Part exploration game, part audio book collection, NeonLore nails the vibe and theme of ‘Cyberpunk’. It’s just a shame it has so many rough edges and lackadaisical issues . The Finger Guns Review.
Cyberpunk has always had a presence on the video game landscape but it has never been as prevalent as it is right now. Games like The Ascent, Observer and of course CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 have brought the neon tinged dystopias of the far flung future to gaming’s modern day forefront. For every creative and enjoyable Cyberpunk title that makes the most of the theme however, there are numerous games that think Cyberpunk is just skin deep. Games like Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story seem to think that a decaying sci-fi setting is enough to warrant the Cyberpunk moniker. In reality, it should be more than that. For me, these games need to focus on the core of the theme; of megacorporations, transhumanism, post-industrial dystopia and rebellion. Over the past year, it has become increasingly more difficult to find Cyberpunk games that understand this.
NeonLore from Playstige Interactive is one game that ‘gets it’ both visually and thematically. The fetid sci-fi visage, with neon tinged hi-tech streets betrayed by trash and graffiti, is present and correct. As is the deeper thematic meaning that makes up Cyberpunk. Dig into this game and you’ll find some twisted stories that would be right at home in the next season of Black Mirror involving cybernetics, greedy corporations and a pretty messed up future.
It’s such a shame that the delivery of almost all of this is undermined by some pretty simple mistakes.
Is it a game…?
NeonLore lives in a weird space between video games and audio books. It’s hard to define it as a traditional game. Sure, there’s a 3D Cyberpunk environment to explore via a first person viewpoint. There’s no failure condition or explicit goals however. You press “Start Game” and you’re dumped into 1 of the 4 city streets, described as “Quarters”, you get to explore. While you’re wondering around, there’s very little to interact with either. It feels more like a virtual diorama than a video game level. In fact, aside from a few idle animations from the human characters, these cyberpunk streets are almost entirely devoid of life.
Speaking of life, each street in NeonLore has a number of NPCs situated around them. In a sci-fi city that looks really quite interesting, you might expect these folk to be doing something. But no. Instead, they simply stand or sit still and wait for you to get close. When you do approach them, you get to “talk” to them.
“Talk” is a bit of an exaggeration to be honest. In reality, when you get close to an NPC, a text box appears on screen. In this box is a totally unprompted, one sided conversation. This represents whatever the NPC wants to say, like a story of their life that they conveniently feel comfortable enough to share with a stranger that just walked up to them. Some of these are strangely bland: one NPC sells flavoured candles on the street. Others are intense and interesting: One NPC is a writer that realised they’re inspired by death, so much so that they’ve kidnapped people and intend to kill them. Every character is different and gives you another, deeper glimpse into this cyberpunk world.
Or is it an audio book…?
In each of the four quarters in NeonLore, there is one building in which you can enter. Inside this building, aside from a few more NPC’s you can read the life story of, there is a terminal. This terminal represents the only traditional game play element you’ll find in this entire game. These house a simple puzzle for you to solve. One of these is a memory puzzle where you’ve got to pick two dots from a circle that trigger a particular shape to display. Another is a completely unexplained and poorly crafted code breaking puzzle that requires far too much trial and error for my liking. As you can tell, the quality of these 4 puzzles varies wildly.
It’s almost helpful then that the game provides a way to skip the puzzle entirely. When you approach the terminal, it’ll ask you a question which boils down to this: “Can you be bothered to do this puzzle or do you want to skip to the reward?”.
If you manage to solve the puzzle, or choose to not bother and simply skip it, the reward is the most unique aspects of NeonLore. You’re treated to an audio book. There’s four in the game and you can listen to these while you’re taking in the chilled vibes. Written by sci-fi authors exclusively for this game, these audio books all tap into the central themes of Cyberpunk with some thought provoking ideas on the future and where technology might take us.
NeonLore is an original idea, essentially wrapping a 3D environment and a few light puzzles around original audio books. It’s a game that benefits from the strength of both mediums – the game is visually stunning in places which really complements the stories you can listen too while exploring. At the same time, NeonLore doesn’t feel committed enough to make use of these strengths. There’s not enough interactivity for this to truly be described as a “game” and the audio book element is no where near as accessible as your typical audio books. It’s a very odd but interesting combination.
Ghost in the machine
It’s a shame that this experiment is undermined by a surprisingly large number of lapses in quality. Take the text passages you see when bumping into each character for example. The subjective quality of these paragraphs aside, there’s a number of technical issues with them. There’s typos dotted around the text which is compounded by instances where the space between words has been removed. You’ll find words running into one another that can make the text quite frustrating to read. There’s also a number of formatting oddities that has paragraphs and sentences broken up onto separate lines for no discernible reason.
Even the audio books aren’t exempt from these issues. Each of these is orated by one of those robotic text-to-speech programs which, to give it some credit, does lend to the cyberpunk aspect of the game. Unfortunately, that results in a lot of missing inflection and bland recitation. It’s challenging to enjoy these audio books when the content is being relayed in such a wooden, under-developed fashion. There’s also a rare bug that means you may occasionally trigger two chapters of the same story playing over one another, which is a temporary frustration.
NeonLore needed a lot more care in regards to its user experience too. The walking speed of the game is painfully slow. This wouldn’t be such of an issue if you could activate all of the audio books from anywhere in the game. Instead, each book is locked to its respective area and will only play when you’re there. Start a book in the North Quarter and move to another and the audio book will cease to play. Even when you’re stood still in one area listening to the audio book, you might find it difficult to follow along. The stylish synth music that plays in each zone – which, admittedly, is brilliant – can feel too loud. NeonLore doesn’t automatically accommodate for the audio book. You’ll have to go into the settings and turn down the music.
NeonLore as a concept is an intriguing one. A combination of mediums – a game that’s less interactive than a walking simulator and audio books that benefit from a visual component to set the vibe – is a unique prospect. It’s such a shame that the developers couldn’t really follow through in terms of quality. It looks the part, sounds excellent and understands what makes the Cyberpunk theme so special. There’s just far too many rough edges and easily avoidable issues that mar the experience.
NeonLore is available now on PS4 (review platform), Switch, Xbox One and Xbox Series S|X.
Developer: Playstige Interactive
Publisher: Playstige Interactive
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
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