Between the buzz of chattering attendees, the drone of bassy booth music, and, of course, the flood of multi-genre-spanning games elsewhere, standing out at Summer Game Fest is hardly a walk in the park. Moon Loop Games' twin-stick shooter-cum-spellcaster Hauntii, however, caught my eye as soon as I stepped onto the SGF show floor.
For one, it's gorgeous – but you've likely already gathered that from the striking header image above. To be fair, Hauntii's beautifully haunting monochromatic aesthetic is wonderful, but beneath its gloomy veneer lies an intuitive isometric adventure that's as clever as it is endearing.
"The art style came out of work flow originally," says Moonloop's Michael Ward. "In order to generate the amount of assets and elevations that we needed, having a really simple sketch art style was a necessity to be able to do everything we wanted to do. Since then, it's become a really recognizable and iconic aspect of the game. In terms of mechanics, we try to walk the line between being cryptic with the player, making them walk around and explore the environment, and then see how the environment reacts to you."
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During the short demo segment I played, I led my ghost protagonist around a moonlit path lined with lurching trees and sprawling shadows. In Hauntaii, the path towards progression is illuminated throughout, however there are no invisible barriers preventing you from straying into the darkness. Wander too far from the spotlight at your peril, though, lest the red-eyed demons lurking in the black grab you.
"One of the key mechanics of the game was inspired by Super Mario Odyssey – the capture mechanic with Mario's hat," Ward continues. "In Hauntii we call it, simply, haunting. If you aim your stick towards many different objects in the game, you actually hop into it, and then you can manipulate the world around you. It's the afterlife, there are no rules. Some objects offer you new abilities, others might let you break them open to uncover loot, or light up a new path that was hidden by the darkness before."
As I waded deeper into the demo's twisted, enchanted forest towards my goal, I was stalked by monsters who I fended off with my own ethereal powers. But it wasn't until I was overcome by one particularly relentless horde of ghostly enemies, that I cottoned to Hauntaii's core conceit: your ability to possess the world around you. With a band of baddies hot on my heels, I possessed a magical gun turret and began firing off bolts of lightning that destroyed everything in their path.
Through all of this, the goal in Hauntii is to collect memory fragments of the protagonist's life before their untimely death. Ward adds: "As you follow the narrative of the story, you collect bits and pieces of the life you once had, before you passed on to the afterlife. That's the main thrust of the story: learning who this little character was and how they ended up here. Throughout, we try to give players options and different ways to tackle and solve puzzles as they go."
"Another really simple but effective way that we leverage the art style is that, fundamentally, the light areas are safe for you to explore. You can journey out into the darkness, but if you remain out there for too long the evil creatures that lurk there will get you."
Towards the end of my brief time with Hauntii, by this point more confident in my otherworldly possession skills, I find myself pinballing around towering, bulbous dripping tap-like plants that spout puddles of light. Between each glowing pool, though, I must sprint through patches of darkness, and it takes a moment to notice I'm gritting my teeth and tensing my neck muscles in real-life.
"Be brave," Ward says as I do this. "You can do it. Journey out into the darkness." Moments later, and I find myself consumed by the shadows – a deliberately unfair and inescapable fate that marks the end of the Hauntii demo. And just like that, I can't wait to play more. If you're similarly intrigued at this early stage, know that Hauntii is due at some point in 2024.
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