In 2021, while interviewing creator Ben Esposito about then-upcoming Neon White, he told me he wasn’t trying to make a game appealing to everyone. He wanted Neon White to appeal to “really specific people.”
Put another way, as Esposito said in one of the game’s trailers, it’s a game made for “freaks.”
I guess that makes me a freak, then. Because Neon White is my favorite game I’ve played all year – by a large margin.
You assume the role of Neon White; a dead assassin pulled from Hell for a divine competition. Demons overrun Heaven, so the powers that be task White and a host of damned with cleaning up the mess. The banished soul with the best – and fastest – score wins the opportunity to spend eternity in Heaven. They do this by running as fast as possible through various districts of the Pearly Gates, blowing away demons with a varying arsenal of heavenly guns.
With rare exceptions, playing through any individual level of Neon White takes less than a minute. From the jump, it stresses you play as fast as possible at all times. It also emphasizes replaying levels for increasingly better times. Running and jumping feel excellent; they’re fluid, quick, and give an impression of floating throughout a level.
But it’s the guns where Neon White shines. You pick up firearms via cards strewn inside a level, each having two functions. The first is simply shooting. The second, however, is the discard option, which grants White a brief platforming advantage. Discarding pistols gives a double jump, shotguns blast you in the direction you’re facing, rifles directly forward, SMGs send you hurtling toward the ground, and rocket launchers give a grapple shot.
Levels demand mastery of all these options; you must run, shoot, jump, and use discards at precisely the right moment to reach your destination, while also killing every demon in a level. I loved trying and retrying levels over and over until I finally got the combination of moves correct, and then I loved, even more, trying to whittle my times down to the “Ace” score. My heart was often firmly lodged in my throat as I crossed the finish line, and few things feel better than besting my times by literal tenths of a second.
From its mechanical foundation, Neon White is designed around the idea of speedrunning. More than that, it appears designed around YouTube videos of speedrunners breaking games, flying through levels with pinpoint accuracy like a well-armed ballerina. Especially in its back half, you will feel as cool as those videos look.
Flying over enemies, shooting as you rocket above their heads, sending yourself plummeting to earth to slide across narrow ledges, grappling your way back into the stratosphere, then using explosions to bounce around to the finish line. Doing it all in literally seconds with no mistakes, feeling effortless as if you’ve practiced for years, not just 15 to 20 minutes; that’s the base of Neon White, not solely the high-level play. It’s remarkable for such precise and intricate gameplay to feel so effortless, but Neon White pulls it off at all turns. It’s one of the most fun games I’ve played in years.
In fact, I can’t stop playing it. Nearly 30 hours in, I have no plans to stop until I get an Ace rank in every level. Luckily, the level design is top-notch and, save for two or three exceptions, is rarely frustrating. I’m still flying through the game, beating all my previous times and loving nearly every second. I even care about the global leaderboards, a personal first, as I don’t think I’ve ever paid much attention to rankings in any other game.
I even love Neon White’s stupid-but-charming story – that of White trying to figure out why he and his team of fellow assassins are dead. It worked on me more than I expected. Since the story’s told via visual novel, I felt compelled to explore every character’s storyline, giving them gifts to unlock new dialogue and sidequests. In moments of weakness, I even laughed at obnoxious dialogue like when Neon Violet said Neon White was a good guy, “The kind that will catch a girl’s spit with his mouth!”
It also helps that aesthetically Neon White scratches specific and neglected itches. It’s reminiscent of Japanese action games that don’t really exist anymore, like Killer7 and El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. It recalls anime like Trigun and Cowboy Bebop and music from now-defunct bands like Drop Dead, Gorgeous and The Blood Brothers. Its heavenly-yet-violent aesthetic is slick, striking, and full of attitude. Like the tee-shirt section of a Hot Topic and the anime aisle of a Suncoast Video collided into each other. You can imagine 480p AMVs of Neon White playthroughs set to “The Show Must Go On” or “Love Rhymes With Hideous Car Wreck.” You can imagine seeing kids in brightly-colored Neon White shirts at a Taste of Chaos tour date. Hell, Steven Blum even voices White!
If any of that means anything to you, you are the “really specific” person for whom Esposito made this game. If the above reads like a different language, you’ll likely still enjoy Neon White, but you’re hardly the key demographic.
Neon White achieves everything it sets out to with remarkable success. Not only is it one of the most entertaining experiences I’ve played in years, but it also speaks to a highly specific audience many just don’t anymore. It’s for weirdos, misfits, and dorks. Neon White is one of the best games of the year, and it’d be a colossal mistake not to check it out.
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