Ruiner was my game of the show for PAX East 2016. As soon as I got my hands on it I was entranced by its cyperpunk aesthetics dripping with atmosphere and its electrifying, reflex-intensive combat.
My first thought after glancing at Ruiner on the show floor was that it looked like a Hotline Miami-style top-down shooter/brawler by way of classic cyberpunk anime like Akira and Ghost in the Shell. Turns out, less than a minute into talking with the developers, that’s exactly what they were going for.
Ruiner, from Polish developer Reikon Games, staffed by former team members on games like The Witcher series, Dead Island and Dying Light, takes place in the fictional Asian city of Rengkok in 2091. Rengkok, as cities so often are in cyperbunk fiction, glows with the neon of wild haircuts and futuristic fashion, shadowed by the dark colors of despotic mega-corporations, brutal police forces, and the worst side of humanity brought out by the best in technology.
As gameplay designer and co-founder Jakub Styliński told me, I was playing the demo as an, at least at this point in the story, just after the prologue, unnamed protagonist. There’s definitely a sense of a deeper mystery behind the TV-screen mask the protagonist wears. I was able to learn that the reason he’s willing to engage in wholesale slaughter is two fold. One, he’s searching for his brother who disappeared after a violent incident at the mega-corporation where he was employed as a guard. Two, the hacker in the attacked tried to fry your brain but was stopped, succeeding only in putting your mind in “rage mode.” Now, after being saved by a childhood hacker friend mysteriously reappeared, he’s out for the blood of this hacker, a (cyber)punk named Wizard and his co-conspirators.
Classic cyberpunk might have inspired the visuals and story of Ruiner‘s world plenty, but just as much comes from the more nightmarish aspects of our own reality. Junior gameplay designer Jan Orłowski said the team had tried to expand some alarming trends they’ve seen.
The big hook for Ruiner? Virtuality, a futurized version of virtual reality, controlled by the evil Heaven corporation, where users can have all their senses manipulated. More than that, they can plug into the experience of other users and feel what it’s like to be them, their perception, their emotions, their pain. On it’s face that means things like VR movies where you’re quite literally the star.
But there’s a darker side to it as well. People are often kidnapped are otherwise subjected to become the stars of what are essentially VR snuff films. With Heaven’s full knowledge and participation, these victims are made to experience pain and even death for the perverse pleasure of those willing and able to pay for it.
There are other real-world inspirations too, especially from the more nightmarish parts of the authoritarian aspects of China’s government. Specifically, dark extrapolations of the two child policy and a citizenship score system.
The cyberpunk inspiration goes beyond just the aesthetics. The in-fiction explanation of cybernetic augments provides for some exciting gadgets and abilities that make Ruiner more than just a Hotline clone.
Part of why I liked Hotline so much was how it was able to pull me into almost a trance. I’d just get into “the zone” and focus on nothing but trying to nail the timing and the movement and the reflexes in pursuit of that perfect combo. Even in the middle of PAX East, surrounded by the chatter of the crowds, shoutcasters from eSports booths and all the other distracting stimuli, Ruiner put me in that same zone the instant combat began.
Controlling the character with the WASD keys, aiming and using both melee and ranged-weaponry with the mouse, switching between weapons and gadgets, in this case a shield, all on the fly with as much precision and speed as possible was a thrill.
It’s far from a clone of Hotline, even if the developers said it started out that way. The biggest differentiation, and the best part, is the dash. While you’re in the thick of it, swinging away your neon sword or backed off blasting from afar with a gun, at any time you can blitz forward a short distance with the dash. As long as nothing’s in your way and you have enough charges, you can almost teleport in any direction from any direction. I ran head first into a pack of Creeps, dashed backwards as they clustered together, then made two more dashes to the side and then behind them to get the jump.
There’s another way to utilize the dash besides the quick bursts. If you hold down the left-mouse button time slows to a crawl and you can plot several dashes in succession. You can map out a path around your enemies or obstacles and plan a course that has you phase through them, damaging them in the process, and leave you perfectly positioned for more punishment.
Styliński told me they were aiming to have only one difficulty mode that would be challenging, but not brutally so. The demo was generous with checkpoints, which made it easier to focus on each individual encounter. I was able to put the most effort into trying to perfectly finish off groups of enemies rather than finish them off quick, dirty, and just not as cool, out of fear that doing otherwise could bite me in the ass later on. That was a big problem with Hotline Miami 2 as the levels grew too long and large at points to be able to get the best combo possible.
I could tell after just a short demo that I’d get many hours of enjoyment of trying to eliminate enemies in the most stylish and flawless way possible. Attack, die, repeat until gloriously victorious.
The developers told me they were aiming for release on Windows, Mac and Linux sometime toward the end of this year and that they were considering pursuing console releases as well. Whatever it comes out on, I can’t wait to get my hands on the entirety of Ruiner.