Review: Neon Blight

11 Jul 2022

I do not, to this day, remember how I first learned about Recettear. But it remains, years later, one of my favorite games and an absolute delight to play through front-to-back. Sure, most of the characters were broad archetypes rather than being well-developed individuals with rich inner lives, and it was clearly a small title put together by enthusiastic amateurs. But none of that mattered because the mechanics, gameplay, and overall feel were just so much fun you couldn’t help but be charmed by the production. It is, I think, a game that is ripe for someone else to take a try at making bigger and better.

I bring this up because in many ways, it feels like Neon Blight is trying to be Recettear‘s cousin in all of the ways that matter, older and more sophisticated, swapping the bubblegum-light vague fantasy world with a much edgier and more mature cyberpunk aesthetic and setting. Unfortunately, in the process all of the things that made that game so charming get washed away… and what you’re left with is a game where the focus is swapped and there are just so many little things dragging the title down until what’s left is… boring.

Neon Blight releases on July 11th on Steam, which was (obviously) the version played for this review.

Argon Sickness

The game starts out with what I would consider at least some degree of promise. Two cops, Franko and Lara, are on patrol in Generic Cyberpunk City (Serial Number 4372937-QR34-B) when they get a call to investigate a bunker, where they find a bunch of gang members and the notorious criminal Deathblade. They bring him back to the precinct, only for him to claim that he’s bought off most of the police force and that the cops can either let him go despite his crimes or die trying to stop him. And then…

Smash cut to 15 years later when Lara is leaving the police force to open a gun store, no further explanation given. Also, the very first thing she’s asked to do is to go hunt down and kill Deathblade, which she immediately agrees to without any hesitation. Based on the time gap and everything it’s hard to believe that this is actually something she had been pursuing in any active capacity. Then again, it’s almost impossible to pin down what her motivation is supposed to be or what she actually wants.

When I say that this started with some promise, that’s what I mean, and that’s also why this whole thing kind of hits me cold. As you progress through the plot, for example, you get hints at a grand conspiracy – but since you’re never given a grounding in the world to understand what the conspiracy might be, you never really feel like secrets are being revealed to you. Usually flashbacks to Lara’s past as a cop happen after you beat bosses instead of before, thus meaning that you have no emotional connection to the boss as you fight them. It’s supposed to all be vague and cyberpunk-ish and so forth, but…

Actually, no, we need to go into that a bit. The whole idea of “cyberpunk” as a genre refers to a very specific sort of science fiction, a setting wherein rapid alterations to human minds and bodies as a result of technological advancement produces a society that is at once disconnected and replete with human suffering. It emphasizes the idea of the individual being ground down as fodder for the cogs of society, crushed beneath uncaring systems. At its best, it is critical not of technology but of the way in which society offloads the responsibility of compassion onto technology and the way giving companies power over human lives dehumanizes everyone.

“Cop tries to make things better but the system does not permit her to do so, and thus she leaves disillusioned” is a good starting point. But what we actually get is “cop does cop stuff, then many years later she leaves and is given an opportunity to get violent revenge.” That’s not a relatable protagonist or an understandable need for fixing an unsolved problem; that’s just disturbing.

The story is also not helped by numerous misspellings, wrong word choices, and just awkward turns of phrase throughout. I’m not sure if the game was translated from the developers’ original language, but seeing as how the developer appears to be based in Quebec, I can’t really be sure.

Helium Affliction

All right, let’s make something clear about my a priori assumptions. You know, since I’ve been doing this gig for… nearly three years, I feel like I’ve aged forty, how did that happen. Ahem. The point I want to make here is while no amount of good gameplay can make up for a bad story, it can be good enough that you’re willing to mostly overlook it. There are plenty of games with nothing-special stories that are celebrated for their gameplay, just like there are some games with tedious or dull gameplay that manage to be charming based on their stories.

Sadly, Neon Blight doesn’t hit that mark, either.

For the most part, Neon Blight is a top-down shooter dungeon crawler. Lara moves around with WASD, dodges with the right click, and shoots in the direction you indicate with the left click. And that’s about it for controls, beyond using the scroll wheel to pick out which weapon you’re using. Weapons can be bought or found dropped from enemies, as can items that passively alter the behavior of your arsenal or that of enemies (slowing down their bullets, speeding up yours, making you move faster, etc). Move around the map and get random stuff while slowly progressing through the plot.

Unfortunately… well, let’s just start with most of the areas you’re exploring. Not to put too fine a point on it, they’re boring.

I swear that I am not kidding when I say that the first place you go for your shooting is… a forest. A forest on the outskirts of the city. In a cyberpunk game. A genre where one of the most iconic images is about navigating the urban sprawl and the jungle of same, and your first area to explore is a forest. This is bad enough in and of itself, but most of the relatively large areas you explore will spawn… two enemies.

Forget an elegant dance of death in which you’re dodging bullets left and right, in most zones you win fights by just aiming at the enemy and holding down fire until they die. It’s a rare day when both enemies are firing at you at the same time. Bigger areas are actually way easier than smaller ones, because there aren’t more enemies or menaces lurking around and you have more space to hide and dodge.

Ah, but the boss fights are more challenging! In theory, anyway. There’s more stuff to dodge, and you can’t be sure that you’ll have very good guns when you stumble upon the boss. But I wound up getting a bullet at one point that allowed my bullets to pass through enemies (thus doing multiple hits worth of damage on every shot) and it made at least one boss just go poof with nothing more than one of the most common handguns in the game even without good dodges. It was wildly overwhelming.

I should also note that boss was apparently a totally unintentional sequence break that wildly screwed up the flow of gameplay, but I’ll get into that more in the next section.

Wait, weren’t you running a gun store? The answer is yes; you get to name your store and can then sell the guns you collect for coins. Unfortunately, this side of the game feels very under developed and, frankly, boring. You place your guns on stands, manually dial in the price digit by digit in an uncomfortable interface, people either decide the gun is priced well or decline to purchase it, then you check them out. Restocking while your store is open is a gigantic pain and runs the risk of someone deciding to buy a gun for free, which (yes) actually happened to me. And no, you can’t refuse to sell the gun and just take it back, or at least you couldn’t in a way I found. It’s a very perfunctory and not-functional system that doesn’t work out very well.

I hate to say it, but the fact is that the gameplay here was just downright boring. I found myself consistently, utterly bored by playing it. It was farming for no purpose and didn’t engage me. It wasn’t always truly dire, but it was bland. And none of this is helped by the achingly slow walking speed as you cross around the map.

Radon Infection

Graphically, the game has a pretty good detailed pixel style for its sprites and animations that look a little silly for the wildly swinging gun arms but otherwise more or less work. The environments are… I don’t want to call them bad, but they don’t feel like most of them have anything to do with the purported cyberpunk setting. Forests and deserts and snowfields look nice, but they’re about as far from the promised mechanics of a cyberpunk game as you could get.

Much of the game is devoid of music (or it’s so ambient you don’t pay any attention to it), which lets you focus on the sound effects. They are… not great. Grunts and gunshots are fine, but your footsteps are both too loud and too constant. I hated hearing the snow-crunch footstep effect constantly as I was wandering around that particular map, for example, and the echoing metal footstep sound in the bio-tech lab is really upsetting.

Not helped by the fact that for the longest time I couldn’t actually get the bio-tech lab to do anything… but I could open the menu for it and be faced with no way to close the menu. I’m serious. No menu prompts, no o-bvious way to close it. I could not interact with it but I also could not close it without blindly stumbling toward the door and leaving.

Which means that now it’s time to bring up the fact that this game is also a buggy mess in the absolute worst ways. This was the sort of thing I would expect to see in a game I was playing as an early access preview, not a title that intended to release in a couple of days. There were so many bugs, so many errors, that it honestly makes more sense to put them in list form. A small sampling:

  • Item descriptions are consistently cut off on shop descriptions, only displaying the first couple of lines while often concealing crucial context within that last line and cutting off mid-word.
  • The item description for the Floppy Disk simply reads “itemdesc.floppydisc” with no explanation of what it does. And no, I did not fail to match those two spellings; the item is called the Floppy Disk and the item description spells it differently.
  • Lara could frequently walk into walls at normal speed and get stuck in them.
  • NPCs could frequently walk into walls and get stuck in them.
  • Item drops could get stuck in walls or inaccessible places. Sometimes they would simply vanish, other times they would remain hovering there.
  • As mentioned, several dialogue boxes have major misspellings or errors in English word choice like confusing “their” and “there.”
  • Healing interfaces will sometimes auto-heal multiple units of your health bonus and charge you for same even when the total amount of healing exceeds your health.
  • Everything I just mentioned about the bio-tech interface.
  • The game allows you to open your manual backpack while opening your store inventory and glitch the interface.
  • Perhaps the most damning bug of all, when leaving the first map in the forest – the very first zone in which you can explore – if I left by the south, the game would glitch me immediately to the snowfields in the north. If I tried to go south from that map to go back to the forest, I would not be able to leave the zone line and would become completely stuck, even after buying access to the snowfield.

And, I mean… this is just unacceptable stuff. You shouldn’t get glitched because you went north on a map that has exits to the north and south, especially not the first zone. Especially when the game’s storytelling gets really screwy by sequence breaking and exploring the north first, which I did because I had bought access to it simply because… well, I hoped that would allow me to fix the north bug. Which it did not. Sigh.

Xenon Lesion

The thing that keeps striking me about Neon Blight is that it’s irritating. Every one of its little problems adds up with all of the others. And that’s the real thing that gets me. Look at that list of bugs – if you fixed all of those, if there was a day one patch that addressed all of those issues, would that make the game better? Objectively, yes. But subjectively, that would just mean instead of a buggy bland game with a weak story, you have… a non-buggy bland game with a weak story.

Doesn’t really fix things, does it?

I wanted to like this game. I want to enjoy games and want them to be good. But ultimately Neon Blight struck me as a game that doesn’t have much to light the imagination or provide fun gameplay. It’s a tedious title without anything to stick to the ribs, nothing that has that addictive rush of “oh, I can’t wait until I get to this.” It’s a game about guns in a cyberpunk setting that seems unwilling to do anything with that beyond shooting them, and in most cyberpunk games “all the stuff you can do with guns” is basically a cottage industry.

When I compared the game to Recettear in the beginning, I created the picture of this being the much more scowly and superficially “mature” version compared to the other game’s wide-eyed idealism. But ultimately it’s just a tedious, scowling experience substituting actual improvement for growling noises and the occasional neon sign. And that’s disappointing.

~ Final Score: 5/10 ~

Review copy provided by Freedom Games for PC. All screenshots courtesy of Freedom Games.