In a world where top-down shooters aren't exactly thin on the ground, it takes a brave developer to release one these days and hope that it draws money. With Neon Chrome though, developer 10tons have mixed things up somewhat. Rather than dealing in the sort of relatively throwaway fun the likes of Crimsonland and Polychromatic (amongst many others) have brought to the table, the game takes a Roguelike approach in a cyberpunk-infused world, taking the shooting action and mixing in procedurally generated levels and RPG elements.
Playing as a hacker that is able to exert control over individual people (or "assets" as the game would have it), you select one of the three randomly-generated characters that are available to you for this run and march right in to the first level of a structure that houses the corporation that you're there to take down. Your asset will be equipped with a class that provides various buffs, debuffs, and abilities, as well as a starting weapon and more powerful secondary attack. As you roam around the building's halls, this weaponry can be switched out, depending on what you find along the way. The goal on each level (boss levels excluded) is simply to reach the elevator. Standing in your way is a legion of both robotic and organic enemies which usually have to be dealt with head on so that you can proceed.
There are tactical options, however. Certain classes of asset are lighter on their feet and less prone to being detected by the evil minions, so it's theoretically possible to sneak through some levels unannounced, never once firing a bullet or dropping a mine. We say "theoretically" since, even though the game offers an achievement for doing such a thing (which confirms that it's possible), it's incredibly, incredibly difficult. The reason for this is that enemies have a rather hit-or-miss detection range. Early on, you learn that turrets can only be destroyed when they've been activated, which happens when they detect you. As you play on, there will be times when you open a door on the other side of the room from a turret and it'll start firing bullets your way. Then in the next room, you'll have to be pretty much within punching range for it to activate. This can be said of quite a few of the enemies, who can catch you by surprise. It's more of an annoyance than a game-breaker, but there are times when it will definitely cause frustration, especially since health pickups are so few and far between.
Your assets all share the same stats, aside from the class-based changes, so the idea is to attempt dozens upon dozens of runs, picking up loot in order to pay to increase things such as your health and damage numbers so that subsequent runs don't end as abruptly. And abruptly is most definitely how most runs will end in the early knockings. Health can be regenerated via a few very rare loot drops and via robotic operating tables that are present in levels. Only, due to the random nature of the level layouts, it can be entirely possible to play through four levels without ever seeing one. This means that your approach to Neon Chrome can't be the same as it would be for other shooters. You can't just jump in all guns blazing, taking damage in the knowledge that the next health pickup is just seconds away. An early rush of blood to the head on the first level you're playing can mean that rather than beating a boss in five levels' time, you'll not have enough in the tank to take him down. But every cloud has a silver lining, since you'll still have your earnings from the run to spend.
Even though that's the case, it doesn't take all that long before you get to the point where each run is only enough (maybe) to purchase one point in one category and as you would expect, jumping into a game with all of your stats being the same aside from having 21/100 damage as opposed to 20/100 damage doesn't feel all that different. When you first jump in to Neon Chrome, you're facing a thirty-level challenge to the top that, within the space of two or three short runs, will begin to feel impossible due to the fact that you're massively underpowered and have to start from the beginning every time you die. Then you realise that defeating the first boss – who will reside in the fourth or fifth level, depending on how lucky you've gotten with the randomness – gives you the ability to start any subsequent runs from that level. Very quickly, the goal switches from beating the entirety of the game to just surviving long enough to defeat the next boss. Each time you manage it, you reach another difficulty peak that needs to be overcome. Sure, you'd levelled up enough to reach the first boss, but the trip to the second will require a bunch more failed runs before you even get to look him in the eye. This is where the game will live or die for most players. Depending on your skill level, you could be looking at triple-digits numbers of attempts before you're even close to the endgame. Fortunately, despite the minor issue with detection ranges, Neon Chrome is ridiculously addictive, so the repeated attempts don't really feel like a chore. Sure, there's frustration to be found when you finally reach a boss after twenty attempts and get that wonderful feeling of success, only to be taken down seconds later. It can lead to you putting the controller down, but you'll doubtless be back in short order.
The main cause of the addiction is how fun Neon Chrome is to play. Sure, there's the feeling that you were so close to besting that last level that you just want to jump in and give it another spin, but that's driven by the game as a package. It looks the part and performs well and although the level generation system can't do massive amounts with the options it has, leading to levels often feeling somewhat familiar, the fact that you're not trying to beat the exact same challenge over and over again means that you never know what's around the next corner. You might find an awesome weapon that helps to boost your skills, but Neon Chrome does a very admirable job of ensuring that you aren't constantly relying on the luck of the draw. Sure, that new weapon might give you a slightly better chance, but if you don't have the skills, you're still not going to reach the elevator.
Outside of the main levels, branches can be thrown in by the random generator that provide secondary exits. These add an extra challenge in the form of relatively basic puzzles or themed rooms, but provide a decent amount of loot at the end for your trouble. There's risk involved here for sure. Have you got enough health to take on the puzzle level, or should you just plug on and hope that the next real level exit you find leads you to somewhere that could possibly have a health pickup early on? That's for you to decide. None of the puzzles or challenges are particularly taxing, but some do contain a fair amount of firepower that can be enough to put a spanner in the works if you haven't thought things through.
There are a couple of downsides of note that need to be mentioned. Two of the secondary weapons are next to useless, namely mines and the laser. In a game where you're likely to be looking ahead a lot, the change in playing style required to make the mines effective is uncomfortable. As for the laser, well, it can't be aimed. You hit your secondary fire button and a blast of laser power shoots out all around you, generally barely touching anything you wanted it to destroy. The chances are that you'll want to use the frag grenade or – more likely – the mini-missile as your secondary weapon but with the randomly-generated character and equipment combinations, you may end up having to play as a character with undesirable debuffs. You can spend in-game cash to force the game to give you the equipment that you want, but given the necessity to pay out to upgrade your stats, you'll likely not have any left. We also found that though a lot of walls are destructible in the game, there are spaces where you'll be close to a wall – but not necessarily facing it – and your gun will refuse to fire. A quick step forward or back will rectify the situation, but it can genuinely be the difference between life and death and happened frequently enough for us to mention it.
But those two relatively minor issues shouldn't really detract from what is a fun combination of genres. With enjoyable local co-op for up to four players, Neon Chrome could end up being one that you and your buddies roll out once a week until you finally complete it, or it'll stand as an intense and challenging single player game. In either case, there's fun to be had.
Neon Chrome is an admirable blend of genres that provides a stiff challenge and potentially massive amounts of playing time. There's a feeling of repetition to be found for sure and the need to die, die, and die again won't be for everyone. Those with the mettle though, will find a fun and enjoyable shooter that has the potential to be both strangely compelling and unrelentingly addictive.