By Leah McDonald / April 23rd, 2020
Dystopian futures, robot wars, souped-up ultraviolent and technology-enhanced ne’er-do-wells, and a not-so-small smattering of neon lights and graffiti — Neon City Riders is a cyberpunk love-letter by indie developer Mecha Studios that aims to capture the “Nintendo-hard” feel of games of old.
I recently played the game for about six hours on the Switch, and the two things that immediately grabbed my attention were the art direction and the difficulty curve. I have always been a sucker for striking visuals, and the neon-saturated apocalypse of Neon City oozes with character. Inhabitants sport spiky mohawks, chains and baseball bats as they take on protagonist Rick, who himself wears a hockey mask and brandishes a metal pipe. He’s a pixel version of Casey Jones fighting pre-mutated Bebops and Rocksteadies. Interspersed among the humans are robots and what appear to be humanoid animals. The sprite work overall is gorgeous and vibrant and by far my favorite aspect of the game. The look of the game definitely leans heavily into the “punk” of “cyberpunk,” and it’s a bit of a nostalgia bomb for a bunch of ’80s cartoons and shows I grew up on.
It’s also gunning for the same “Nintendo-hard” feel of those games I grew up with. The game begins simply enough: Neon City is being taken over by four evil gangs, and it’s up to Rick to stop them. But first he needs to train in a virtual simulation to learn all of his abilities and gain the strength to overcome the evil baddies. Pretty standard fodder, but I don’t look for deep story when I play something like Neon City Riders. I want fun controls and engaging combat, and for the most part I got that. At least in the opening sequence. The VR world is a small slice of what the actual Neon City is like, with Rick running off in the cardinal directions to find pins that power him up. He gets a dash ability, a parry ability that took me way too long to get the hang of, a momentary invincibility, and a sort of X-ray vision that lets him travel along hidden paths or see boxes he can’t otherwise. Each one is a neat gimmick that you can mix and match into the fights with gang members or traverse the land. I was especially fond of the dash ability. Not only does it let you break through certain obstacles, it just makes moving around faster and it felt nice. Every ability uses up some of your stamina so you can’t just use them willy-nilly, but thankfully it refills quickly so you can get back into the groove without much fuss.
Then the tutorial ends and you lose all those fun gimmicks, and the game immediately slows to a painful, grinding halt. I don’t necessarily mind the “gain abilities then lose them and have to gain them back” narrative conceit, but the basic gameplay in Neon City Riders is repetitive and kind of boring, so having fun goodies only to have them taken away almost immediately was a bit of a buzzkill. I don’t think losing them would have bothered me as much if I could retrieve them within a respectable time frame, but I spent about an hour in the tutorial VR section, and the rest of my playthrough was trying to get one ability back. Even coughing up the lion’s share of time to me just not being good at this type of game, that is a bad ratio between having fun stuff to do and slogging through difficult levels with only the basics.
The vast majority of my time was spent in Audiobats turf to the north. It’s a run-down, set afire slum where gang members lackadaisically vandalize buildings with spray paint and praise their freedom to do whatever they please. They’re led by vinyl-enthusiast Grand Master Thunder whose main goal is the preservation of music from before the robot wars. In order to progress through the area, you have to rescue five captured citizens from gang dens, each filled with electric fields, energy beams, and breakaway floors. Most of these obstacles would be easy enough to traverse with your dash ability, but alas, that has been taken away and you have to make your way around them the old-fashioned way. It’s slow and tedious, and considering most of the traps are one-hit kills, it proved way more aggravating than it needed to be. Patience and pattern recognition are the name of the game here, much like those old style Nintendo games, but here it felt much less joyful and far more frustrating. The difficulty never felt unfair, and I can recognize that a good chunk of my deaths can be attributed to my lack of skill, but there’s also no real learning curve to be had. It’s sink or swim, and after having just had an enjoyable experience gaining new abilities and opening the game to more creative gameplay, being thrust back to square one but with the difficulty still ramped up to when I had my tools felt more punishing than challenging.
That being said, I was more than willing to bang my head against the game to get good, but unfortunately the aspect of Neon City Riders that I loved the most is also what made me ultimately put it down for good. The art direction is impeccable, and the game absolutely nails the look and feel of this world. But as the name implies, Neon City is, well, neon, and filled to the brim with flashing lights, high contrasts and, most pivotal, a menu system that makes heavy use of flickering. After about an hour of playing I would get horrible headaches from the flashing, and I couldn’t actually use any of the pause menus because the constant flickering made me nauseous. In its defense, the game warns you every time you load it up that it contains flickering lights. This is of course an issue specific only to me, and it will more than likely not affect most others playing the game, but it made it impossible for me to keep going.
Warning: The below video contains bright lights and excessive flickering.
I liked the world of Neon City Riders. The music is great and reminds me of the SNES Shadowrun‘s banging soundtrack. The look of the game is impressive, and I loved that the city itself isn’t only filled with bad guys. You can pick up quests from the residents, and there is a bunch of freedom of exploration. I’m a lore hound, and this game oozed world building from its pores. The writing is light-hearted and fourth wall breaking, which I can always get behind. Running around the world and exploring its nooks and crannies was legitimately a good time, and the fights with goons were fun when you picked up on their attack patterns. Finding a rhythm while fighting a group was the best part of the combat after losing all my goodies. Getting those goodies back, though, made the game feel like a slog at times, and the one-hit deaths began to wear thin. For people who like a challenge and appreciate old-school sci-fi and grunge, I think this could be a fun romp. Just be aware that the game has a steep learning curve, and unfortunately just was not a good fit for me.
Neon City Riders is available for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Steam at $19.99 USD.
CyberpunkMecha StudiosNeon City Ridersnintendo switchPlayStation 4Retro gamingSteamXbox One