Neon White review: demon-hunting speedrunning on the Switch and Steam

Neon White had me straining my neck with every seemingly out of reach jump — and I couldn’t get enough. Developed by Angel Matrix, a small team led by Donut County designer Ben Esposito, Neon White combines thrilling parkour action, a late ’90s Quake-style aesthetic, and a bonkers story that’s kind of like if The Purge were set in the afterlife. It’s like speedrunning your way through heaven while making detours to learn more about angels and demons. It’s a seemingly odd combo, but it works very, very well.

The premise of Neon White is actually somewhat straightforward at its core. Every so often, for a span of 10 days, God invites some of the denizens of hell up to heaven so they can help eradicate the demon population. Whoever racks up the most kills gets the ultimate prize: a place in heaven. These demon hunters are called neons, and, much like in any other competition, they form rivalries and uneasy alliances with each other over the course of the event. Complicating matters is the fact that your character, Neon White, has lost his memory and thus has no idea who, if anyone, he can trust.

The story is as strange as it is great, and it plays out mostly like a visual novel with some hilarious writing and delicious betrayals. There are even personas-style sidequests where you can hand out presents to learn more about your fellow neons. Also, for some reason, all of the angels look like floating cats.

That’s the setup, but most of your time will be spent on missions. These are small platforming levels where the goal is to kill every single demon as quickly as possible. And they are very quick — stages are generally less than a minute long and most will have you whittling your time down to under 20–30 seconds. For the most part, the levels are extremely vertical parkour playgrounds, and, as you run through, you’ll collect cards that represent various weapons, from machine guns to shotguns.

Neon White isn’t really a shooter, though. Instead, once you get accustomed to its distinct brand of action — which, admittedly, can take some time — you’ll realize that everything is just a means to getting through the level even faster. Most weapons, for instance, have a secondary ability that lets you double jump, dash through the air, or smash into the ground. Enemies, meanwhile, will drop specific weapons, and some have their own mobility features as well. (There’s a type of demon that’s simply a floating balloon you can bounce on.) The trick is figuring out how to link all of these together to find the best, and fastest, path through the stage.

I didn’t get any of this at first. Initially, I was messily racing through each level, trying to kill every demon and move on to the next story beat. But, at a certain point, Neon White forces you to learn how it really works. In order to progress through the narrative, you need to achieve a specific neon rank, which, in turn, means getting good times on most levels. I found myself having to replay older stages in order to increase my rank.

Neon White.
Picture: Annapurna Interactive

Initially, this was frustrating. I was eager to dig into the mystery of White and how his past life connected to the other neons; instead, here I was trying to shave two seconds off of a run through a heavenly parkour playground. But, tedious as this initially seemed, those forced replays showed me how the game really works — and now, I actually want to replay stages until I’ve perfected my run. The story can wait. Knowing all the ins and outs of the gameplay isn’t just fun and satisfying; it also becomes a necessity once you’re thrown into a boss fight.

I should also note that, while repetition is a core part of Neon White‘s structure, there’s some degree of openness, so you aren’t forced to get a perfect score on every stage. And because everything moves so quickly — not only are the stages short but also you can restart almost instantly — these replays are much less frustrating than they otherwise could be.

On paper, Neon White sounds strange and confusing. It’s a demon-hunting parkour shooter where you run through heaven to get a high score. Also, it’s a visual novel. But, in practice, it’s quite simple: each level is a puzzle, and it’s your job to figure out how to utilize its various components to get the best time. It may take some time and a few run-ins with giant heads that fire lasers at you, but it’s incredibly satisfying when you pull it off — even if it results in a little neck pain.

Neon White launches on June 16th on the Nintendo Switch and Steam.

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