I think Neon White has turned me into some sort of sicko. Before picking up the first-person shooter, I never really cared about getting good times, or “gitting gud,” beyond the occasional desire to get a platinum trophy or 100% a game. Time, to me, was better spent in games where I could collect and complete quests rather than become a technically capable player. But now, I’m completely entranced by Neon White’s relentless velocity, and I’m splitting hairs over how I jump or where I sprint just to whittle down my completion times by milliseconds.
In Neon White, you play as a class of lesser citizens in heaven, known in their world as “Neons.” Neons are sinners from a previous life that are now employed by angels to fight off demons laying siege to heaven. Missions take the form of jobs in which you play through tightly designed levels and collect cards that give you special abilities (an additional jump, a dash, or a stomp, to name a few). To complete each job you must eliminate every demon and reach a finish line as quickly as possible. The game awards you a bronze, silver, gold, or Ace medal, depending on how fast you complete the level.
Going in, I didn’t plan to strive for all the Ace medals, but the game “tricks” you into retrying levels by locking game progression behind a rank system that requires you to amass sufficient gold and Ace medals. After a while, though, I realized that I wasn’t just repeating levels for additional medals, but for the mere joy of hurtling through these compelling arenas again and again. In one instance, I got within 10 milliseconds of the record three times, and I wasn’t even upset. (The game also has leaderboards marking your and your friends’ times, which is a nice little cherry on top.)
Despite playing through it as a sinner, the game will make you feel like a god. There’s so little friction in jumping between levels, and even less frustration in Neon White’s jumping, dashing, and shooting. Levels rarely take longer than a minute, but even that feels long in Neon White time. Many levels also contain a less obvious secret route, which can be revealed with a toggled hint that takes the form of a glowing guide. Restarting levels is also seamless; just press two buttons to quickly reboot the level on Windows PC. Neon White makes the experience of trying and trying again painless, so I can focus on the exciting moments.
But it’s more than these practical elements — what Neon White captures (and then recaptures) is what I imagine the joy of speedrunning to be. Each level encourages me to think creatively about the space ahead — maybe I could use a bomb with a jump to boost me across instead of running around — and to practice moving through it, over and over, until I build up the muscle memory to do it semi-automatically. It’s like the satisfaction of defeating a boss in Elden Ring, but for people who have way less patience or a shorter attention span.
In its marketing, the developers call Neon White a game for “freaks.” This feels like a fair statement given the game’s punk characters and dreamlike environments. However, based on my enjoyment, I would slightly revise this claim: It will bring out the freak in you. I never saw myself as the kind of obsessive player who would pore over a game’s levels just to alter a jump enough to shave off a few milliseconds, but here I am.