Regardless of whether we're talking about indie titles, AAA franchises, VR experiences or even board games - there's a lot to be said about “the vibe” of a game. It's like good lighting in a photograph, adding a rich sort of accentuation to things and drawing out the highest of highlights.
The right vibe can be the secret ingredient that makes a cult-classic, and RUINER is a game that has so much of a vibe, it's hard to ignore.
Set in an industrial, neon-lit cyberpunk future of 2091, the top-down brawler sees you take control of a nameless victim on a relentless mission of revenge after he has his brother kidnapped and brain hacked by a nefarious corporation. Now under the guidance of a kind-but-mysterious ally, known only as “her”, it's up to you to learn the truth.
Hotline Miami meets Blade Runner
In order to accomplish this, however, you'll have to stomp your way through about 14 levels of bloody gorgeous, eye-watering cyberpunk goodness. Right from the get-go, RUINER looks - and sounds - incredible.
The game’s steaming and broken-down city of Rengkok is dripping with detail and characterisation on every corner. It’s all brought to life by the game’s thumping synth soundtrack, which features music by Sidewalks & Skeletons, Zamilska, Antigone & Francois X. There’s really no better way to describe the aesthetic and vibe of this game than “Hotline Miami meets Blade Runner”.
Like Hotline Miami, the gameplay in RUINER is pretty straightforward. You enter a level. Then, you kill everything between you and your target. The mechanics of this are pretty simple, your nameless, jacket-wearing, psychopath can take out enemies using both viscous melee attacks and a variety of firearms.
Every time you clear an area of enemies, a “Grinder” will be sent down. When activated, this device sucks up all the remaining guns like a vacuum cleaner and spits out experience points - called Karma.
Karma can be then be spent on unlocking new abilities that open up your options in combat. These preternatural improvement range from passive thing like increased health to entirely new tools like hacking enemies to fight alongside you, dropping down shields to absorb incoming fire or activating a form of bullet time.
With a few exceptions, most abilities are designed to keep you alive longer rather than cut short the lives of your foes. Since you’re able to refund and reallocate any Karma points you spend at any time, there’s a quiet emphasis being placed on swapping around your character’s skillset between fights. And given RUINER’s often-brutal difficulty, you’ll want to make sure you make the most of it.
Dystopia Has Never Looked So Good
Initially, this core gameplay loop lends itself to making fights feel like a wild, reckless scramble to come out on top. You'll zip around levels, often switching weapons several times over the course of a single fight and for every enemy you take down, it feels like two more quickly take their place. Until they don't. Then you move onto the next encounter. Rinse. Repeat.
Again, that core loop of is fun. At least, at first. However, as you get further into RUINER’s 5-6 hour campaign, the game begins to throw more and more enemies at you - and some of these enemies have access to the arsenal of abilities as your character.
The joy of losing yourself in the game’s vivid setting and fast-paced mechanics is eroded by repetition and the slow, creeping realisation that the devs behind RUINER have managed to flawlessly execute on the tone of their cyberpunk inspirations - but also critically short on ideas of how to make that experience engaging over the long-run. They've given you a world that you’ll be lost in within minutes, yet devoid of fun beyond the initial "challenge" of the combat.
This isn't to say that hard games can't be fun. It's to say that, in RUINER's case, the amount of satisfaction you get from overcoming the game's arduous combat just isn't in step with that difficulty. It feels difficult for the sake of difficult and rarely feels like any victory is worth the effort on your part.
Minus the vibe, RUINER is a pretty basic brawler that gives you a few fun toys to play with. However, those toys aren’t enough. They aren’t colorful enough to make a series of repetitive, damage-sponge boss fights fun and the combat system often isn’t precise for you to overcome challenges through anything but attribution. It’s a recipe for frustration and it shouldn’t surprise that the result sours so quickly.
The Bottom Line
Still, if you’re an absolute addict for cyberpunk fantasies or off-puttingly difficult games, RUINER might be worth a look regardless. After all, it's rare to find a game so striking in its absolute mastery of tone like RUINER is. However, while a good vibe can can elevate an experience to a greatness, all it can do to a mediocre one is disguise it a little. It's appropriately dystopian like that.