When he interviewed creator Ben Esposito about then-upcoming Neon White in 2021, he told me he wasn’t trying to make a game that would appeal to everyone. He wanted Neon White to appeal to “really certain people.”
In other words, as Esposito said in one of the game’s trailers, it’s a game for “geeks.”
I guess that makes me a freak then. Because Neon White is my favorite game I’ve played all year – by a wide margin.
You take on the role of Neon White; a dead assassin pulled from Hell for a divine contest. Demons are overrunning the skies, so the mighty hire White and a crowd of damned to clean 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 through different Pearly Gates districts as fast as possible, blowing away demons with different arsenal of heavenly weapons.
With rare exceptions, playing through a single level of Neon White takes less than a minute. From the jump it emphasizes that you play as fast as possible at all times. It also emphasizes repeating levels for better and better times. Running and jumping feel great; They are fluid, fast and give the impression of floating through a level.
But it’s the guns where Neon White shines. You pick up firearms via cards scattered throughout a level, each with two functions. The first is simply shooting. The second, however, is the discard option, which gives White a brief platform advantage. Discarding pistols results in a double jump, shotguns fire you in the direction you’re facing, rifles straight ahead, SMGs send you hurtling towards the ground, and rocket launchers fire a grappling shot.
Levels require mastering all of these options; You’ll need to run, shoot, jump and use throwbacks at just the right moment to reach your goal while killing every demon in a level. I loved trying and repeating levels over and over again until I finally got the right combination of moves, and then I loved even more trying to get my times down to the “ace” score. My heart was often stuck in my throat as I crossed the finish line, and few things feel better than beating my times by literally tenths of a second.
From its mechanical basis, Neon White is geared towards the idea of speed running. Additionally, it seems designed around YouTube videos of speedrunners breaking games and flying through levels with pinpoint accuracy like a well-armed ballerina. Especially the back half will make you feel as cool as these videos look.
Fly over enemies, shoot while shooting over their heads, drop to the ground to slide over narrow ledges, fight your way back into the stratosphere, then use explosions to leap to the finish line. Doing everything literally in seconds with no mistakes, feeling effortless as if you’ve practiced for years, not just 15-20 minutes; This is the basis of Neon White, not just the high level game. It’s remarkable that such precise and intricate gameplay feels so effortless, but Neon White pulls it off at every turn. It’s one of the funnest games I’ve played in years.
In fact, I can’t stop playing it. After almost 30 hours I don’t plan to stop until I get an ace rank in each level. Luckily, the level design is top-notch and rarely frustrating, with two or three exceptions. I’m still flying through the game, beating all my previous times and loving almost every second. I’m even interested in the global leaderboards, a personal first as I don’t think I’ve ever paid much attention to leaderboards in any other game.
I even love the silly but charming tale of Neon White – the one of White trying to figure out why he and his team of assassins are dead. It worked for me more than I expected. Since the story is told via visual novel, I felt compelled to explore each character’s storyline and give them gifts to unlock new dialogue and side quests. In moments of weakness, I even laughed at offensive dialogue, like when Neon Violet said Neon White was a good guy, “The guy who catches a girl’s spit in his mouth!”
It also helps Neon White scratch specific and neglected itch aesthetically. It’s reminiscent of Japanese action games that actually don’t exist anymore, like Killer7 and El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. It’s reminiscent of anime like trigun and Cowboy Bebop and music from now-defunct bands such as Drop Dead, Gorgeous, and The Blood Brothers. His ethereal yet violent aesthetic is sophisticated, eye-catching, and full of attitude. Like the t-shirt section of a hot topic and the anime series of a suncoast video colliding. 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. Heck, Steven Blum even speaks White!
If any of this means anything to you, you’re the “really specific” person Esposito made this game for. If the above reads like another language, you’ll probably still like Neon White, but you’re hardly the key demographic.
Neon White achieves everything it sets out to do with remarkable success. Not only is it one of the most entertaining experiences I’ve played in years, but it appeals to a very specific audience, many of whom just don’t know it anymore. It’s for lunatics, misfits and idiots. Neon White is one of the best games of the year and it would be a colossal mistake not to check it out.