I first laid my eyes on RUINER, during its publisher’s “E3 Press Conference” in 2017. Devolver Digital spared no expense in offering true tongue-in-cheek criticism at the aforementioned event, to which it wasn’t invited or participated in any capacity. It was a clever prerecorded ruse, showcasing over-the-top violence which has become a mark of distinction for Devolver and I knew not to expect anything less from RUINER. For their Steam debut, developer Reikon Games didn’t disappoint one bit. If any gamer thought that top-down shooters have already spent their digital lives and that the subgenre is firmly placed in its grave, Reikon has resurrected and set it loose once again!
At a superficial glance, it may appear as a conventional Sci-Fi dystopic scenario involving cybernetics and strict population control in all life aspects. Yet RUINER knows how to mix elements from multiple classics of the Science Fiction genre and we end up with a smooth blend of Akira, Deus Ex and Ghost in the Shell. What do those three have in common? The very idea that mankind’s future is one in which control becomes an illusion. That we’re just puppets on invisible strings, guided by illusive hands towards an uncertain destiny, from which there’s nothing to be gained. Not by us, anyway. The Big Brother in our story here, is a hydra with very many heads.There’s not much to spoil and I won’t do it regardless, yet try to imagine that confusion has been well-planned in RUINER’s narrative threads. For one, we don’t even know our protagonist’s name or his motivations. He’s being guided at every step by equally anonymous sources, whose intentions are shrouded in mystery. Murder is just means to an end, as far as they’re concerned.
The first puppeteer was a hacker named Wizard, but he meets an untimely demise so you’re now taking orders from Her. She calls you “Puppy” and she rightfully regards you as her lapdog, always loyal and efficient while never raising any objections to the errands she sends you off to. More likely, suicide missions which are somehow meant to help the protagonist piece together whatever remnants of his former memories may still be lingering around. Call it what you will, but this is an original story and quite uncommon for this type of shooters which usually just point players in the direction from which hordes of “mobile targets” are coming from. The year is 2091 and RUINER’s location is within the decrepit urban sprawls of the fictional Rengkok City, Southeast Asia. Corporations have supplanted central governments and thus, started to impose their will upon their citizens and employees. HEAVEN and its BOSS seem to pull the strings, but be wary of both the surroundings and the individuals which inexplicably offer their help.
Voluntarily amputated limbs which “make room” for cybernetic implants, don’t seem like a smart choice until you realize that being stronger and faster than the hoodlum next you, can make all the difference between life and death. That’s a perfect summary for RUINER’s cruel cyberpunk locations of urban and moral decay. This isn’t the kind of dystopia in which violence has been contained to a more manageable level. HEAVEN and its many subsidiaries simply don’t care about such trivial affairs and as a direct result of their inaction, street gangs have proliferated throughout the city. Puppy needs to find his abducted sibling while the new set of “guiding hands”, is obviously having an agenda of her own. Mind control is one of RUINER’s central themes, so it’s no surprise that the hero of its story, is a faceless cyborg constantly wearing a mask with an exterior display. A twisted definition for expressing thoughts and feelings which probably aren’t his, to begin with. “Kill” is the most prevalent message along with “Hello Darkness”. Project MKUltra portrayed even better than in Call of Duty: Black Ops.
This has to be the finest example of an Unreal Engine 4-powered title which I could run flawlessly, at maxed out details, 4K resolution and stable 60 frames per second. As far as gaming in 2018 goes, I couldn’t ask for more and RUINER fully delivers the gameplay it features in its promotional clips and the bloody spectacle it showcases through its official screenshots. Speaking of which, I took 70 screenshots of my own, so far. Plenty more can be “harvested” and the HUD can be deactivated from the Options Menu. Cutscenes are rendered by either the in-game engine or through manga-style imagery. Lighting and particle effects are top notch, while the smart use of shadows is highlighting the visual glitches experienced constantly by the protagonist. Further visual customization is offering players the option of altering Puppy’s clothing (you didn’t expect to remove his mask, did you?) or setting a hilarious “festive filter” which adds snowflakes and various ornaments to complement the murderous Santa Claus suit. A perfect combination for causing mayhem during the holiday season. Never change, Devolver.
For a story as bizarre and intriguing as RUINER’s, I really missed the lack of proper voice acting, which simply limits itself to a couple of spoken lines over an entire text wall. If it was a visual novel, I probably would have looked the other way, but alas it is not. A single weak point to the otherwise textbook example of a modern top-down shooter. The soundtrack on the other hand, is stellar. Instrumentals and all the electronic music subgenres you can think of. From retro-sounding synthwave to contemporary dubstep, they all fit the game’s non-stop action perfectly. Even the sound effects are well represented, so it’s just the limited voice acting that has to lower the game’s rating by a small, almost negligible amount.
There are 16 levels of various length and complexity, along with a city hub from which players can interact with RUINER’s few peaceful NPCs and side quest triggers. As expected, those secondary objectives also involve violence in one form or another, apart from the obligatory collectibles, such as “prophecy coins” or Karma points which act as both currency and an experience threshold. Yes, RUINER has an RPG-like progression system, yet the unusual (and still welcoming) change, is that ability points can be both invested and taken back, redistributed onto another branch of the skill tree. And this shift can occur at any given moment during the levels, by simply entering the upgrade menu. So let’s say that a boss fight has just commenced. You need stronger shields and have no use for the mind control ability you’ve been using frequently on low-tier minions. No problem at all, simply take the points from one branch and use them on the ability that will save your hide during the difficult battle ahead. There’s no experience penalty on either in-game deaths or repeated redistribution of points. An upgrade system that doesn’t rely on exploits of any kind since it’s circumstantial and highly customizable.
Given the title’s genre, I don’t have to explain just how many abilities or what arsenal does Puppy have access to. It’s both complex and fairly easy to master, once you’ll mix both ranged and melee weapons to your advantage. Never stop, always dash from one side of the map to another. Use the ability for slowing down the time, if you think that RUINER’s too fast paced. On both easy and normal difficulty settings, the game is only punishing through its boss fights. Naturally, those possess a large health pool and employ certain tactics that will require player observation. Once you have spotted the pattern, defeating these bosses won’t be that hard. Expect to die a few times but never fear that you’ll lose progress, since the game is autosaving its state quite frequently. The fact that ranged weapons have limited ammo, forces the players to scavenge the firearms dropped by the foes, but I don’t consider this a con as it offers the chance to experiment with numerous loadouts during a single level sequence.
By contrast, once I received the flamethrower in Solstice Chronicles: MIA and noticed that it had an unlimited fuel supply, I didn’t feel compelled to use other weapons too often. That was both a player mistake and a design flaw, out of pure comfort but RUINER avoids it remarkably well. From its gameplay perspective, there really isn’t a fly to this ointment. Nothing that would deter or even distract players from getting fully immersed into the highly volatile cyberpunk world of Rengkok City. Scenery variety along with a well diversified roster of foes (also separated by factions), ensure that you won’t have to slice in half or gun down, too many enemies of the same type or background. They may be simple obstacles, only delaying our protagonist from the inevitable (albeit unpredictable) conclusion. But they won’t feel like clones of one another, while the corporations have distinct personalities of their own.
RUINER is currently my favorite top-down shooter period. From a vast selection of Sci-Fi subgenre counterparts, the game I reviewed today, features all the elements to help it stand out. From an intriguing storyline that never relies on clichés, to a gameplay that never invites boredom and customization that encourages experimentation, not mindless grinding. This title has them all. Well, I would have enjoyed hearing the voice actors more, but perhaps a well deserved sequel will mend this eventually. Don’t tell me that you won’t continue RUINER’s tale, Reikon Games. You’re just getting started.
All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.