The year is 2075. 10 years have passed since the Android Revolution and Neon City, your home, has been taken over by gangs, the turf wars between the four main factions a part of everyday life. Humanity is on its last legs, and you play as Rick, a masked vigilante who takes it upon himself to bring peace back to Neon City.
The 8-bit art style of Neon City Riders is beautiful, and truly reminiscent of classic 80’s games. Of course, it goes far beyond what was possible on those old systems, and mixes that aesthetic with neon elements that are very eye-catching. Its rich and bright background is its own reward as you explore this dystopian hellscape, as well as a narrative that highlights contemporary social issues, such as capitalism and wasteful consumerism. These themes can be seen through NPC speech, as well as the overpacked junkyards, toxic containers that litter the streets, oozing green slime, and layer upon layer of neon billboards that litter the skyscape.
Unfortunately, what Neon City Riders has in art and the direction, it lacks in gameplay. Through the tutorial, you collect pins that give you superpowers, without which it is impossible to progress. However, after a boss battle that ends the tutorial, you are stripped of your pins and powers in a jarring fashion. It’s a trope of game design to show your full powers, only to strip them from you as you start the game proper, but it’s a particularly sudden jolt.
Without these essential skills; dash, block, parry, and night vision, combat seems to be nothing but button-mashing, leaving little nuance to the combat until you regain them. Even when you do regain them, the only way to do so is to collect pins to gain those skills, and you can’t grow or level them up further.
Despite that, there are elements of puzzle solving, as well as RPG-style side quests, that allow you to really explore the full extent of this world. The variety is both a blessing and a curse; while I am always a fan of mixing things up, it’s as though the developers forgot to add depth to each element. Instead of the game getting progressively harder as you progress through the game, it’s just aggressively, in-your-face, difficult. Again, this is reminiscent of games of old or the modern revival of this type of challenge, but it just feels like an oversight instead of intentional, carefully considered design.
The city is an open world where you can pick any direction to take your adventure, allowing you to double back and recheck areas that you may have previously missed. Unfortunately, this is hindered by a map that is difficult to navigate until you have explored the majority of that area, making it almost entirely redundant. You have the option to pay 50 coins to buy clues on your map, but these were never particularly helpful.
Gameplay is occasionally cut with comic-style, storyboard cut scenes which allow the story to progress, which are filled with grammatical and spelling errors. This may have been intentional – if you remember, the world has deteriorated dramatically, so I very much doubt that spelling and grammar is an issue to in-game characters. Despite this reasoning, my early 21st Century self struggles to look at these cutscenes without cringing at the errors.
What I cannot fault however, are the NPCs. A lot of thought and care has gone into character design, and it’s clear to see. Each sprite is completely unique, with its own design, style and speech patterns. I spent quite a lot of time talking to everyone I could, as each character was highly entertaining to talk to, with differing dialogue about the ongoing turf wars, the state of the world, and even opinions on in-game food, which is essential for healing.