Steel, concrete, and blood all drenched in neon and the sharp staccato light of gun fire. A mechanical man takes on the denizens of Heaven. Quick and visceral combat that leaves your enemies slumped and prone on the ground. Ruiner sounds like my kind of game, and I so desperately wanted it to hit all the right notes.
Sadly, something is out of tune.
Ruiner is the work of Reikon games, a Polish indie developer. It consists of veteran game designers who have worked on titles like The Witcher, Dying Light, This War of Mine and Shadow Warrior. In Ruiner you play a robot faced maniac on a mission to KILL BOSS. The message flashes endlessly in the game, driving you forward like some form of mania. You have some help from friendly folk but a whole lot more hindrance from people looking to spread your guts across the sidewalk. Hordes of enemies come screaming at you with pipes, swords, shotguns and every type of weapon you can think of. Some of them just chase you down and explode.
World of Hurt
The playgrounds you act out this violent dance in look wonderful. City streets that are packed too tightly to really feel comfortable. Buildings filled with drug fueled deviants and the criminally minded. Rengkok, the developers take on a kind of futuristic Bangkok, oozes attitude and danger and dilapidation. There is wealth here, sure, but it is not for the likes of you. Your place is down in the muck and grime, hacking away at a human face with a sharp piece of metal.
Visually the game gives me what I want from my cyberpunk futures. Grit, grime and darkness. The influence of classic sci-fi cinema is strong and the devs felt no need to move on from the neon trappings of the silver screen. Nor should they. When an aesthetic works, it works, and the devs do fine things with the style in this game.
What the game achieves with the visuals it cuts its own legs off with the story. You are Puppy, part man, part machine. Someone hacked your brain to try and force you to kill someone. Then they fried it in your head. You are saved but, shockingly, they also have your brother. Puppy better save him or Christmas might feel a little awkward this year.
The general motivations of the character are quite tired and played out at this point, and the dialogue is downright painful in places. You get the feeling that Reikon spent hours watching Bladerunner on Blu-Ray but they never had the volume up loud enough to hear Roy Batty’s impassioned monologue about the inherent humanity of his biological machinery. It’s a shame, as the visuals of cyberpunk are maybe half the ingredients for that particular genre. They give the genre its flavor, but not the texture. Narrative and dialogue, with a clever take on the impact of advancing technology and invasive societal change are what good cyberpunk is all about. The devs called the evil megacorp that runs the show Heaven, though, which was a smooth move I guess.
Out of Control
The bread and butter of Ruiner is the violence and, frankly, I have my issues with it. Opting for an isometric point of view to the action, Ruiner runs into some of the problems of such a choice. It wants to be fast and frantic but this tends to work better when things can be viewed from the top down and from a bit further away. If this were the case we would lose some of those lovely visuals, though, so it’s a case of sacrificing one aspect of the game for another. Still, when things like this come up, combat needs to be designed carefully.
The essence of the combat in Ruiner is solid; you juggle skills like Dashes, Shields and ways to cause mayhem with melee attacks and ranged shooting via weapons that you pick up. The issues begin when you start to notice some possible hitbox problems with bad guys. Everything feels very narrow, as if the only point of them you can hit is a thin pole that runs down the center of the model. The game also has an issue with feedback; shooting and hitting enemies doesn’t feel meaty.
The same problem exists with regard to you taking damage. In a way the combat, while fast and frantic, can feel very flat. Despite it being largely fun, there is enough at play here to stop it being as smooth and addictive as it could be. The best twin stick shooters dance on the verge of frustrating, Ruiner can sadly cross that line a bit too often.
They have given a sense of weight to turning, which I like. It is important to watch and react in this game, leaving yourself in a bad position can mean death. It is a game that rewards being able to think a move or two ahead, and I do enjoy that aspect of it.
Run, Puppy, Run
One of the bigger issues with the game can be its performance. Games like this live or die by how steady a framerate they can hold. For an amazing example of this see Vex Machina, a game so smooth and so silky it feels like God’s own pyjamas. Sadly, Ruiner can run into some frame issues that, eh, ruin the experience. When a game wants you to be precise and calculated it should reward such things by not undermining your efforts with sudden missed frames. These can occur during busy times and tense boss fights and it can be a real downer to die because of them.
Despite its flaws, Ruiner does some things very well. Skills can be unlocked, and you need skill points to do so but you are not punished for spending them. The novel aspect is that at any time, a skill can be turned off, freeing up the points you put in it to go elsewhere. This is great, as it allows you to trial and error skills to see if you like them and experiment with your play style. That said, some are just essential and some are all but useless. I suspect most people will find a core set built around shields and dashing and stick with it. Overall, how skills and level progression work in the game is a big plus. I hope other games adopt similar systems if it makes narrative sense.
Ruiner or Ruined?
Overall, Ruiner tries to do some interesting things, and provides a lovely, grim world in which to play. Sadly, some of the basics just don’t feel polished enough to really make the game shine. Twin stick shooter fans who love a challenge may just find a rewarding experience at the core of it, but for people who are on the fence about the genre it is unlikely to provide a rewarding experience. It should be noted that us twin stick shooter lovers are an odd breed, every aspect of the combat that I disliked could also be a high point to other players. But that, after all, is the true joy of gaming.