You will immediately encounter shiny floors (water? ice?) that give your speed a boost. A stopwatch is constantly running at the top of the screen, keeping track of all your minor successes and mistakes. At the end of each run, medals ranging from bronze to platinum are awarded in recognition of your time. To advance to the next set of levels, you need to hit a certain number of gold metals on the previous one. If you want to achieve something in Neon White – to borrow a phrase from a game icon – you have to go fast.
Succeeding Neon White means completing levels as quickly as possible. That’s something the game drills into your head with each new level. While it encourages speed, it doesn’t require perfection. I bounced off the similarly parkour-oriented Ghostrunner – despite liking the cyberpunk setting – as each level required exacting precision and (in my case) dozens of attempts to progress.
It would be easy for Neon White to follow a similar path. Instead, all design decisions are focused on getting you up to speed and keeping you moving. The game isn’t effortless, but playing it feels smooth and seamless.
One of its central mechanisms is key to its sense of speed. All weapons-discarding options expand your character’s transit options and usually make you move faster as well. The shotgun power will swing you at your target. The sniper will quickly send you straight in the direction you are shooting. The uzi causes you to go to the ground, causing you to fall through the air at terminal speed. The machine gun launches a bomb that blows up all nearby enemies – allowing you to take out entire groups at once – and blasts you away when you’re near the explosion. All of these abilities are designed to get you where you need to go faster, either by taking out enemies on the fly or by increasing your speed.
Those traversal abilities will give you the skills you need to go fast. But Neon White’s hostile design deserves credit for how it allows you to think fast and read the level quickly. Each enemy has a memorable appearance, a distinct shape, and is color-coded to indicate which weapon card it will drop if defeated. Before you get near an opponent, you know what to expect.
For example, enemies whose bodies are completely black and have no color will not drop weapons at all. They also generally fire pink projectiles, which have no color in the weapon deck. On the other hand, enemies that glow or emit colorful light all have cards of a corresponding color in the deck. You don’t get those cards until you’re in a level with the enemies that will deliver them. Once you have access to the shotgun, you will meet the enemies who will give it to you: disembodied heads that, after securing your position, gradually begin to glow red, from bottom to top, as if a meter is filling up.
This visual design cleverly tells you a) that they’ll drop shotgun cards, which have a matching shade of red, and b) how long they’ll charge before they’re ready to fire. Another example: the mischievous gargoyle emits a green light that is visible from a distance, so you can prepare your next move in advance. The gargoyle drops the green uzi card that gives you the stomp ability when discarded. You can use this on an explosive barrel to make you fly, or on red barriers to access a lower floor.
Developer Angel Matrix’s decision to make enemies recognizable from a battlefield leaves you thinking about how you’ll take them out once they’re visible. It also gives you the ability to plan a route ahead so that you can make instant progress once you get the skill they drop. Speedrunners often just seem to have very quick reflexes and it’s obviously important to be able to react quickly to unexpected situations, but success in Neon White has little to do with reacting quickly and much more with thinking three steps ahead. Fortunately, the game is designed to help you do that.
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