards on every single level of the game – testament, to me, of his and his team’s love for the project.
I’m also happy to report that Neon White has all the quality of life features you’d need to make this as good of an experience as possible. Personally, I used an Xbox controller all the way through—although keyboard and mouse worked just as fine when I tested them—and I never needed to rebind my controls (although they are indeed fully rebindable). The game is also relatively accessible as I never felt I was ever going against anything insurmountable and was able to comfortably ace more than half of the 125 total levels. Neon White is also very good at encouraging you on with its insight system. This system rewards you for every attempt, good or bad, so that even if you are struggling you can still progress and eventually unlock a hint on how to make a particular level easier.
In the same way, you can unlock a playback of your ghost, which can help with having a tangible presence to beat. Both of these unlocks I found extremely useful in improving my own time, although I do wish I could select a friend or a stranger’s ghost to race instead of just my own. Oh, and just so that you can get a sense of the scale of this game, each level is roughly around a minute long, with some exceptions, and it took me around 13 hours of game time to reach credits and collect a fair number of gifts and ace medals.
On the verge of the game’s release, my main concern is that even though I personally find the gameplay of Neon White exhilarating and very fun, I don’t know if even that is quite enough to convince people who don’t typically pick up this type of fast-paced game to give it a whirl. The thrill of the race is absolutely what makes this game click and I can easily see some players passing on this game from the get-go. It also does not help that the game can be cheap and frustrating at times – especially when it makes heavy use of lasers and mimic chests á la Dark Souls.
And yes, there are other elements to the game, like a hub area, called Central Heaven, where you get to interact with the denizens of heaven and where you offer them gifts, but this is nowhere near enough to satisfy someone who’s only in for the story, characters, or any other reason other than the gameplay. At best, I found the visual novel aspect of this game to be a reprise from the action, but it is certainly not the main course here and nor do I think it has to be.
In an interview with Game Informer, Ben Esposito explained how he did not intend to make Neon White for everyone despite this not being the best marketing move. Instead, he means for Neon White to be more of a cult game, one of the official taglines for the game being ‘made for freaks, by freaks.’ And if loving Neon White, despite its warts, makes me a freak…so be it.