It’s been a long wait for this one, I must say, and not a patient one. My Hotline Miami itch has gone un-scratched for a fair while now, and the first trailer for RUINER promised more of that gleeful, white-knuckled gameplay, with the additional welcome bonus of a cyberpunk setting. Can that match made in Heaven live up to its promises? Let’s take a look.
The first thing you’ll notice in RUINER is that the game is in entirely love with its influences, both visually and in terms of the gameplay itself. Developers Reikon Games – a Polish studio comprised of runaways from CDProjekt and Techland – were fed up of working on games they had no creative stake in and set out to make a game they could feel a genuine passion for. That drive is very much evident here.
RUINER follows in the footsteps of many cyberpunk titles: an Asian/American culture clash, over-the-top body mods, and more noir themes than you can shake a trenchcoat at are all to be found here, as well as the genre’s trademark fetish for excessive technologism. You play as an unnamed, jacket-clad, mask-wearing thug (like I said, the influences stand out) with nothing but a penchant for ultraviolence to mark you out from the disenfranchised masses huddling in the shadows of skyscrapers in the recesses of Rengkok city.
The game opens with you breaking into the headquarters of the local megacorporation, with a stranger’s voice in your head urging you to fight your way to the highest level and ‘KILL BOSS’. During this level you’re introduced to the core mechanics: you’ll periodically be locked in with waves of enemies, who you’re expected to dispatch with a metal pipe and a keen survival instinct, plus whatever else you can find.
It’s deceptively simple – enough that it’s easy to pick up, especially for anyone who’s played a twin-stick shooter in the last ten years, but not so much that it feels at all dumbed down. Quite the opposite, in fact, as you soon start working your way down a broad skill tree that adds passive and active abilities which can massively reshape your playstyle. Upgrading your dash ability might lead you to favour a quick-stepping melee approach, blinking from foe to foe with pipe or sword or sledgehammer flying; investing in shields might see you dropping cover to take out enemies from safety as they rush into the all-consuming beam of your laser cannon.
RUINER follows in the footsteps of many cyberpunk titles: an Asian/American culture clash, over-the-top body mods, and more noir themes than you can shake a trenchcoat at.
Needless to say, all of this is in favour of gameplay which is incredibly, incredibly cool. Tense? Undoubtedly. But after every hard-won fight, as your heart rate settles and your hands relax, you’ll feel every bit as savvy as the street samurai the game wants you to be. As you progress through the game, enemies get tougher, some of them even capable of using your own abilities, and the odds are stacked ever more unevenly. Around this time you’ll start to feel the pressure, but that just makes it all the more satisfying when you eventually overcome the hordes amassed against you.
Mention must go also to the game’s boss fights, which are impressively varied and unfailingly fun to play. Each boss fights differently and thus demands deviations from whatever comfort zone the player might have found for themselves. It’s all well and good cutting weak enemies to ribbons with a sword, but somewhat less so when there’s a single sturdy boss who takes more punishment than you (and has a bigger sword, to boot).
If the game is let down by anything, though, it’s the overworld sections. Hotline Miami knew to keep these to a few seconds between missions, as games like this live and die on their pacing: you simply cannot go from ‘microseconds matter’ combat back to minutes of exposition while you wait for the next fight. Though RUINER builds its world well, I was more interested in what the environment was telling me than the dialogue windows.
Tense? Undoubtedly. But after every hard-won fight, as your heart rate settles and your hands relax, you’ll feel every bit as savvy as the street samurai the game wants you to be.
On that note, Rengkok is far from a unique cyberpunk setting, but it is an effective one nonetheless. The appealing neo-noir grime and sleaze is captured here, with dense, cluttered environments offering an abundance of eye candy for fans of that deliberately anachronistic “hi-tech/lowlife” aesthetic. The protagonist himself seems to embody it, clad in leather and exuding fury and danger with his every gesture, with menacing messages and fragmented, glitching images flickering across his mask.
RUINER is a game that revels in its own gleeful violence, much like Hotline Miami before it, and the game is more than happy to invite you into that sensationalism. Brutal combos are celebrated with a multiplier and an encouraging voiceover, and each fight is scored by the voice in your head with the traditional C, B, A, S etc. rating system. You’re encouraged to deal out punishment fluidly and excitingly as your disembodied guide spectates your every action; she refers to you with (very literal) pet names, and affectionately opens each fight with “get ’em, puppy”, cementing the image of the player as a barely caged beast on the prowl for something hostile to tear to shreds.
Much like Hotline Miami (comparisons are every bit as intentional as they are inevitable, undoubtedly) the game comments on the nature of the player as a slave to the game’s demands. Fights are not something you can walk away from, nor is that something it ever expects you to even try. Additionally, the sci-fi setting adds an angle on this theme that’s inaccessible to more grounded genres.
The game begins with the player’s brain being hacked, leaving them unable to control their actions and therefore largely irresponsible for them. However, when this hacking is reversed, the protagonist and his mysterious accomplice waste no time in hacking other people’s brains, painfully scouring their minds for information and forcing them to comply with their will. In RUINER, bodily autonomy is non-existent, and it’s done subtly enough to leave you wondering how much you’re really in control at all, with your would-be ally seeming to hold you firmly at the end of a leash.
All in all, it cannot be denied that RUINER represents a debut of unparalleled quality. The veteran devs really do know their stuff, and it’s always refreshing to see a team so clearly in love with what they’re doing. That love shows, and it’s one I can happily share. The hype for RUINER has been abundant and looking at the finished product, that hype was clearly very well placed. Reikon is a team to keep a close and eager eye on in the future, but for now, their breakout title is one you don’t want to miss.
This copy of RUINER for the PC was provided by developers Reikon Games. Contributor James McCoull spent 5 hours pressing ‘R’ to restart (and sometimes winning fights, too).