Key Art of ArcRunner game

Review: ArcRunner (Nintendo Switch)

What I wouldn't give for game developers to make games with a point.

9 mins read

In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have played ArcRunner. While it looks the part of a cyberpunk dystopia, the game itself was clearly only ever going to be a roguelike shooter drenched in neon. While it’s easy to say that you shouldn’t criticise a game for not being something it never tried to be, I would argue that in using the cyberpunk aesthetic the developers should have tried to produce something that was actually cyberpunk. I find myself increasingly frustrated with games that overlook the entire point of a potent narrative genre to instead make something with no ambitions beyond being a game.

One of my favourite tweets comes from a writer named Alex Blechman, from back in 2021. He wrote:

“Sci-Fi Author: In my book I invented the Torment Nexus as a cautionary tale.

Tech Company: At long last, we have created the Torment Nexus from classic sci-fi novel Don’t Create The Torment Nexus.”

It’s a very relevant tweet these days, and only becomes moreso every year, if not month, as the tech industry – particularly those involved in AI – continues to race to release “innovations” without the slightest consideration of the impact that these things will have on society. Silicon Valley has made it abundantly clear that if they could, they really would create the actual Skynet. All they need to do is find a way of monetising those last moments humanity has left and it’s a done deal.

Screenshot from ArcRunner

The point here is that cyberpunk is one of the few resistances we have to that, and is one of the few tools that we have to continue to explore and remind people of just how dystopian the direction that we’re taking is headed. Yet time and time and time again modern artists instead aim to reduce that to little more than a cool aesthetic. Even those that put some effort into the narrative still use the “-punk” side of the genre description in the same way that we had hyper-manufactured “punk” bands like Blink-182 back in the 90s and 00s. There’s no rage or protest in these things. No meaningful commentary other than a wink towards things we all knew were messed up. Far, far too often cyberpunk has become an insincere aesthetic and actively undermined genuine efforts to work in these genres by doing so.

To be fair, ArcRunner plays just fine. It’s not going to set your world on fire with innovation, but as a roguelike it gets all the core components right: You’ve got randomised levels and enemy patterns, meaning that each “run” is a new experience. It’s also a challenging game, and your character will die many times along the way through many attempted runs. With each death, they’ll start again from the very beginning, but there are some improvements to the character that act as a progression curve, gently making the initially difficult going easier bit by bit.

The really big selling point of ArcRunner is that it can be played in cooperative mode, too. There are several different character types and each has their own playstyle. There’s also an extensive loot system, with plenty of variety so each player can tailor their role within the team further. Enemies and environments also have just enough variety that you can play tactically together, so there is a genuine thrill of teamwork involved. It’s very fast-paced, so anyone expecting the nuances of a cover shooter may be left feeling like there’s a lack of substance, but as a big-energy, all-action thrill ride there’s a lot to admire about ArcRunner.

A screenshot from ArcRunner

Putting aside the thematic analysis and looking at it in isolation, the aesthetics are appealing too, especially when you look at them on an OLED Switch model. There is a slight issue on the smaller screen that it can be difficult to see some of the enemies in some of the darker arenas (especially the first one), but it’s forgivable. The game is backed up with some excellent music, with synths and a vibe right out of the 80s. If all of the talent that went into this game had been applied to something with meaning and a point, ArcRunner has all the potential in the world to be something special.

But it doesn’t do anything with its material. Aside from telling you that there’s a bad AI that’s taken over everything and now everything wants to kill you, there is no effort whatsoever to give the setting, characters, or presentation context. It’s only identifiable as “cyberpunk” because that’s the aesthetic used. In a badly overloaded genre, where there are so many other roguelike shooters available, ArcRunner relies exclusively on two things: its stylish aesthetic and the fact that you can play it with friends.

So, yes, it’s well-made. The action is taut and the excitement factor is high. While I was playing ArcRunner and just in the zone with the thing I was enjoying my time. And then I’d hit the inevitable wall, some enemy would finally deplete my health, and more often than not I would start a new “run” with my character slightly enhanced from my previous effort. If I’m not enjoying a roguelike then I will never stick around for another run in a single gaming session. I’ll put it down and, if I feel in the mood to give it a second chance, pick it up again for another go the next day. More often than not I don’t bother giving it a second chance.

A screenshot from ArcRunner

The fact that ArcRunner held my attention better than that and actually made me want to take on its challenge means that it’s a cut above so many other roguelikes out there. At yet thanks to the way it’s made it’s also a shallow, pointless experience. Without the context and meaning it’s using a genre that is actually quite important as nothing more than an aesthetic.

Game developers, I am begging you. If you want to place your game within a literary or cinematic genre, then, by all means, do so, but understand what that genre is about, first. Cyberpunk is not an aesthetic with angry robots, neon colours and body modifications. Cyberpunk is a warning against alloying corporations and the political elite to take technology and leverage it for their gain over the good of humanity. If your game doesn’t have that message at its core, you’ve missed the point of the genre.

ArcRunner misses the point of the genre.

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Matt S. is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of DDNet. He's been writing about games for over 20 years, including a book, but is perhaps best-known for being the high priest of the Church of Hatsune Miku.

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