Ruiner was first shown off at E3 2017 during Devolver Digital’s… interesting stage show. Having played the game I discovered that it has a lot in common with that surrealist nightmare-scape of a press conference. A top-down twitch brawler in the vein of Hotline Miami, Ruiner is fast, frantic and visceral with a killer soundtrack made up of nightclub bass and ethereal vocals. Fledgling developer Reikon Games may have borrowed a lot from other titles, but have they managed to use their Nanoblade to carve out a respectable niche of their own?
The year is 2091 and you play as a nameless, mute killing machine in a cyberpunk metropolis called Rengkok. A hacker known only as ‘Her’ guides you along your quest to rescue your brother, who is ensnared in a terrible web of corporate enslavement and deadly mercenaries. This rescue mostly entails slaughtering wave after wave of various street gangs, guards and governmental agencies with an occasional boss fight. There is a hub area you return to in between missions, but there isn’t a whole lot to do there, and the encounters with the various characters that inhabit this particular district of Rengkok are colourful but ultimately unnecessary.
The Blade Runner influence is unmistakable, with harsh neon lighting, Asian lettering on shop fronts and sexy cyborgs everywhere you look. Ruiner is gorgeous though, with the Unreal Engine once again showing its versatility and fidelity. The character design, both their 3D models and the 2D art that is displayed during conversations, or in the case of enemies when first encountering them, is similarly impressive. With that said there are times when the game’s presentation is left down by its development budget, particularly in the case of cutscenes.
While these more cinematic moments are fully animated there’s no voice acting and the dialogue is instead being delivered solely by text. The issue is there’s no dialogue boxes or any other stylistic method employed here to spice things up. What you’re left with is a series of cutscenes that feel unfinished, like they’d had everything except the voice acting edited in. Ruiner is not totally devoid of voiced lines, there is some ambient dialogue while walking around the hub area, and your mysterious helper Her has a few recycled lines, but watching a cutscene where a bad guy is running away, turns to his bodyguard and yells something like “help me kill this guy, will you!?” all without any actual noise coming from his lips, is more than a little jarring. The dialogue choices presented to the player during most conversations are essentially meaningless. Being a mute, they’re often one of two options: “nod”, “shrug”, “crack knuckles” or something similar, and the NPCs you talk to seem to give the same response regardless of what you choose.
Ruiner plays like a mix of the aforementioned Hotline Miami, with a hint of games like Hyper Light Drifter. Left-click to shoot or use your melee weapon, right-click to blink, space bar to shield, with Q, F and Shift rounding our ability keys. By killing enemies and opening crates you can collect Karma, which is the currency you’ll use to unlock and upgrade your abilities. It’s all standard fare except for the fact that you can respec literally whenever you want. If you decide mid-fight that you want to use an explosive grenade instead of an EMP one, then it’s just a matter of pausing the game and swapping the Karma over. Toward the end of the game, I had settled into a set layout which served me quite well. I maxed out blink so I could do it as much as possible, maxed out the wider shield that slows enemies that pass through it, and almost maxed out what was essentially a Max Payne/FEAR slo-mo ability. It didn’t break the game, but it sure as hell made things a lot easier.
Speaking of difficulty, Ruiner is certainly hard. I played on normal difficulty and in the seven hours it took me to complete the game there were around five specific points where I died A LOT. Part of this difficulty was probably due to me not putting as much time into finding the right selection of abilities for my play style, but I also just think this game is pretty unforgiving. Ruiner is one of those games where your performance in each combat encounter or ‘stage’ is given a grade from E to S+. I’ve never been a huge fan of this system because it seems to just shove in my face the fact that I’m bad, even when I personally thought I did pretty good. ‘Oh, you just took out all those guys without dying and got a sick looking combo? Well done, but it’s only worth a B+’. The idea is that you’ll come hopefully back and play the game through again and get better until you’ve perfected each level, but for me, that just doesn’t appeal. I’d be happy enough with the satisfaction of making it through a tough encounter, but instead, I get smacked around the head with a bad grade. Also, the amount of times you die before completing a fight will affect your grade, so if you die ten times then on your 11th attempt pull off a flawless run… too bad you’re still getting an E.
A world like the one presented in Ruiner is just begging to have heaps of secrets and hidden caches of special weapons tucked in hard-to-reach areas, but unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Having story-based, hidden areas to find would be the perfect way to peel back the curtain on some of the history of Rengkok, but instead, each level is, for the most part, a series of linear industrial walkways. Some of the earlier stages have some crates of Karma or weapons that you have to take a slight detour to reach, but the majority of the later levels seem to forget about hidden stuff altogether. The Karma system as a whole feels pretty arbitrary as there are crates everywhere, and you’re able to switch abilities out whenever you want. As mentioned earlier being able to do this at any time is freeing, but it also kills any sense of achievement you might get from levelling up, unlocking abilities, or finding crates of Karma.
For a debut title, Ruiner is certainly impressive and it gets so many things right. It’s frenetic, violent and the combat can be a blast when all the pieces come together. The soundtrack is like last years DOOM and Hotline Miami had a horrible cybernetic baby, and some of the character design is absolutely stunning. It’s unfortunate then, that Ruiner underutilised a lot of its own elements. The world of Rengkok is fascinating aesthetically but is never really given any time to shine in the story itself. The same could be said for the characters, especially the various enemy factions you encounter, who come and go before you’ve had a chance to work out how they might tie into everything. Finally, the Karma system could be done away with entirely with all abilities unlocked from the start and not much would really change. Ruiner may have its problems, but it’s certainly unique and stylish enough to have left an impression, and I’ll definitely be keeping my eye on Reikon Game’s next project.
Ruiner was reviewed on PC with a Steam code provided by the Publisher