I played Neon White for all of three minutes before realizing I was in trouble. Whatever positive buzz you’ve heard about this game—that it’s a blast, that it’s unlike anything you’ve ever played, that it’s irresistibly, unabashedly cool—is probably on the money.
Out today for PC and Switch, Neon White is a [genre not available yet] developed by Angel Matrix and published by Annapurna Interactive. You play as White, part of a class of so-called “Neons,” demons lifted up from hell by god to purge heaven of demons over the course of a 10-day competition. Whoever wins the competition gets to stay in heaven for a year, before going through it all again during the following year’s contest. Also, White has amnesia—perfect cover for some exposition.
There are a number of side characters—the demure Neon Red, the comically clueless Neon Yellow, the earnest Neon Violet, the ostensibly sociopathic Neon Green—all of whom seem to know White from his past life. You can further these relationships dating-sim-style, but you might as well spend your time talking to cigar-smoking cats and hanging out on floating beaches. Neon White is all done up with pop-art visuals à la Paradise Killer and set to a deliciously synth-infused soundtrack from Machine Girl.
Reviewers have showered Neon White with praise. Andrew Webster at The Verge “couldn’t get enough” of it, saying the game is “immensely satisfying.” For Eurogamer, in one of the site’s “recommended” reviews, reserved for best-in-class games, Oisin Kuhnke praised Neon White’s controls and style and noted how “few games can keep up with [its] pace.” Destructoid’s Eric Van Allen described how “amazing…it feels to finally feel like you’ve mastered a level.” Game Informer’s Blake Hester said it’s “one of the most entertaining experiences I’ve played in years.”
Yesterday, I expressed a similar sentiment to some colleagues. When they asked me to actually describe the game, I struggled to explain not just why it’s so great but also what the hell (heaven?) it even is. So you might have to bear with me here.
Neon White is a first-person shooter, but also not. The shooting’s too slippery, too imprecise, to stack up against any of its peers in the genre. (I’m playing on Switch. Aiming is noticeably tighter with a Pro controller compared to Joy-Cons.) Five chapters in, I’ve only found four weapons—a pistol, a shotgun, a rifle, and an SMG—all of which seem to deal the same damage and have the same range. Plus, you mostly use weapons as traversal tools.
So, in that sense, I guess Neon White is more of a platformer? See, you can discard any weapon you’ve equipped for a single-use movement ability. Toss aside your pistol mid-air and you’ll jump a second time. Discard your shotgun and you’ll dash forward, momentarily invincible. Throwing an assault rifle will spawn a bomb, which both demolishes nearby enemies and can launch you into the air. Finally, the SMG will have you do a ground pound. You pick up weapons by finding their affiliated cards strewn around each level.
Wait? Cards? So it’s a deck-builder?
Not exactly. For one thing, you can only have two types of cards at one time. For another, there’s no meta-progression, no way to build and customize a deck between levels. (Lead developer Ben Esposito previously toyed around with the idea of making a deck-building shooter, but shelved it early on in development.) You start from scratch at the start of each level.
And no, before you ask, it’s not a roguelike—not even a little bit. Neon White is structured around a traditional mission-to-mission framework, each mission comprising a handful of individual levels. You beat one level, you go to the next. These levels go by in a blink, too, with most running around 30 seconds long. (My fastest time on an individual level is a hair over 13 seconds; my slowest, clocked during a sort of multi-stage boss fight, is 2 minutes and 21 seconds.)
Cards are placed around maps with clear intentionality. There’s a “best” way through each stage; it’s up to you to figure it out—and execute it. Leaderboards compel an urge to shave milliseconds off your best records, and to run levels over and over and over until you do. Even on the Switch’s aging hardware, you can reload levels in a blink, so there’s no real drawback to beating your head against the wall of an elusive solution.
All told, I guess Neon White isn’t a shooter or a platformer or a deck-builder but, rather, a puzzle game—a blisteringly paced one, wherein logic steps aside and intuition takes over.
That Neon White is fun is only half of what makes it such a standout, the other half of its appeal entirely chalked up to just how freakin’ cool it is. It’s the kid in the grade ahead who wears jean jackets and smokes cigarettes by the bleachers. It’s the secondary character in the anime who’s along for the adventure, but only for the thrill.
Neon White, in short, doesn’t give a damn.
In the same way that Modest Mouse’s music works despite being totally off-key and out of tempo—or the same way Jim Jarmusch’s poetic oeuvre is heralded despite defying much of the conventional wisdom about cinema—all these disparate parts of Neon White coalesce into something transcendent, arguably inimitable, even though on paper they absolutely should not gel.
I’ve spent the past few days trying to figure out why this bizarre concoction of elements clicks, and I think I have it. Last summer, during Neon White’s initial marketing push, Esposito told me, “The energy that powers this game is teen energy. This is what I would have thought was the coolest thing ever when I was a teenager inspired by, like, Y2K era-anime and The Matrix and all this stuff.” Now that the game’s actually in my hands, this ethos is plainly evident—right down to the anime-inspired intro.
It is never lost on me that I’m not getting any younger. But if Neon White had its way, I wouldn’t age a day. As far as propositions go, that’s pretty damn intoxicating.