Elude enemy agents and take down an international surveillance state.
PC Release: May 20, 2015
By Ian Coppock
Before we get started, is everyone okay with me de-capitalizing NEON STRUCT? I know that this format does it automatically in the title, but I hate it when people title their works in all-caps. It makes it look like I’m screaming at you throughout the article. So we’ll go with Neon Struct: a game that is more subtle in its narrative and gameplay than its font size might suggest.
Neon Struct is a little indie game released only on PC about two months ago, and it derives from the godfather of stealth games: Deus Ex. Some might say the two games are almost identical. They both deal with themes of conspiracy, they both rely on stealth, they both take place in a cyberpunk future, and they both take place entirely at night. There are some minor differences, of course, but it’s immediately clear where this game draws its inspiration from.
Neon Struct puts you in the shoes of Jillian Cleary, a spy who travels across the country on clandestine operations. She gets air-dropped into alleyways, and your job is to sneak her in and out of enemy installations without alerting a soul. You have a handful of nonlethal gadgets like knockout gas and health stims, but your success will by and large hinge on timing your sneaking and leaning to see who’s facing what direction. The game robs you of any weapons to force you into stealth mode.
Jill has an easy time completing missions for “the agency”, an unnamed allusion to the CIA, but when one of her targets turns whistleblower, she becomes the victim of a vast international conspiracy between all the world’s intelligence bodies. It’s up to her to escape and to unmask the surveillance state forming behind the scenes, all the while being pursued by a riot of enemy agents.
Right off the bat, Neon Struct‘s plot sounds like something written by Edward Snowden. Before Snowden turned whistleblower, I’d call the idea of an international surveillance state ridiculous, but now… I’m not so sure. It’s certainly real enough in the world of Neon Struct, as Jill has to stay one step ahead of federal and state law enforcement. This gives Neon Struct a tense, gloomy atmosphere, one that Snowden’s revelations about our government gives me pause to reconsider.
Despite the ambitions of Neon Struct‘s central plot, Jill and the other characters in the story don’t really develop. There’s lots of typed-out dialogue, but she remains pretty much the same person despite undergoing lots of personal anguish. She also doesn’t really make any decisions of her own; the narrative is driven by whomever is yelling into her earpiece to explore apartment A, or pick up underworld gadget thingy B. The plot is plot-driven rather than character-driven, and when the characters are vapid and forgettable, there’s a problem.
This game also contains a lot of typos, most of which could’ve been avoided with a simple spell-check. My friends get on my case when I criticize their grammar, and they might have a point when we’re just shooting the shit, but typos are surprisingly effective at breaking immersion. Neon Struct is a fun game to sneak around in, but bad grammar is devastating to a game’s atmosphere.
As you’ve noticed from these screenshots, Neon Struct has an… interesting art style. It’s a big, blocky, colorful world, draped in shadows and fuzzy film grain. The characters are faceless mannequins that often stand completely still, which reminded me of the infinitely hilarious Jazzpunk. I like the artwork present here, especially the lighting, but there’s a fine line between being minimalist and being simplistic. All the same, it’s something that I find surprisingly engrossing. Like the complexities of the world have been stripped away in favor of the brutal nightscape Jill has to navigate.
And speaking of simplistic, let’s talk about the mission setups. On every single one, your job is to sneak into a location and either add an item or remove it. There are no animations or special effects when this happens; you simply remove or add whatever you came for and leave. It’s repetitive, it’s simplistic, it’s nothing to write home about. Missions alternate between linear, secured areas and open sections that let you explore the world a bit. Missions of the latter category let you talk to people, read news, and get a feel for the world. The game tells you that you’re traveling to new cities all over America, but each area is designed with the same gray blocks and the same damn items, so the attempt to create a big-feeling world really shoots itself in the foot.
But what about the actual gameplay mechanics, the meat of this stealth’em’up (as the kids call them). Jill has no guns, blades, or weapons of any kind, so if you’re looking for an explosive action sequence, you’re in the wroooooong place. Jill can crouch to go into stealth mode and use a few different tools to get around. Hacking doors is, laughably, a game of pong. You can also use stims to silence your footsteps, and you can throw these weird rubix cube-looking things that I guess blow up and knock people out. Nothing, though, beats a good karate chop to the back of the head. Be sure to hide those bodies! Guards will be alerted if they see someone sleeping on the job, a realistic mechanic whose challenge value I appreciate.
What I don’t appreciate is the enemy guards’ AI. I haven’t seen programming this wonky in a long time; there would be times a guard wouldn’t see me even though I was standing right in front of him in broad daylight, and other times I’d get the entire NYPD on my ass because someone heard me farting from the other side of Manhattan. It is a carnival of an AI show. Guards’ bodies can also be thrown right through the walls, thanks to a silly bug.
Another thing about this game I took issue with is the lack of music. Or sounds. Every level’s sound design is an eerie void, pierced only by the footsteps of you and the enemy agents who bumble around the building. Some sort of ambience would help round the world out a bit and give some life to this stealth-thriller. In the open city areas that you can traverse between stealth missions, though, a beautiful synth soundtrack composed by The Home Conversion plays. The band has some nice melodies and a good frontman; most of the music’s subject matter had nothing to do with the situations Jill finds herself in, but it’s good music.
Despite its flaws, Neon Struct has somehow become one of my favorite stealth games. I like the atmosphere and world that the game presents, and I like the soundtrack. I wish that the enemy AI were better, and that the characters were more memorable, but the real novelty of Neon Struct lies in its stark portrait of a rapidly changing world. Even though this is a cyberpunk, alternate reality sort of world, there are a lot of parallels concerning the international scene and privacy of citizens. Jill may not be much more than a vapid means of completing objectives, but the world around her has brought me back several times.
So, what’s my conclusion on Neon Struct? Hmm…
If you like stealth games, get it. If you’re looking for a hard-hitting action game or a super-deep narrative, you probably won’t enjoy it as much. But the game does pack an inescapable charm that has drawn me back into its dark fold a few times now, and I recommend you give it a try as well. It’s a great place to begin for people who are curious about stealth games, since its simplicity also strips the genre down to its basest form.
You can buy Neon Struct here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.