Incendium's Phantom Halls has been scaring Steam Early Access for a fair while now, but it's chosen the spookiest time for a full release - October 31. In many ways, it's actually not your typical Halloween game though, because while most are choosing to go for menacing terror this is more of a comic take on this horrifying holiday, one that ought to offer something slightly different to thrill-seekers. The question is, then, is it a trick or is it a treat?
The premise is that you play as a group of teenagers who are pretty much all archetypes, i.e. the goth, the nerd, the jock, and the cheerleader. Imagine Until Dawn with a little less subtlety and you get the drift. After experiencing some rather strange events, they decide to set up a club to tackle everything untoward, from zombies to giant bugs and everything in between.
Your ragtag group of adventurers set up a camp, and this serves as your home menu and base, from which you can go on 'Cases', which are essentially missions that can have from one to three party members. You can also upgrade this base, and unlock skill points for each character too, meaning you can take on the big bad monsters with more efficiency.
These characters don't just differ in terms of personality, but they also have various abilities and specialities. The goth, for instance, has a handgun (that she probably stole from her dad's gun cabinet) and has a special ability that lets her enshroud the party so enemies can't see her, while the cheerleader has a pan and can cheer the party on and give them all health. These abilities operate on cooldowns, and there are also passive abilities for each character as well.
What's more is that by completing Cases you can also unlock more characters, which in turn gives you more play styles to choose from. It's not just extra club members you unlock though, but also Spoils, which are resources you can use back at camp. Most missions are replayable as well to get more Spoils, or if you just want to tackle the ghouls again for a laugh.
Replayability is also added by the fact that each level you go to is procedurally-generated, so you get different layouts, monsters, floors (elevators or ladders get you up and down), and challenges each time. Of course you'll see the same rooms reappear as they're snapped together in different sequences, but overall it's a good way to ensure things are fresh each time, especially because the end of each Case requires you to run back through the mansion to the point where you came in, so you can escape.
As you go through each Case you can interact with the mansion in a number of ways, from moving objects in the way as barricades to triggering chandeliers to fall down on your head. There are plenty of traps, but also plenty of opportunities, as rummaging through the draws and boxes will uncover weaponry as well as torches and medkits. Scavenging is important, but it's light enough that it's not a slog - everything is useful, and you'll have a fun time with most if not all the weapons you pick up.
That's because everything packs a punch, but nothing is overpowered. Melee weapons are incredibly satisfying to use, and you really feel the force when you clobber a zombie from behind with a baseball bat (cartoon blood helps with that). The guns are obviously better for keeping distance, but your untrained protagonists aren't that accurate, so every bit of equipment has an advantage and disadvantage. What's more is that they slowly break, so it's all about risk versus reward.
If you're getting bored of playing alone and leading your party, controlling each person's abilities and attacks, you can always play drop-in-drop-out co-op to get some human help, which as you might expect is good for taking down enemies sharpish. It's also great to speed up the looting process, but it's chaotic enough that you might find yourself vying over whether to go left or right or squealing as a herd of skeletons comes round the corner to attack you.
The game has this angular papercraft style draped over it, and the simplicity of the 2D platforming, along with the comic voice acting of all the stereotypes, gives the whole thing a ton of personality. It's all tongue-in-cheek, but it's by no means easy because of that since a few errors will throw your limited health points down the drain. It doesn't help that all the levels are incredibly dark too, meaning enemies could be lurking anywhere.
Phantom Halls is a healthy mix of horror influences, playing on stereotypes from across the board and poking fun at them in what's ended up a lovely little package. It's got enough substance to it which mean it's more than just a cheap laugh, though. The procedurally-generated levels offer a genuine challenge and are varied enough to keep you going back for more, but the real joy is in bashing and bruising the monsters either alone or with fellow adventurers. There's a definite Scooby Doo vibe to these capers, and it's a good alternative to all the other grim and gory horror games floating around this Halloween.