Devolver Digital is one of my favourite publishers, because even if their output isn’t 100% gold, you can always be sure that any game that bears their logo will at least be interesting. So it is with RUINER, a heavily flawed game that’s a certain brand of compelling nonetheless. The elevator pitch is basically Hotline Miami with a noise soundtrack instead of synthwave and cyberpunk imagery supplanting 80s nostalgia. And at a surface level, it’s exactly that: a self-consciously violent, uncontrollably paced top-down shooter built on top of an overwhelming musical backdrop. The main character even strongly resembles Biker, Hotline Miami’s deuteragonist. From there, however, the game incorporates several outside influences, few of which have a positive impact on the entire experience.
In particular, RUINER furiously channels the 2011 FPS Hard Reset, which may seem oddly specific until you remember that developer Reikon Games was partially formed by members of Flying Wild Hog – Hard Reset’s creators. Both titles showcase a grimy gunmetal-and-primary-color palette, a poorly balanced upgrade system, a nearly impenetrable plot, and most importantly, an unfair difficulty level stemming from the lack of a reliable way to avoid damage. I knew I’d have a fragile relationship with this game’s design philosophy as soon as I saw ‘normal’ difficulty described as “for those who know what real fun is,” but I was still surprised at how quickly any benefit of the doubt was shattered. The very first boss contains an arbitrarily restrictive time limit, and after dropping dead several times because a countdown timer reached zero, I concluded that “real fun” doesn’t live up to its name.
It definitely gets better from there, but it’s in fits and starts. The engagement curve here is so jagged it should come with a tetanus warning. Early on, it’s the smaller fights that shine, as they let the brutal action take the spotlight away from the struggle to survive. The second half of the game is more regularly enjoyable as, well, by that point, you’ve accumulated enough upgrade points to really start tinkering with the combinations and creating specialized loadouts. Several of the available abilities blend together very neatly; combining the shield and dash into a high-speed battering ram leads to some great fun, the weapon proficiency upgrades mesh well with the ability to airdrop in specific firearms, and the ability to convert opponents to your cause is just cool all on its own.
It all builds to a surprisingly gripping climax and a reasonably satisfying epilogue where the power fantasy expected of a game this aggressive finally comes into play. Still, a large chunk of the experience prior to that is soured by a handful of huge design faults. For one thing, Hotline Miami’s gameplay was designed for a setting where everything dies in one hit. The gunmen in that game are notorious for being able to slaughter players with pinpoint accuracy, but that was somewhat balanced by the player’s ability to a) hide, and b) smash enemy faces in before they could pull the trigger. RUINER doesn’t offer either of those advantages. The protagonist also being extra durable here doesn’t help either, because another thing the game doesn’t offer is mercy invincibility, so automatic weapons can obliterate you after just one mistake.
On top of that, the boss battles are an absolute nightmare. Most of them are mirror-style – able to do most of the things you can, which in most games feels very climactic – except they have about thirty times as much health. Also, “things you can do” include bouncing bullets off walls, creating reflective energy shields, and dashing at super speed, all without warning. And then there are the ones who can teleport and/or fill the screen with grenades, again, without warning. Combined with the fact that the player’s energy supply doesn’t regenerate except from pickups and other more specific circumstances, and you have a combat system that’s often reduced to hoping you do the right thing at the right time in the right place. At least there are occasional puzzle bosses, that, in addition to being surprisingly sophisticated, are a lot more humane.
Obviously, jumping between disastrous and somewhat enjoyable for 10 hours doesn’t add up to “a certain brand of compelling,” so where RUINER really makes its mark is in its presentation. Firstly, that noise soundtrack is a hell of a soundtrack. Taking on a variety of moods but excelling at confusion and anger – especially with its discombobulating vocal segments – it’s sure to introduce its listeners to a whole new stable of artists. Additionally, the visual design is astonishingly effective despite its limited range. Ditto for the main character’s appearance, which has the potential to become instantly iconic if there’s enough of an audience. If you’re looking for an explanation for why he’s a mute cyborg wearing a helmet with a digital display full of belligerent non-sequiturs, however, you’re going to be disappointed.
On that note: what is going on with cyberpunk video game plots these days? Deus Ex seems to be the only one willing to concretely define the source of its dystopian setting; the rest just blame it on some nebulous technology. The actual story premise here is dead simple: someone hacked your cybernetic brain to make you an assassin and kidnapped your brother for good measure, but a more benevolent hacker saved you, so you can take revenge and rescue said brother. There are about a dozen hints throughout the game that would have made the presence of a big twist obvious even if the tagline wasn’t “You are being played,” but the specifics of that twist and especially the direction the plot goes in afterward are genuinely interesting. I just wish the details made more sense.
A character in the finale specifically offers answers if you follow their instructions, only for the credits to roll before this revelation happens. It’s a pretty extreme cop-out, and it highlights a recurring phrase I used while playing: “What was the point of that?” The way a third of the upgrades are clearly outclassed by others of equal cost is the most bewildering, but there’s also an overworld where you can talk to useless characters. There are bounties presented as side quests that are actually mandatory boss battles. There are vehicles and a support character in the later levels, both of which could be replaced with an “Advance Plot” button. In one of several half-baked attempts to merge the gameplay and narrative, there are even a few things suggesting your deaths are somehow actually happening, except that it never amounts to anything.
RUINER is a passionate game. It seems to have been designed the way it needs to be played: recklessly, with a lot of faith in blind luck. It’s certainly not bland, or even badly constructed – it controls better than Hotline Miami ever did. What it is is punishing, and that leads to different things from different perspectives. Punishing aesthetics lead to a memorable identity, a punishing narrative leads to a mix of confusion and curiosity, and punishing gameplay, unfortunately, leads to frustration and boredom.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which we were provided with by Devolver Digital.
RUINER ruins its own explosive presentation and promising combat with poorly thought-out difficulty and incomplete narrative and gameplay concepts.