If restarting a level in Neon White necessitated a loading screen, the game would be near-unplayable.
Toward the game’s end, I probably restarted individual levels two dozen times in a row. Sometimes, I restarted because I missed a jump or got killed by an enemy. Much more often, though, my restarts were because I decided I was slightly less than perfect. Sure, I made the jump — but I could have done it faster. Sure, I killed every demon in a level — but I could have done it more efficiently. “Next time, I’ll get it,” I told myself. “Next time, I’ll do it perfectly.” Starting a level over in Neon White isn’t a sign of giving up; it’s a promise that next time will be the time. I restarted over and over again, not because the game was impossibly difficult, but because improvement was so close I could taste it. Neon White doesn’t demand perfection, but it makes the concept so irresistible that I demanded it from myself. Restart, restart, restart.
Describing Neon White’s genre might be more difficult than actually playing it. A “speedrunning FPS-parkour-deck-builder” sounds incredibly esoteric. But that description belies a fairly simple core loop. Each level is basically an obstacle course, with both enemies and bottomless pits to overcome. Scattered throughout are “cards” that double as weapon pickups and navigational abilities. Grab a pistol card, shoot a few enemies, then use that card’s ability for an extra jump over a bottomless pit. Simple.
Throughout its 90-plus levels, Neon White does steadily increase the complexity: The obstacle courses incorporate tripwires, bounce pads, walls that can only be broken with certain weapons, and more. The difficulty (and fun) comes from stringing together these actions, like a gymnast running along a balance beam before dismounting directly onto a set of parallel bars.
Nailing several of these moves in a row is necessary to complete most levels, and late-game sequences look like a nearly incomprehensible blur of guns and special abilities. But each individual action is relatively simple, almost always boiling down to “move in this direction.” The result is that vast and intimidating levels are far more surmountable than they initially appear, made up of a dozen easy steps that merely have to be completed in succession. The speed and agility of Neon White might make it seem inaccessible, but even its hardest obstacle courses are designed to be overcome.
Completing a level isn’t the end, of course. On repeated runs through a level, the game actually shows you one major shortcut, vital to get the “ace” (a medal awarded for finishing particularly quickly). The shortcut is really just the beginning — tiny optimizations in ammo usage and parkour pathing can take you even higher than the ace rank. And just as motivational as the in-game medals are the leaderboards. Neon White loves to taunt you with your friends’ best times. More than once, I thought I had done a level as quickly as anyone possibly could, only to dive right back in after seeing that a buddy had finished 0.2 seconds faster than me.
Each course also includes a hidden “gift.” These items are placed off the beaten path and prioritize creative platforming over raw speed, offering a chance to slow down and admire the game’s ethereal backdrops. The gifts also form a connection between each level and the larger story; each present (a box of cigars, a bottle of perfume, a Furby) corresponds to a specific supporting character. Because the game isn’t simply an FPS-parkour-deck-builder, but also … a visual novel.
Through an abundance of conversations, the game reveals that the protagonist, White, is one of several characters temporarily plucked from hell and given the chance to compete for a place in heaven. Although there’s not much narrative branching in the story, the hidden gifts unlock new dialogue and side quests for the main cast. Each character is stylishly drawn and capably acted. But more importantly, White and his found family of other damned souls are truly, wonderfully cringe.
White is an unabashed sword weeb. Violet belts out karaoke renditions of My Chemical Romance. No one wears fewer than three belts. The characters of Neon White aren’t supposed to be cool — they’re posturing, insecure dorks, and the joy of the story is helping them gradually drop the mask. Sitting through the extensive dialogue exchanges can be trying, given how instantly satisfying the FPS-parkour-ing is. But my patience was rewarded with a narrative that was surprisingly touching, and not as overbearingly horny as it first appeared (though it’s still pretty horny).
Game lead Ben Esposito has described Neon White as “for freaks, by freaks.” And yet, identifying as a freak isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying Neon White. The game’s greatest strength may, in fact, be how welcoming it is. Its difficulty is perfectly curved, its story is disarmingly charming. But after an hour of restarting the same level, ignoring all my other responsibilities to cross the finish line just a little faster, I realized that Neon White may have turned me into a freak so gently that I didn’t even notice.
Neon White was released on June 16 on Windows PC and Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed on PC. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.