REVIEW: Shopping never felt more like (bullet) hell in Neon Blight
This is not a traditional VGG review. This game will be left unscored and revisited at a later date. We cannot recommend the game in its current state but will leave our impressions nonetheless.
I am a major proponent of the Early Access process. I believe developers should have the opportunity to let folks into their game mid-development, to collaborate with their community, to provide direct and frequent updates to immediate issues, and generally see their game evolve with the help of an engaged audience who understands that the game is otherwise unfinished. It's a fantastic way for the gaming audience to peek behind the curtain and feel like they're working on something together with the developers.
Too often though, games skip an Early Access period and reach full release in an incomplete state. Glitches, missing content, broken systems. They release and are left that way forever. A rare few have a chance to be revived through constant support, ultimately transforming into something better.
It's our hope that Neon Blight will be the latter.
Just the Facts
Developer: Bleeding Tapes
Publisher: Freedom Games
Release Date: July 11, 2022
Review code provided by publisher.
Neon Blight first caught our eyes at IGN's Summer of Gaming Expo, where its cyberpunk setting, neon-drenched aesthetic and bullet-hell-inspired gameplay intrigued us. It was being promoted as roguelike shop simulator, where your character ventures out into dungeons and collects weapons, only to return to town and sell them at your gun shop. Think a cyberpunk Moonlighter with guns.
To say that that promise remains unfulfilled is an understatement, but let's get into it.
In Neon Blight, the story begins with a flashback. Cybercops Lara and Franko are reporting to a "shots fired" call in a dangerous region outside of the city known as the Outer Border. Once there, they find themselves in a shootout with a local gang, culminating in them capturing the leader of said gang, the red-jawed Deathblade. After he makes it clear that he's actually the one in control, offering them a deal for their lives, we jump forward 15 years.
Lara has left the force, inheriting her uncle's gun shop in the city, where she looks to make a living, reckon with her decisions, and eventually make a name for herself in her new life. Not too long after establishing herself in her new home, Lara discovers something known as the Ultimate Weapon, a mythical weapon locked away behind a special vault needing six keys. Across the Outer Border, there are six "Keyholders" that Lara must defeat. And so begins the quest.
Much like many of the other aspects of Neon Blight, the story feels like an afterthought. Without giving away too much, the game sets up a compelling enemy right from the start in Deathblade, a criminal who got the best of your hero years ago, only to dispatch him from the narrative and set up a completely new and almost entirely unrelated quest. Lara is lacking personality, there are no real recurring characters, and the story is on the lighter side. A few flashbacks and minimal conversations with each Keyholder aside, the focus is clearly not on narrative here.
Which is fine. As long as that focus was appropriately placed elsewhere.
A lacking story is one thing. A game left fundamentally unfinished is another.
As described previously, the main gameplay loop has you wandering into the game's main combat area — The Outer Border — to kill and loot enemies, return to your shop, sell weapons, use money earned to get the best weapons possible, and then use them to destroy all six Keyholders hidden across one of The Outer Border's six regions.
Combat is primarily delivered in your traditional top-down twin-stick shootin' bullet hell style, reminiscent of games like Enter the Gungeon. And at its base, Neon Blight's main combat systems are at least functional. Shooting and dodging feels good enough (as long as you're on mouse and keyboard) and combat can genuinely be a tense affair when you land in a room with a particular set of enemies or during some of the more intense boss fights.
It's a shame then that engaging with combat outside of the main boss fights is kind of unnecessary. Because your shop is ultimately unnecessary.
Despite marketing itself as a shop management game with roguelike combat elements, it's kind of neither of those things. While you can put weapons collected in The Outer Border up for sale and set your prices based on each weapon's market value, there's kind of no reason to.
Money is only useful for three things.
Expanding your store. Which really only means having more storage for excess weapons and automating the sales process, both of which are useless if your shop is inherently unnecessary.
Purchasing weapons and bullet modifiers in the Outer Border. Another fairly unnecessary option, because you regularly pick up valuable weapons for free, and modifiers in their current state work about 50% of the time and offer minimal benefit for the player.
Paying the tolls to access each of the five regions beyond the starting region. The only actually important, progress-blocking use for your money.
So in the end, despite it being a major focal point in the game's marketing, the shop is pretty easy to ignore. Even if you were interested in engaging with Neon Blight's economy, there are entire features left out that could make it worthwhile. Development blogs promised features like a shop journal that would let you track customer's reactions to prices you set, see what prices they rejected or accepted, and generally made shop management exciting.
None of that seems to have been activated, despite the journal actually being in the game. (Note: This has been patched in an update that came out just a few days ago.)
And as far as the game being a roguelite goes... the room layout of the Outer Border is static, and for the most part you engage with the same enemies in slightly different configurations when you go in for another run. Drops are random, but that's it. No real roguelite mechanics are present otherwise. There are no skills to gather, no special rooms to encounter, no major random elements at play.
You're almost best suited to run into the Outer Border, beeline past any and all enemies with your more than adequate default weapon — a pistol that outperforms around half of the weapons that enemies drop — and go straight to the boss. Fighting your way through each room might get you weapon drops, but with no health drops from any enemies (this has since been patched), the risk of taking damage on your way to the boss outweighs the benefit of gathering up weapons.
There are tons of little fixes that could make this experience more enjoyable and it's frustrating seeing so many near-misses in design here.
If I squint my eyes and imagine this game wasn't a "shop management sim with roguelike action-combat gameplay" and instead something more like a Titan Souls boss rush game with bullet hell elements, I can almost see something I'd easily recommend checking out hidden inside.
Boss fights are pretty enjoyable, the core combat is more than adequate even when it gets repetitive, and everything controls well enough.
But even when I do that, the game crashes for the tenth time and reminds me there are greater issues at play here.
Throughout the eight hours I spent with Neon Blight before I could simply not continue further, I was treated to a buffet of glitches and crashes that made for a fairly unpalatable experience.
Finally getting in to play the day before launch, I was treated to 90% placeholder weapon names and descriptions. I had money and enemies stuck out of reach. I seemingly had no music playing throughout my entire playtime, despite almost certainly hearing music in pre-release materials. I would enter a building in one region of the Outer Border, only to exit and be in a completely different region altogether.
At one point, people started to leave my store without paying — something I initially thought was a built-in mechanic where I could deal with thieves. But then almost immediately after, the next layer of issues popped up. The game crashed.
It does that a lot. Make a cosmetic purchase at the one other store in the game? Crash. Try to sell weapons? Sometimes it works, sometimes it crashes. Get deep into the Outer Border and do what you normally would do on your way to a Keyholder? Might crash on you.
Neon Blight almost certainly needed an Early Access period. In some ways, if you look at the developer's Trello Roadmap, it almost feels as if the developer knows it too.
Bleeding Tapes has been regularly patching the game since launch. Neon Blight has been out for less than a week and already four major patches have launched, each one fixing some of the worst issues: fast travel works, enemies drop health, and music has been added.
So, with fixes coming in fast and, hopefully, a brighter future ahead for Neon Blight, I will be leaving this review unscored as I did previously with our Monster Harvest review. I will revisit the game at a later date to see if the developer's efforts have paid off and made Neon Blight what it could be. Because it could be something pretty great.
They've got a clear eye for aesthetics with some really solid pixel work and neon lighting effects. The combat is solid, if lacking depth. The bones are here for something bigger.
I cannot recommend this game in its current state and do not want to let it slide that this game released in a very buggy and incomplete condition, but I want to believe in developers. I've seen many games surprise with their growth years after launch and I want to believe that Bleeding Tapes is capable of doing just that. I want to believe that the team believes in Neon Blight, and so I'll leave my thoughts here and hope the team takes something away from this feedback.
Bleeding Tapes, there is a lot of work ahead of you, but your output since launch shows you're more than ready to face that challenge.
In the meantime...
video games are good and Neon Blight is . . . INCOMPLETE. (?/10)
+ great neon-soaked pixel art style, the core combat experience is fine
- too much else isn't. glitches and crashes abound, an empty world barely worth exploring, the shopkeeping mechanics are barely there, and entire gameplay systems are missing
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