Review: Neon Drive

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I seriously cannot get enough of that gaudy, neon retro-future 80s look, and this should be proof-positive of that. I say that because there’s not a whole lot to Neon Drive besides that slick aesthetic, the rhythm mechanics disguised as driving, and some creative applications of those mechanics. But that’s very much enough to please me, bobbing my head along to the tinny synth base as I weave between glowing road obstructions. Your enjoyment will depend on how much the look and feel do for you and how much challenge you’re willing to take, but even as a short experience this is a good one to spend your time with.

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The game menu takes you right to eight different arcade machines, representing the eight stages of the game. You can choose from three difficulties for each (which we’ll expand upon later) as well as practice and free run modes, and then it’s off to the neon races. You’ll find yourself in a terribly stylish car, speeding off into the horizon along a four-lane road. There’ll be a load of glowing obstructions in your way, but tapping right and left allows you to switch lanes instantly to avoid danger. As it happens, most of your obstacles sync quite well to the music, making it easier to dodge past them if you’re bumping along to the solid soundtrack.

It’ll definitely make it easier, but not easy. Neon Drive seemingly borrows from the original Bit Trip Runner school in that your obstacles approach at incredible speed, and leave you little time to react to very dense arrangements. These issues will be alleviated with practice, of course, but the unforgiving pace and arrangement of things to kill yourself on can make it hard to get started. You won’t find any power-ups or boosters or items here, either. This is pure rhythm action, where muscle memory and honed reflexes are at a premium.

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Neon Drive will throw you a few curve balls though, in the form of their latter stage design. Each stage has a number of checkpoints you can helpfully restart from if you eat it, and most stages have a pretty drastic gameplay concept to reveal after reaching the first or second checkpoint. It could be your car sprouting wings and cruising across the ocean, it could be a full on side-scrolling shooter bit, or even a proper runner segment. These moments keep the game fresh and add some much-needed variety to the otherwise repetitive straight driving bits, though you’ll still need a little patience to work out the exact mechanics.

This is where those three difficulty levels come into play. On Normal you get one flub per checkpoint that you can keep on rolling through, but on Hard there are no second chances between checkpoints. Insane takes the checkpoints out entirely and ups the tempo, so you’ll need to have mastered the track to get through it. Again, this is a game that requires very keen reflexes and more than a little practice, which is where most of the replayability comes from. If you’re more here for beating stages and calling it done then Neon Drive should last you about an hour, while completionists will have brutal challenges to beat their heads against indefinitely.

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It’s the aesthetic that sells it though, at least for me. The laser-lined landscapes and TRON-esque vistas are a perfect match to the 80’s pop soundtrack, and the visuals even have a few surprises in store for you. It’s not just album covers they borrow their look from but also films and other media, and there’s one level full of flying cars and towering skyscrapers that’s sure to put a smile on the face of any cyberpunk fan. Neon Drive is a simple package, steep but straight-forward rhythm challenge with some sharp visuals, and that should tell you right away if it’s for you. It is for me, just to cruise down those lonely neon streets to some excellent music.

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