Don’t you hate it when you wake up in the afterlife with almost no memory of who you were, overwhelmed by the opulent splendor of Heaven, the strange people around you wearing bizarre masks, and the borderline obnoxious angels barking at you about securing your place in the afterlife if you carry out their bidding and clear Heaven of invading demons? Even if this doesn’t sound like a remotely familiar occurrence to you, this is the setup for Angel Matrix’s Neon White, an extremely anime card-based platformer shooter speedrunner that fuses all of its concepts together in a delightfully appealing package that works way better than it has any right to, owing largely to the strength of its art design and the incredible fluidity of the gameplay. If you’re thinking to yourself “wow, this game sounds like a lot,” you’re absolutely right, but it is also totally easy to get into and really fun to play because even though it sounds complicated, in truth it focuses on doing a few things, and doing them well.
That said, there is a lot going on with Neon White, but the game does a great job of pacing the onboarding process to get you familiar with its concepts at a reasonable rate. You wake up as the recently deceased and conveniently amnesiac White, the game’s protagonist who can’t remember much about himself or why some of the other souls seem so familiar to him, but can still remember plenty well how to move and kill with speed. White is a Neon, the afterlife’s name for damned souls who have a chance at redemption by playing in Heaven’s annual ten-day contest during which all of the Neons compete to see who can eradicate the most demons from Heaven with the most style and speed for a chance at redemption.
During the game’s initial missions, you are taught the basic mechanics of the game; primarily, how to move through levels and how to kill the demons in front of you. Scattered around the levels and dropped by some enemies, Soul Cards are the key to expanding White’s arsenal and enabling him to dispatch foes with efficiency. Cards represent different kinds of weapons, each of which behaves exactly like you’d expect from playing any other FPS, but which also grant you special abilities when you intentionally discard them. The pistol, Elevate, allows you an extra jump when discarded (and multiple can be chained in succession), while the semi-automatic rifle, Purify, fires an explosive on discard that can be used to wipe out groups of enemies, destroy barriers, or propel White further with a bomb-jump. You can carry two weapon cards at any given time and up to three of each, so the potential for combining cards to destroy enemies and get through the levels gets more complex and exciting as you get deeper into the game’s levels.
Neon White slowly layers on mechanics as you progress, and while everything you can do is available from the very first level, it takes its time teaching you in increments so that your knowledge builds slowly and logically. It’s a great use of the technique Nintendo has used to gradually teach and increase the difficulty of its levels for decades, and it works wonderfully here. Even in the first chapter, you start off with basic running, jumping and shooting, and by the end of the tenth mission you’ve gained enough knowledge to be an unstoppable parkour expert death machine, chaining jumps, looking for skips, and achieving a flow state as you seek the most optimal path through a level to unlock everything available and climb as high on the leader board as you can.
In many ways, the beauty of Neon White‘s gameplay is that while the shooting part is totally competent and feels good, that ends up being the least important part of it compared with the platforming mechanics and the way every level design is set up to encourage you to poke at it and find ways to exploit the geometry to net yourself the fastest times possible, but this is balanced by the fact that the goal zone is locked until every demon has been wiped out, so you have to balance optimizing your route with making sure you can still take out every baddie on your way. Sometimes the positioning of enemies (or types of enemies) provide clues as to how to get through to the end faster, or the Soul Cards some of them drop can give you a hint about other ways to approach an area where shaving off a few seconds seems impossible.
As you get faster and faster times, you are awarded progressively higher grade medals for crossing certain thresholds (bronze through platinum), and each new tier grants you additional “insight” about the level, each with its own perks. The first tier unlocks the hidden “gift” collectible in each level (important for reasons we’ll touch on later), the next unlocks the ability to see your best run’s ghost, the third unlocks an in-level hint that will show you a faster path to completion (if you didn’t find it already yourself), and the last unlocks the global leaderboard, to give you perspective on just how much your time could be improved. In this way, improving your times on levels gives you more data to continue improving your times with, and the real beauty of the game’s design becomes apparent; the shooting part is just one part of a multi-faceted puzzle solving exercise centered around conquering each level and honing your skills as you go.
All of this is set against the backdrop of an otherworldly, largely surreal depiction of the great beyond in which Heaven looks like the ultimate realization of divine extravagance in the form of an infinitely huge resort themed largely after the height of both Roman and Greek architecture. Alabaster pillars and temples rise out of perfectly blue oceans of the calmest waters, with vases, fountains, arches, and all manner of adornments. Lavish temples loom large above you, with rows of super yachts anchored opposite the thoroughfare. Domed towers and villas reminiscent of Mykonos rise from the clouds as you sail across the sky. Everything is brilliant and pristine, marred only by the presence of demons which are largely fodder for your feats of grace and violence. It’s a beautiful and incredibly stylish experience that only gets more detailed and creatively inspired as you progress, and making your way through the progressively more demon-infested tiers of Heaven rewards you with an ever increasing visual feast.
Of course, there’s more to Neon White than just running and jumping and gunning; it’s garnished with a deep narrative that plays out between (and sometimes during) missions, wherein White is trying to get to the bottom of how he got here in the first place, and who his friends are among the other Neons who seem to know him but who he can’t remember. Given the heavy anime inspiration of art style, premise, character designs, and thematic elements, the overall tone of the story strikes a balance between cheeky and self-serious. It’s largely successful in finding the right rhythm between these two, erring on the side of lightheartedness more often than not and saving the very serious business only for the most dire or dark moments. That said, it feels unmistakably that the team behind Angel Matrix set out with a clear vision to make a playable anime; the game opens with an anime sequence from Studio Yotta, features the vocal talents of anime veteran Steve Blum, and sports a premise and cast that could easily have been plucked from an existing property. There are also nods to well known anime properties scattered throughout the game, starting with the Angel Matrix logo itself, and it’s clear the creators have a great fondness for the medium.
The voice acting in Neon White is really excellent, and while it can always be jarring to hear the voice of Spike Spiegel coming out of any character’s mouth other than Spike, Steve Blum does a great job portraying White with his trademark laid back, often bewildered cool-guy vibe that fits White’s character and writing well. The rest of the cast is also great, with the voices of the other Neons (Red, Violet, and Yellow in particular) being highlights to look forward to during character interactions, especially as you get a feel for some of the, erm, unique proclivities each of them possess. The performances breathe believable life into each of the colorful characters, and help to deepen the sense of immersion as you buddy up with Yellow, feel simultaneously charmed and frightened by Violet, and try to navigate the very clear tension between White and Red.
The juxtaposition of Neon White‘s exposition format against its stylish, fast paced action gameplay is something I’ve not seen before. The loop of solving the puzzles in each level with as much speed, aggression, and finesse as possible is addicting and the pace is frenetic; then you land back in the hub between missions and the game switches over to something resembling a visual novel, where you can explore different locations, engage in conversations with the various other characters you’ve met, and improve your relationships with each of them by giving them gifts you’ve found hidden in each of the game’s levels. Admittedly, the shift is jarring at first, but it’s a great way to get to know the supporting cast better, it allows the story to develop more fully, and overall the connections you build with the other characters feels deeper as a result of deliberately seeking out conversations with them.
Much of this component of the game is optional and can be skipped if you really only care about staying on the trail of the action, but the rewards for strengthening the bonds you have with the characters you meet are twofold. Progressing a character’s Insight track will reward you at each new tier with either a new conversation between them and White, a special challenge level to play that focuses on specific game play mechanics to pass, or unlocking one of White’s lost memories about him and the character, allowing you to further unravel the mystery of his past, his reason for being dead and fighting for his afterlife in the first place, and his connection to everybody else.
Even if you don’t care as much about exploring those additional paths with the game’s characters, the challenge involved in securing the hidden gifts in each level is compelling enough to make them fun to pursue, and the deeper in you get, the more critically you have to think about how to use the level geometry and the Soul Cards available to you to subvert the intended routing and grab the bright shiny package taunting you from out of reach. It’s an extra layer of challenge on top of the drive to constantly be improving your time that will help you wring even more out of every level, and help you build upon the way you think about searching for routes in future levels to optimize your times.
Since this is a game where speed running is a deeply ingrained element of the gameplay, everything needs to run with precision and smoothness, and thankfully Neon White has no issues in this area. To some extent, the art style and the overall polygon density in each level helps the game maintain consistently great performance, but it’s also clear a great deal of tuning went into making sure that the game won’t falter no matter what’s happening on screen, which allows you to focus on running your ass off through each level over and over again. To be fair, I tested this on an RTX 3080 Ti, so it’s entirely possible older generation cards could struggle at times, but given that the recommended specs for running the game are an Intel Core i3-2100 and an Nvidia GTX 750 Ti, and that the game is also coming to Nintendo Switch, it’s a fair bet that most gaming PCs will get a really solid experience.
I have to say, I really like this game. It’s not necessarily something I would expect to like (I normally admire speed running from afar), but all of the trappings around it check a lot of boxes that make Neon White a very difficult game to resist, much less put down. It’s also not the perfect game for everyone; you’ve gotta be on board for a wholly anime experience (which honestly I recommend), and to be clear this is much more a platformer and even a runner/racer than it is a shooter, so don’t let the “FPS” part fool you. It certainly has shooting, but that’s merely a piece of the greater puzzle, one which I think comes together pretty well. I didn’t know I was in the market for a really good card-based, anime, speed running, FPS game, but as it turns out I was looking for exactly one of those and Neon White absolutely delivers on its promises.
A Steam code was provided in advance by the publisher for review purposes