*Sources of screenshots are listed in their respective file names.
Full Disclosure: David Pittman is both a friend, and someone I may work with professionally in the future. The various modes of coverage below contain my honest opinions regardless of these facts.
NEON STRUCT* gameplay footage from the Video Games and the Bible YouTube channel:
Christian developer David Pittman‘s previous game, Eldritch, is something of a beautiful mess. A hyper-stylized riff on H.P. Lovecraft‘s tangled lore, it throws almost every idea loosely connected to adventuring through supernatural catacombs into a randomly-generated, sandbox FPS. Somehow, this unwieldy concoction works, producing a stealthy action game that changes tone (and your subsequent approach as a player) by the second. Stretches of calm sneaking are punctuated by frenzied dashes across gaping chasms as ancient god-spawn hunt you through winding catacombs. The unintentional blasting of a floor opens into a clearing containing a small army of statues, waiting for you to look away before planting their axes in the back of your skull.
I mention Eldritch (despite several potential content issues) because it showed me something valuable. That beneath NEON STRUCT‘s serious narrative and lettered grades of performance lies a blazing-fast, non-lethal stealth game with more room for exploration and slapstick hijinks packed into one level than most AAA games fit into an entire campaign.
In NEON STRUCT, you play as ex-spy on the run Jillian Cleary. Victim of a conspiracy reaching the highest levels of government and the intelligence community, you attempt to stealthily complete objectives and clear Jillian’s name in a dystopia ruled by invasive mass surveillance. Storytelling is primarily accomplished through conversations, briefings, and phone calls, though you can find concise news terminals and notes for entertaining background information.
One can’t help appreciating that Pittman doesn’t use the gravity of his subject matter to drown players in detail and exposition, or allow a grand narrative to overwhelm the gameplay itself. It’s a story well-told in a reasonably tangible world, with opportunities for action-minded players to skip straight back to the fray. Nothing more, nothing less, and a quiet example of the thoughtful efficiency to be seen throughout the game.
A minimal HUD paying homage to the Thief series (complete with a light/visibility bar at the bottom of the screen) underpins perhaps the most enjoyable ‘pure’ stealth title I’ve ever played. Using a variety of gadgets and black-market chemical stimulants, players sneak through levels full of deadly patrols to complete objectives (some of which are optional). Your only means of permanently pacifying enemies is a non-lethal takedown from behind, making combat and the all too-easy fallback of a gun completely out of the question.
Impressively, the one type of collectible to be found (a Geocache) doesn’t serve to pad out the length of the game, but actually ties into the already established gameplay systems by providing handy distractions. Find a Geocache to retrieve a Geocache Token, throw it to distract an opponent, hack a couple of doors, and you’re on your way to the next challenge.
I’m not sure I like using the word “levels” for the locations you pick your way through in NEON STRUCT. That term, at least to me, evokes images of linear paths and structured solutions. No, NEON STRUCT‘s stark locales are boxy, patchwork labyrinths stitched together to create a sprawling yet navigable whole. So, is the right word here “maps?” Sandboxes? Puzzles in architectural form? Whatever the name, they’re a joy to explore. Whether the paths you find lead to unexpected treasures, or simply a convenient vantage point, the constant rewarding of your natural sense of exploration and discovery screams “YES, I AM A VERY CLEVER SPY INDEED.”
Unfortunately, the game encourages deliberate, non-confrontational play by assigning a lettered grade to your performance at the end of every stage. Your rank depends on whether you were spotted or tripped any alarms, with additional categories for if you found all Geocache Tokens in a level, took down opponents, and hid the bodies of those you did neutralize. Unintentionally or not, this system ends up defining NEON STRUCT as only for people who are already fans of that style of play – quiet, considered, and requiring constant evasion. Keeping my rank in mind, my first few hours with the game were an exercise in tedium as I restarted levels over and over again to get a better score.
This was the same problem I had with the Thief games NEON STRUCT pays so much homage to, actually. For every moment I bought into the fiction and believed “Yes, I am the coolest, greatest thief who ever lived,” it felt like an invisible hand was slapping me down and telling me “Maybe you are, but you’re not doing it the right way.” NEON STRUCT‘s movement system is sublime, with Jillian climbing, leaping, and power-sliding across even the most perilous of walkways with ease. Cool devices are available at every turn, from invisibility and speed stims, to stunning “HUDSON Scramblers,” to teleporting “Displacement Orbs.” However, I didn’t use any of these abilities for fear of getting caught, or not bring prepared for a hypothetical tough spot later on.
It was only when I stopped trying to satisfy NEON STRUCT‘s arbitrary, external ranking system that I discovered a stealth experience like nothing else in gaming.
Stomping across cacophonous metal panels, I slam the door behind me to buy precious seconds, weaving between pillars to dodge hot neon gunfire. Power-sliding into a narrow hallway, I jump out the window onto a fire escape, and throw a displacement orb at the ground below. The gadget lands with a satisfying *thunk*, instantly transporting me to street level, leaving every guard in the compound staring out the window wondering where I’ve gone. Thinking the first floor is now clear enough for me to ferret out any secrets I missed earlier, I head back inside through the front door to find myself staring into the eyes of three stragglers.
Using my mousewheel, I select a HUDSON Scrambler and throw it into the middle of the group, leaving my potential assailants dazed and clutching their heads. I then leisurely walk behind each one, knocking them out and throwing their bodies into a conveniently placed bathroom, before heading back on my way.
I’m not Jillian the wary ex-spy. I’m Jillian the escape artist. Jillian the explorer. Jillian the codebreaker under pressure. Jillian the fast, invisible, and deadly. Divorced from the fear of how the game might judge me later on, I’m free to use every tool and ability at my disposal, experiment incessantly, and laugh at every foolhardy misadventure. I’m finally having fun, and the thought that those who also find the grading system oppressive might quit without experiencing the full breadth of what NEON STRUCT has to offer saddens me.
Speaking of all NEON STRUCT has to offer, in between each stealth sandbox is a peaceful “hub” of sorts. This downtime is valuable, allowing you to take a quick breather before the next mission and use your abilities freely without fear of imminent death. Absorb more information about the game’s world, complete side quests, buy equipment for the next stage of your journey, and engage in healthy conversation – while you still can.
Or not. That’s cool too.
Before closing, I’d like to add a non-spoilery note about NEON STRUCT‘s ending, and how it makes a binary final choice feel meaningful.
Vinood won’t speak to me anymore.
I know he’s a fictional character, constructed from lines of code, snippets of carefully-edited dialogue, and Pittman’s signature low-poly art, but it deeply affected me. I was honest with the game, and the results of my decision made perfect sense. He has every right to never contact to me again.
That doesn’t mean I don’t miss him.
·The treatment of Stims in the world of NEON STRUCT is like that of a drug, or certain varieties of prescription medication. Unlicensed vendors are referred to as Dealers, transactions are conducted in shadowy locations out of the public eye, etc.
·A lesbian couple offering a side quest can be found in the first hub of the game.
·The phrase “what the h-ll” is used once.
·Depending on how you view certain situations/actions, taking the Cash lying around sections of some levels could be theft.
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