Review | 6/2/2016 at 12:30 PM

Neon Chrome Co-Op Review

The thinking man's twin-stick shooter

Neon Chrome is something of an aberration in the twin-stick shooter genre. Whereas most titles in this vein rely on quick, twitchy reactions to save your life, 10tons Ltd’s title asks you to do something different: be patient and run away.

In the distant future megacorporations rule all aspects of life, including the "megastructure" where you live. You’re a hacker on a mission to bring down the Overseer, a human that’s been interfaced with the central computer of the building, of your titular residence. Rather than use your computer skills to hack into the mainframe, you take control of “assets” (cybernetically enhanced humans that you hack into and control) and fight your way to the top of the megastructure floor by floor. These assets come equipped with a gun, a special ability, and a couple of unique aspects, such as having more enhancement slots, or increased health but decreased movement speed, and are entirely expendable. Much as you traced your lineage through the ages in Rogue Legacy, your repeated attempts at overthrowing the Overseer will be marked by your asset’s number and the batch from which they are spawned.

Procedural generation has, in some ways, become a buzz term to denote “random stuff to keep you from being bored.” In the case of Neon Chrome, the randomization of a floor’s configuration, including the placement and types of enemies, and how the rooms are set up/linked to one another, represents the challenge. Your asset has no quick dash or roll to get out of the way of enemy fire. If you want to avoid that stream of bullets heading your way, you’ll either need to already be moving out of their way, or use the environment to your advantage. The former will only get you so far, as you can quickly get outnumbered and outgunned by enemies lurking just off-screen, leaving the latter as the more reliable strategy to employ.

This was the part that I banged my head against the most as it is the most unlike any twin-stick shooter I’ve played. I am very used to running into a room, shooting everything that moves, and hoping that I’ve been moving around enough to keep track of the bullets headed my way to avoid them. That kind of a strategy works in short bursts but there are 30 levels to get through, along with a handful of bosses, and healing doesn’t happen with enough frequency that you can just go through guns blazing all the time. I eventually came around to the idea that the best course of action to take was to approach every encounter with some degree of strategy.

For instance, I came across a room (with breakable walls along one edge) that had an enemy and a couple robots inside. The room was big enough that I couldn’t see if those were the only foes inside, so the safe bet was to assume there were more that would come after me if I ran in and just started shooting everything. I punched a hole in the wall, got a line of fire on one enemy, and took him out. The couple enemies nearest to him came out to investigate and I retreated down the hall out of their line-of-sight. Once they turned their backs to me, I shot them all and then explored a little further into the room. Turned out my assumption was right: three more enemies were waiting just a bit south of the initial group. Had I taken the loud approach, I would have been quickly overwhelmed and while I likely would have survived, the amount of damage I would have taken would make the rest of the floor (and subsequent ones) that much harder.

The difficulty of the game doesn’t just come from its randomization and mechanics, unfortunately. No matter which weapon you use - which range from shotgun to rail-gun - they all feel just a little bit off due, in some part, to the (hidden) accuracy stat of each gun. While it may make sense from a “realism” standpoint to make the guns miss occasionally, it takes away from the idea that doing well in Neon Chrome is based off your skill. As I mentioned before, much of the game’s difficulty arises from the environment and enemies forcing you into taking a more strategic approach in your engagements. So, when you take aim at an enemy with a burst rifle and only one of the three bullets it fires actually hit, it feels like an artificial imposition of difficulty. Enemies take longer to kill as a result and you spend more time in some cases (boss fights in particular), running around and trying to dodge enemy fire, which is the weakest part of Neon Chrome’s gameplay. The varying special abilities and enhancements you can use will help to some degree, but don’t fix the issue altogether.

In addition to the varying types of guns you’ll encounter on your way to the Overseer, your asset can be further improved with enhancements and use special abilities, such as throwing cluster grenades, to get him or her out of a particularly tough spot. Enhancements are upgrades that will apply to your asset for that particular run only. For example, you may get an enhancement that increases your reload speed, or one that increases your max health. There are a handful of enhancements available to install (using specially designated stations found throughout the floors) initially, and more can be discovered from loot chests, which make them available to all assets on subsequent attempts.

Special abilities have a limited number of uses based on your asset’s energy gauge, which can be increased with enhancements and gets refilled with pick-ups that drop with each enemy killed, and new abilities are also discovered/unlocked from loot chests. There are also permanent upgrades, like increased damage, health, energy, and number of available enhancement slots, you can buy for your assets. These upgrades are purchased back at the main hub, to which you’ll return after every death, using the credits your asset acquires. It is worth your while to buy as many of the upgrades you can after each run to ensure your next one has a greater chance of success.

Not much of the minute-to-minute action changes when playing with a few friends. If anything, the game shines brighter the more players you add as it allows you to employ new tactics, like luring enemies into a room where your friends are waiting to ambush them. The first player controls the main hacker character in the primary hub (meaning he/she is responsible for purchasing any upgrades, weapons, or enhancements prior to selecting an asset), but each player gets to pick and control their own asset. The enhancement stations you find along the way are single-use only, so you will have to decide who in your crew will take advantage of the boost. Any players that die while trying to clear out a floor will automatically be revived at the start of the next one, which can lead to some great moments where the last surviving player just manages to make it to the next level despite overwhelming odds. As Neon Chrome only supports local co-op, all progress (i.e., new enhancements, abilities, and weapons that are unlocked, whatever upgrades are purchased) is saved to just one profile. New profiles can be started from within the Options menu, but you’ll start over from scratch.

The more time I spent with Neon Chrome, the more I realized it has far more in common with a game like Dark Souls than it does with something like Geometry Wars. Taking it slow, scouting out each room before entering, and retreating when things get too hairy will yield far better results than running around guns blazing. While I appreciate this semi-strategic approach to a twin-stick shooter, the change from the usual twitch action one expects consequently means that an even better execution of the genre’s core mechanics (i.e., aiming, character control, weapon impact/damage) is needed in order to support it. In that respect, Neon Chrome misses the mark a bit. It was never so bad that the game felt unplayable, but I had more than a few experiences where it was off just enough that I got frustrated with it.

Despite the the occasional “off” feeling of the controls, the overall design of Neon Chrome makes it a unique entry, and playing the game with friends better highlights its underlying tactical elements. In a genre that often forces constant action with little time to think, it’s refreshing to find a title that feels predicated on the idea that sometimes the best action is inaction.