Written by D. Matthew Beyer // Edited by Andrew Busch // Images courtesy of RUINERGAME.com // Reuploaded on February 7th because WordPress devoured the original article for some reason.
So my fellow GameFES contributor Andrew recently brought a game to my attention that looked right up my alley. It’s called RUINER, and it somehow completely flew under my radar when it came out in September of 2017, despite being the sort of thing that sounds perfect for me on paper. A skill-intensive action game with punishing difficulty developed by a small passionate studio that deliberate evokes my absolute favorite subgenre of science fiction? It sounded perfect, so I downloaded on my PS4 and starting playing.
Having now experienced RUINER for myself, I’m probably more conflicted about this game than any other I’ve ever played.
Published by the A24 of video games, Devolver Digital, RUINER comes to us from Polish developer Reikon Games, a studio of people who worked on The Witcher, Dead Island, and Dying Light. It’s an impressive resume, and it’s reflected in the gameplay. RUINER is a brutally hard but incredibly addictive twin-stick shooter, where the key to success is shuffling around your character’s skill points in the middle of tense firefights.
Since every fight is gripping and the penalty for dying is a brief slap on the wrist in the form of your mission control character chastising you, RUINER excels at maintaining tension and momentum. You always feel like you’re one more attempt away from getting it right when you’re losing, and when you’re clearing gauntlets without dying you want to maintain that streak. Your hard-earned victories come at a quick pace once you get into a groove.
Part of what enables this sense of momentum is that death almost always feels like it’s your fault. RUINER’s controls are equally responsive and demanding. Since there’s zero input lag between button press and in-game action, you always know when your reflexes are at fault. But twitch reaction times aren’t enough, as you also need pixel-perfect aim to shoot and bash your way through the game’s gauntlet of enemies. I actually found the game significantly easier to play with aim assist disabled because of how unforgiving the controls can be. Snapping to an enemy sounds helpful in theory, but I found it hard to properly lead shots when the auto-aim targets where enemies are instead of where they will be.
The soundtrack also helps sell the gameplay with its driving percussion and heavy synths. The music helps you fall into a rhythm, where everything clicks and you’re shooting and dodging and using skills at just the right moment to fight off hordes of mooks. There’s a lot going on at any given moment in a RUINER gunfight, which can be overwhelming. But damn, you feel like the grim reaper when you’re doing well, just an untouchable force of destruction.
As the gameplay piece de resistance, RUINER has one of the highest skill ceilings of any modern game. You can claw your way through the main campaign in about eight to ten hours through tenacity, dying all the way, but I can imagine a certain kind of player who would obsess over this game and invest ten or twenty times that many hours mastering it. And your performance is ranked on a letter scale pretty regularly throughout each level, so the game provides feedback on how you’re doing and how much you could stand to improve.
And I think it’s safe to say everyone will have room to improve, because RUINER’s difficulty is bonkers. I played on the normal difficulty, and even then it was probably the hardest game I have ever played. Granted, I could’ve dropped down to easy at any moment, but that felt somehow like letting the game win, so that wasn’t happening. Make no mistake, RUINER hates you. Actively, and without mercy. It wants nothing more than to watch you fail over and over and over again, and then rub your failure in your face when you get a bad grade at the end of the level. A certain kind of player will absolutely relish this challenge. You probably already know if you’re the kind of player I’m talking about–and if you are, by all means, buy this game.
Now, you’re probably wondering what about this game makes me so conflicted– so far so good, right? Well, there’s the mid-review kicker– I didn’t finish RUINER. Not because I couldn’t, mind you. This is a game that anyone can beat given sufficient patience and time, but I just couldn’t get behind the aesthetics of the game and its warped worldview. The mechanics are awesome, but they’re let down by the setting and story.
To be fair, everything about the aesthetic is competent. It all works, it’s cohesive, and actually it looks relatively nice. The Unreal Engine-powered graphics aren’t the peak of fidelity but with the game’s frantic pace and zoomed-out isometric perspective you won’t notice. I didn’t run into any slowdown issues even on my amateur PS4, and the art direction is pretty compelling, featuring a hodgepodge of cyberpunk visuals with a slick palette dominated by black and red.
And therein lies the rub. I love cyberpunk. It is my single favorite genre of speculative fiction. And RUINER’s interpretation of the genre repulses me.
The RUINER devs wear their inspirations on their sleeves– they openly admit that the game is inspired by “cult cyberpunk anime” and that they’re using the iconography and tropes to tell their own story. Which is fine, and completely their prerogative. The Asian inspired city of Rengkok in which the game takes place is awash in neon lights with its back alley hackers, colorful themed gangs of punks and rampant corporate villainy. It certainly looks the part of a great cyberpunk setting, but I don’t feel like it is because it’s missing a vital piece- humanity.
The best science fiction— and by extension cyberpunk— is warm blooded. There’s a human heart beating beneath the grit and grime, the metal and machinery, the paranoia and the persecuted. RUINER’s blood runs close to absolute zero. There is no humanity to be found in Rengkok, nothing worth fighting for or saving. The story is a rehash of the standard cyberpunk tropes of corruption and skullduggery without any fleshed out characters to anchor it. To put it another way, this game owes a ton to the original Blade Runner– as all cyberpunk does- but it doesn’t engage with the elements of Blade Runner that made the film a classic. Yes, the Blade Runner aesthetic has permeated popular culture to an astonishing degree, but the drive of the original film is the philosophical quagmire of Deckard. He is he who hunts monsters— which might not even to be monsters, mind you— and the question of his humanity is what fascinates people about Blade Runner. Aesthetics aren’t enough if they’re not in service of anything.
The best illustration of my point is actually the game’s very first line. RUINER starts with Blade Runner style exposition insisting that “in the year 2091 pervasive advancements in technology and computerization haven’t changed human nature,” a statement which the rest of the game proves false. In RUINER’s 2091, technology has exterminated human nature. There is no kindness, no empathy, no warmth in Rengkok and most damningly no potential for the player to inject it into the world. I would know- I tried. In the prologue mission, a character tells you not to continue on your path of violence. And I waited for five minutes before realizing I had no choice but to embrace brutality. This is an aggressively nihilistic game, and it didn’t make me feel anything other than anger.
Another point of contention I have with the setting is the upsetting gender politics on display. While the game doesn’t have anything good to say about anyone, the treatment of women goes beyond general misanthropy into gratuitous misogyny. There are three major female characters in the game. One is a paranoid hooligan (which happens to be her in-game name) who dresses like a cat and is obsessed with cat shaped spy robots. The second is a prostitute who only accepts death as payment for her services. The third and most prominent is your mission control hacker buddy, known only as HER. HER spends the game oscillating between demeaning you for your failures and cheerfully demanding you massacre people of her choosing. There’s also a robot called Mother that has some uncomfortably sexualized lines. All this fetishizing of women is admittedly a symptom of RUINER’s pedigree. Cyberpunk has never been kind to women, but it’s a shame to see that tradition continue unchecked in a product made in 2017.
And now I’m left with the question of “does any of this really matter?” The game— taken as a purely mechanical challenge— is great. Which is why I’m so conflicted. The gamer in me wants to dive right back into RUINER and finish it for no other reason than to prove I can. But the storyteller can’t stomach the themes.
I want to like RUINER. I really do. The mechanics work well and the challenge is incredibly satisfying even when the difficulty gets frustrating. It’s just a shame that such a great game is surrounded by such a callous aesthetic shell. Reikon is missing the ghost from their Ghost in the Shell. It’s a slick veneer over a rotten core.
Maybe that won’t bother you like it bothers me. The developers made the game they wanted to make, and by all accounts they’re proud of what they made and that’s great. I’m happy for them. And when they make their next game, you can be sure I’ll give it a chance because they certainly know how to make games. I just wish they put a little bit more thought into their worlds.