I thought I was prepared, but Ruiner totally cyberpunk'd me


Impressions from PAX South

Do you fancy a challenge? Do you long for the thrill of near-death and the subsequent feeling of satisfaction perfectly accentuated by the sinking rag doll of your enemies? Are you like me? If you are, then you want that challenge. You want your enemies to feel the pain you’ve been dealt and ten-fold. You want to kick their cyber bottoms into submission and make them cry for their cyber mommas.

However, if you’re like me, getting to that point will take precious time. I was psyched for at least a bit of a hillclimb with Ruiner, but my signature underestimatation got the best of me yet again. My aiming needed to be quick, I had to hone my abilities quicker, and I had to “git gud” in the span of just a mere half hour.

That wasn’t happening.

I have a newfound appreciation for journalists/bloggers willing to embarrass themselves in front of dozens of live spectators and, eventually, hundreds or even thousands of others online. They will inevitably face the brunt of commenters proclaiming such nonsense as “Why do you let someone so awful preview a game that is clearly meant for REAL GAMERS?”, but until you’ve tried pressing for questions and making conversation while simultaneously trying to overcome a very difficult game, surrounded by noise overwhelming the screen in front of you, you have no idea.

The enemies in Ruiner are dangerously accurate and can easily compensate for whatever it is you throw at them. If not very careful, you can lose health at an alarming rate. It’s one of those experiences where you initially wonder if it’s actually feasible to even meet the game halfway. Slowly, though, you find yourself going over intricate step-by-step processes to succeed and attempting to hold on to several important mental notes.

Ruiner isn’t anything tremendously special aesthetically, conceptually, or mechanically, but where it makes its mark is in its intricate balancing and polish. This is a game that you will spend a lot of time with and come away from feeling leaner, meaner, and probably a lot happier.

The basis of Ruiner is that it is a twin-stick shooter set within the grim, cyberpunk distant future of 2091. The inhabitants of Rengkok are assigned “Karma” according to local officials and government, similar to how our real-life China handles gamifying citizenship where some get preferential treatment (in ways both subtle and overt) for things like paying taxes on time, talking about specific products on social media, and so on. Our fictional Rengkok takes this several steps further and tells a story of oppression and personal identity.

Our nameless main character is a cybernetically-enhanced killer being chauffeured by a skilled hacker known only to you as “Her.” Your motives seem somewhat one in the same, but it felt almost as if she was conditioning the not-so-protagonist through patronizing flattery and possibly even hacking his probably very robotic brain. The self-described “wired sociopath” angle of the main character is one the developers assured me wasn’t merely a device used to rid the game of any potential dissonance between the action and narrative. There’s plenty of room for meta commentary and exploration of what exactly makes a person who they are in an age where technology is becoming quite literally a part of us.

There is a surprising focus on narrative in Ruiner. Approximately one fourth of the game will supposedly consist of downtime and strolling about the various Akira/Blade Runner-inspired hubs of Rengkok. There are people to meet, niceties to purchase, and, of course, troubles to find. I wouldn’t expect a full-fledged open world from such a small team, but you can definitely get a decent sense of place within Ruiner beyond blasting through stage after stage at a bullet’s pace.

By that same token, naturally, you will be required to move pretty fast and shoot a lot of bullets.

In the early days of development, Ruiner wasjust shooting and dashing. Soon enough, players could multi-dash, slow time, and conjure protective barriers. Taking inspiration from Hotline Miami, they began to add melee weapons and the lightening-fast enemy movement/precision. The audio-visual punch was also clearly out of Hotline Miami‘s playbook, only much heavier and more synthetic. Imagine a T-1000 blasting through an army of elephant-sized subwoofers. It is loud, intense, and incredibly satisfying.

Before, I briefly mentioned the brutality of the gameplay. Once it gets going, it barely lets you rest. Approaching Ruiner with the intent of beating it like most games is a fool’s errand. I had to make very precise and liberal usage of bullet time, dashing, shielding, and weapon switching. Let a mistake hang for too long and your health will swiftly deplete. Even with health and power recharge stations spewn about, the game is only just kind enough to make you feel like you can engage in your own slightly unique fashion and that things aren’t entirely impossible. Ruiner wants you to focus and learn it inside and out.

It did not, ever once, feel unfair. I just simply was not good enough yet. I was impressed with how much the game did with so few tried-and-true concepts that games have arguably taken for granted over the years. It uses these concepts and its difficulty not to just challenge you, but encourage you to use everything at your disposal to get the most out of the experience possible.

Ruiner‘s graphical fidelity is similar to that of Housemarque’s works, such as Resogun and Alienation. A fidelity not achieved by most indie developers. Sparses of sharp neon and a coating of superb lighting go a long way in making the world around you feel all the more tangible. What is a good cyberpunk dystopia without successful mood lighting? Thankfully, the game also runs smoothly at all times.

Outside the 3D art, you’ll also be treated to static 2D character splashes during conversations. No less expressive, mind you. Specifically, the main character has a pool of numerous still images and texts that appear across his LCD helmet akin to Zer0 from Borderlands. For someone so stoic, I got plenty of good chuckles out of even his most trivial of exchanges. Ruiner might be pretty dark, but it does still have genial doses of humor.

I sat up from my time with the game thinking there was no way I wasn’t giving this a shot. It’s about time I delved into another twin-stick shooter with a focus shifted away from high scores and more towards engaging the player with its mechanics and narrative.

If Ruiner is something you asked for, it releases later this year!