🎃 Halloween is right around the corner. This is the time of year when I love delving into my favourite horror games (I'm sure I'll do another playthrough of P.T., which still resides somewhat safely on my ageing PS4). And of course, you can expect our team to mark the spooky season with a range of stories on horror classics, both old and new.
But there's another side to Halloween that has always intrigued me. It's the idea of something truly otherworldly happening in a quiet little town. The feeling I'm talking about is best expressed by movies like Hocus Pocus and video games like EarthBound (okay, the latter isn't really about Halloween...but it certainly has that "kids discover something bizarre and dangerous in a slightly off-kilter American town" vibe).
It's a very specific itch and one that Havenview by Vikingsholm Studio looks poised to scratch. Havenview, which was first playable by the public at PAXAUS, poses the key question: What would you do if aliens invaded your hometown on All Hallows Eve?
When I first spotted Havenview at PAXAUS, it immediately evoked memories of growing up in the '90s. There's something magical about exploring the suburbs at night, especially as a kid, and especially on Halloween. Sights that are ordinary - even mundane - in daylight hours take on an eerie mystery at night. Suburban paths are punctuated by overhead street lights that cast little islands of safety amid the enveloping darkness. Those lights at the end of the street - the ones that are growing larger - are they just car headlights? Maybe we should hide in the bushes; it could be a flying saucer hovering down the street, ready to whisk unsuspecting children away.
Havenview, by virtue of its setting and the way its mechanics are contextualised within that setting, delights in the interplay and tension between the ordinary and the extraordinary.
You are an ordinary kid in an ordinary neighbourhood and you're going out trick or treating with your friends. At least, that was the plan, until your sleepy little town became ground zero for a massive alien invasion.
Here's the official synopsis:
It was a cool Halloween evening, late October 1993, and as the people of Havenview were out trick or treating, you had been putting the final touches onto your Johnny Lazer space costume. Unlike previous years, though, it was getting quiet outside and there were sounds of sporadic gunfire in the distance. With your family still out trick or treating, it was time to step out into the night and find out what was going on.
Lock and load
Havenview is the debut game from Vikingsholm Studios, currently a two-man team consisting of Ian McArdle (lead developer and co-owner based in Canberra) and James Murlin (art and design lead and co-owner based in San Francisco). Ian was on-hand to step me through the demo at PAXAUS, and I was impressed by how much of the game's mechanics were on show given that the entire project is barely six months old.
While it's possible to play Havenview as a solo player, the game actually supports up to six players. In the PAXAUS demo, it was super easy for players to drop in and out of the experience whenever they liked. The player sprites were all identical in the demo, but the final version will enable players to choose between different characters.
Your ultimate goal is to investigate the disappearance of your neighbours, scavenge for upgrades and weapons, and find other useful items in your quest to take back Havenview from the alien invaders. And while you'll start your adventure on familiar suburban streets, wiping out the aliens will require you to take the fight beyond your own neighbourhood (environments will include the city centre, an industrial zone, and a couple of secret locales that Vikingsholm is keeping under wraps for now).
Taking it to the streets
Despite the demo being built so early in the development cycle, the core gameplay loop already feels solid. Enemies will spawn as you move around the map; you'll want to dispatch them as soon as possible, too, because they'll follow you around and more will appear over time. Running and aiming feels natural, and there's a limited-use dash mechanic that you can employ to avoid enemy projectiles. As with any good twin-stick shooter, combat ultimately becomes a kind of dance, where you're thinking about movement and aiming in roughly equal measure.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that such an early demo already included some significant environmental interaction, too. You can destroy various objects in the world (it's particularly satisfying to blow up cars, for example) and you can also rifle through trash cans and car trunks to find both weapon upgrades and health. I'm hopeful that the team will lean into environmental interaction as a way of expanding the combat mechanics, too. It would be super cool if the explosions from blowing up cars also damaged enemies, for instance.
As you progress your way through a level, the challenge steadily increases, culminating in an epic boss battle. One such boss - the giant mechanical spider pictured above - was already implemented in the demo. And let me tell you, there's something genuinely exciting and horrifying about a massive, screen-filling spider approaching you from across a car park; especially when you aren't expecting it. I made a couple of attempts to fight the boss solo: it totally smashed me at first, and I managed to even up the odds by picking up a few weapon upgrades for a second attempt, which I just lost. I can see solo players - and perhaps speed runners - challenging themselves to take down all the bosses with zero upgrades; I'm sure someone will do it. But for us mere mortals, this is where multiplayer becomes so valuable, especially if you can play couch co-op or with voice chat. I can see myself playing this with my siblings, where I'm sure there will be plenty of laughing, screaming, and trash-talking.
Glow in the dark
One aspect that's not easy to convey in screenshots (I recommend checking out the video on the game's Steam page) is how Havenview's deliberately-retro pixel art design is pumped up through clever and liberal use of lighting and colour. Glowing bolts of pink and red flash across the screen as bullets fly in all directions. Explosions light up the night and pop with colour. Individual objects appear to cast their own light and shadow in the world; even the little health bar casts a rather lovely soft red glow over the player characters. Major explosions will also cause the entire screen to shake; as a result, you get this feeling of growing chaos as more enemies appear and the action becomes more frantic.
Vikingsholm Studios are planning a full release for Havenview next Halloween. Given the degree of polish on display in this super early demo, I'm excited to see how the game evolves over the coming months as its scope potentially widens and deepens. If you've always wanted to take down alien baddies on Halloween with your mates, then Havenview might just be the treat for you.
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