Stylish, frantic action that only starts to feel good once it’s all over.
A funny thing happened after I beat Ruiner: I started having fun. My first playthrough was exhaustingly difficult. I don’t mind a challenge, but I also don’t want to feel like I’m banging my head against a wall for 10 hours, unsure of what I’m doing wrong. However, retreading the 14 levels of cyberpunk brutality as the fully powered-up version of my twin-stick killer finally let me enjoy the frantic, stylish combat.
Revenge stories tend to be pretty straightforward, and Ruiner’s is no exception. You’re a man with VCR text for a face, being told by a mysterious woman in your head that you have to kill a bunch of people who kidnapped your brother. It’s pulling from common cyberpunk material like Blade Runner, Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Escape from New York to tell a bloody tale full of technological horror, and it mixes in some pretty cool, disturbing characters. Menacing techno with industrial beats suit the violent, dirty world of Ruiner well. (Look for the soundtrack to be featured on your favorite Tumblr synthwave blog.)
The flow of gameplay is similarly straightforward: Walk down a corridor, get locked in a room of death, fight off several waves of enemies, die a bunch, eventually survive, and walk down the next corridor to the next room of death. Ruiner has more variables to it than something elegantly simple like Enter the Gungeon or Geometry Wars, but it starts you with a simple machine gun and a bat, and you’ll have to die many, many times before you earn the fun stuff and learn how to make use of it. Eventually, gadgets like time manipulators, defensive barriers, explosives, mind control, and more provide a nice variety of ways to kill and not be killed.
Too often, I didn’t know why I was dying.
On the other hand, there isn’t much variety to the stages, which all look like the factory from the end of Terminator 2. (I love Terminator 2, but 10 hours of this same setting is a bit much.) You’re constantly overwhelmed, barely able to keep up with all the enemies and bullets swirling around you – which is exactly what you want in this style of game, except that Ruiner doesn’t do a great job of communicating which enemies are actively killing you. Too often, I didn’t know why I was dying, or even if I was taking damage. Many of the boss battles were memorable because they were more than just swarms of foot soldiers, but finally defeating one wouldn’t give me a feeling of, “That was awesome, I can’t wait to play more!” as much as, “I’m glad that’s over. Time for a break.” At least when you die you can restart right from that encounter instead of being sent back to an earlier part of the level.
Ruiner revels in this difficulty, taunting you at the game over screen, guessing you probably don’t have anything better to do than die over and over in a video game. Quite often, upon your death, your puppeteer will say, “That was painful to watch.” Yeah, it was painful to play, too. Under “tough but fair” circumstances this kind of taunting would egg me on to do better next time, but when some deaths didn’t feel avoidable it seemed like Ruiner was gloating over having wasted my time.
It forces you out of your comfort zone to deal with a new threat.
Another good idea that doesn’t quite pay off is that Ruiner throws a lot of different enemy types at you and expects you to regularly respec your skill tree to cope with them (which you can do for free at any time, Diablo 3-style). You may have gotten used to using your Kinetic Barrier to lay down a stationary field that blocks projectiles, but here comes a boss that charges at you with melee weapons, rendering your barrier useless, so you need to pull points from it and pump them into your mobile energy shield instead. While I like the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild-style design philosophy of forcing you to improvise and get out of your comfort zone to deal with a new threat, making you repeatedly pause the action to redistribute skill points isn’t the most elegant solution.
Between the action scenes there’s an interesting but underdeveloped hub world where you stroll through your typical dystopian slum full of sleazy characters and dark alleys. Ruiner thinks it has sidequests, but upon closer inspection, there’s hardly anything to do or find that isn’t in the main missions. Another missed opportunity is the dialogue options, which don’t seem to have any effect on conversations or the outcome of the story.
That said, you are rewarded with extra XP, weapons, and health for exploring every nook and cranny of the levels. Even though the exploration is light, I appreciate it as a way to break up all the combat.
And as I said, things are better now that I’ve beaten Ruiner. I feel like a god blasting through the early levels, and the woman in my head who once taunted me now can’t stop telling me how awesome I am (you’re graded on every encounter). It’s too bad there isn’t a New Game Plus option, but you can revisit any level you’ve already completed to exact your revenge and continue earning XP.