When you think of a game set in a haunted house full of monsters, understandably your mind would probably jump to horror, but Incendium's Phantom Halls looks to change all that with a game that's not about the jumpscares or the gore, but about the silly, over-the-top, Scooby Doo-style capers that come with your typical scary settings. The game is in Early Access right now and has just received a Halloween update (more on the specifics of that here), and we've been giving it a go for ourselves.
The premise is that you select a character first and foremost, before selecting one of the quests available to them, with each quest having a different number of party members available to deploy (the gang, we like to call them). If there's more than one, you then select someone to accompany you, all of which are stereotyped caricatures i.e. the Cheerleader), and off you go on your merry way. As you enter the level, your task is then simple: complete the mission on the top right of your screen (like killing a certain number of spiders) while keeping your character alive, and you're left to your own devices more or less.
The levels are procedurally-generated though, so it's not as if you can play the same mission and get the same results. How this works is that you start off in one part of the level side-on, like a platformer, and then you unlock different sections which get mapped out, like a Metroidvania. The only catch is that you can't see what's in a room until you open the door, so it could spell bad news for you if you're not prepared, although don't worry if you've got a weak heart; it's not like anything will be popping out and scaring you out your skin.
As expected, you'll come across a load of nasty enemies while you're sneaking around each level, including zombies, spiders, and those damn bats (trust us, they're the worst). Whacking, shooting, and otherwise dispatching these enemies is advised, especially since the further you go the more you'll uncover, but this is often easier said than done, as melee weapons degrade and guns run out of ammunition.
This is why looting is so important, as you can look inside boxes, bookcases, and more for useful items to help you in your travels, but beware, there are some environmental dangers too. For instance, you could be extra clumsy and cause a bookcase to fall on your whole party when you try and loot it, leaving a big red splodge all over the floor, or you could unwittingly step under a dodgy chandelier without realising. Taking things one step at a time and making sure you're ready to run at any time is pretty important, then, and not just because running gives you a great cartoon sound effect.
Each character has their own unique special ability to help the party out, whether it's the Metalhead's area of effect headbanging ability or, our favourite, the All-Star shooting an explosive basketball. These add flavour to what is otherwise a pretty standard platformer, as do the variety of weapons, like axes and shotguns, all of which have their own strengths and weaknesses. You can even attack with all the members of your party, which is a pretty neat little feature.
Another thing that spices the game up significantly is the whole cartoon style. This is the furthest thing away from horror while still featuring a lot of the same content as horror games, as there are cartoony sounds everywhere, even in the opening theme, and in terms of visuals all the characters are cute little figures that waddle around the levels and flail their arms when panicked. Everything is rather angular too, as if it was all made out of origami shapes, but that just adds to the whole effect. Family-friendly hijinks: that's the name of the game.
One thing we would like to see more of is variety in the environments. Sure, the haunted house setting is spooktacular, and the creepy forest is definitely Blair Witchy, but a lot more can be done here to spice things up. While of course every run will be different due to the procedural generation, it wouldn't hurt to have some more settings to explore within that, although since the game isn't even fully launched yet, this isn't a criticism we can really hold over it.
What proved more frustrating is the aiming when using a controller. When using mouse and keyboard your aim is represented by a reticule on screen, which you can move as you would a cursor, however, this means that when your character moves, they can move past where the cursor is on-screen and therefore end up facing the other way. Not too much of an issue when using mouse and keyboard, but this translates across to when you're using a controller too, and is so much more hassle than just aiming using the right stick as you would in any other 2D platformer.
The core elements of this game, as we've said, work smashingly well together, but it's in local multiplayer that this game really shines. Rather than taking three people in a terrified huddle together round with you as you would in single-player, here your friends can step in and the gang can split up and look for clues. Okay, admittedly it's not to look for clues, but when there's a house of horrors or a big angry tree in your way, it doesn't hurt to have an extra pair of eyes and ears. Oh, and of course there are more people to do the battering if monsters come looking for trouble.
What's more is that the game is challenging. Incendium's art style, intentionally or not, throws you into this false sense of security, where you think you're safe from all the adorable little skeletons running your way, but with very few life points at your disposal, you'll quickly find yourself a bloody mess if you aren't careful with the dangers you encounter. This also makes melee combat high risk, because we often found it difficult to get a hit in without getting one in return.
In short, Phantom Halls is a great little foray into some horror settings, but without getting too spooked. It's gentle, but not gentle enough where you can afford to take your eye off the ball, and there's oodles of fun to be had with the local multiplayer as you and your friend batter some ghoulies while exploring some creepy locations. A little more in terms of variety wouldn't hurt, but for now we're having fun with Phantom Halls, and it's a perfect game for if you want to get involved with Halloween but don't want the trauma of the big-boy titles like Outlast.