To me, good cyberpunk has a strong horror bent to it. It’s a dark reflection of what we allow to happen to ourselves, on social and technological levels. RUINER gets this, painting a dystopia so dark no amount of holograms or sexbots can make it appealing. It’s a human story at its core, one of betrayal and revenge, but encrusted with so much abusive tech you would be forgiven for missing the narrative for the cybernetic horrors within. Fortunately there are thousands of misguided souls for you to cleave from their bodies to keep you thoroughly grounded in the blood-red streets.
The city of Rengkok exists at the behest of HEAVEN, a megacorporation responsible for a virtual reality system that lets the upper classes escape into custom fantasies. Not everyone is thrilled with this arrangement, however, and someone has reprogrammed your brain to find and kill the boss of HEAVEN. The timely intervention of a young hacker lady stays your hand, and sends you on a bloody odyssey to free your brother from the folks who want you as a murder tool. Of course, you’re going to be murdering plenty of people on the way to him, and one has to wonder who might benefit from your little rampage as well.
I want to make it clear that virtually every moment of RUINER will be spent auguring in on someone else to kill. The story takes you from one person of interest to the next, executing what seems like every single underling they have on the way to frying the next big fry’s brain for a clue. Your goal is always reaching your brother but plenty about the world is revealed on that path, from the cyber junkies that turned the local parking garage into a Fallout-style abattoir to the human processing assemblies churning away beneath the city streets. The city reeks of desolation, hopelessness, and corruption and you’ll witness the very human cost of the systems that prop it all up, culminating in some scenes that actually made me wince with disgust. It’s all very much Ghost in the Shell with the intellectual meandering swapped out for extra gore and atrocities, and for a game about beating entire gangs to death with a lead pipe it’s the perfect backdrop.
If the setting is Ghost in the Shell, the gameplay is a cross between Hyper Light Drifter and Hotline Miami. You’ll guide your deadly avatar down darkened corridors and catwalks to arenas where dozens of enemies will swarm out to overwhelm him. A few whacks with your pipe or shots with your pistol will drop early enemies in a bloody pile, or put them into a state ripe for a gory finisher. You’ll find tons of guns and blades to use along the way though, and a host of special abilities on top of your very useful dashes. The dashes themselves are interesting because you can slow down the game to place waypoints for them and then execute complex maneuvers around enemies, or just use the slowdown to plan your next kill. Enemies are tuned to do plenty of damage so dodging is important, but not so much that you can’t go straight sickhouse on a lot of foes.
The combat is what really drew me into RUINER, even more than the pitch-black cyberpunk, but only after I learned to deal with its quirks. For starters, I had a much better time with it once I switched from controller to keyboard and mouse. Because of the speed and precision needed for plotting dashes, a controller just doesn’t feel sufficient for this one. Even then battles felt incredibly swingy, with some ending in seconds while others had enemies that seemed to stay just out of range and burn me down with firearms. I know now that I wasn’t using my combat tools to the fullest but it can feel like you’re dying for no reason sometimes. I still feel that way occasionally, to be honest, because of little gripes like not being able to buffer mouse clicks for combos or the wildly unbalanced powers. Seriously, for one of your slots you can choose extremely underwhelming regeneration or brain hacking that lets you turn up to three enemies to your side.
It’s still a bloody good time once you get the hang of it, and over the course of six hours I never got tired of expunging life from the garish halls of Rengkok. The arenas can get a bit samey and there’s little to no exploration between them, just long walks past intricately detailed machinery and corpses. But the incredible art style helps ensure that never gets boring, mixing plasticky sheens and neon with heavy industry and broken bodies. It’s a step farther than most cyberpunk, with everything really just looking cool rather than being functional, but in a way it fits with the excesses evident across the rest of the game. I loved how reckless this one is with its festering city and corrupt bosses, I loved the visceral thrill of mulching all their minions, and despite the issues I loved experiencing it all in a feverish voyage of blood and sparks.