One of the more perilous subjects to review is an early access game on Steam. The idea of early access offers the opportunity for the consumer to both support the developer and play their game before it is completely finalized. To invest in a game on early access is often a leap of faith, and requires some level of trust in the developer. It is in this sense we look to Halloween Forever, by Imaginary Monsters.
I came across Halloween Forever through contact with Peter Lazarski, co-creator of Deathstate, a bullet-hell / roguelike crossover in which Lovecraftian horrors are blasted away with a wide roster of imaginative and varied player characters. As lead artist,, Lazarski is directly responsible for Deathstate’s ubiquitous visual design, offering a retro aesthetic with a palette focused on luminous pinks and sombre blues. The characters in Deathstate – both enemy and player character alike – are the product of considered design, emphasising bold, blocky and stylish figures that add to the game’s retro aesthetic.
Halloween Forever is Lazarski’s (as Imaginary Monsters) first solo debut in gaming, and it is a promising first step. The game is a traditional retro platformer with a creepy schtick; as Pumpkin Man, the player is tasked to “discover why things are so creepy”. In practise, this involves a mixture of platforming, fighting, and secret-hunting. Lazarski’s skill with creating an absorbing, consistent 8-bit style is here, and continues the trend of creating a spooky game world replete with skeletons, bats, sorcerors, and some more otherwordly foes.
As a game, Halloween Forever is very simple. Pumpkin Man has the ability to double jump and spit candy corn (his single offensive attack) at his enemies, and these skills go unchanged throughout the game. Pumpkin Man’s peculiar, arcing spit attack is the game’s most unique feature, and requires some adjustment to manage – the arc of the attack is quite shallow, and so the player must learn to position themselves so that the spat out candy corn can collide with an enemy and destroy them. The level design is generally interesting, as typically there are three screens to navigate before fighting the end of the level boss, with a hidden or more challenging pathway the player must traverse to find the game’s hidden runes. The runes themselves have no direct effect on gameplay, but collecting each of the six hidden runes in the game unlocks Halloween Forever’s secret ending. While the levels are designed to be very brief, this is for good reason – if the player runs out of lives, they are sent to the title screen again and must start once again from the very beginning.
In terms of problems with the game, there is one glaring issue: I managed to complete Halloween Forever in 30 minutes. This includes the two instances where I died in the middle of a run and had to start again. I would not consider myself a skilled veteran of platformers, and so if you’re a more seasoned platform guru then you are likely to breeze through this title without a hitch, even while hunting down the hidden runes. In addition to this, Pumpkin Man’s arching spit attack emphasises smart positioning and full use of his double jump, but it just isn’t as fun as it could be. When I play a platformer I tend to go for those with a combat focus and a good weapon, such as Mega Man’s solar bullets or Simon Belmont’s whip. Though these weapons are different, they are specific and reliable tools to get you through the game, allowing you to quickly develop the awareness of how to approach, engage and dispatch of an enemy once the controls grow familiar. In Halloween Forever, I found myself awkwardly positioning Pumpkin Man so that his attack would make contact with an enemy, which at times felt very grating. This is especially bothersome in the fight with the final boss, where issues with the hitbox mean that you get into position to hit him, but wind up colliding with the residue of an attack and take damage. Overall, it feels like the decision to give Pumpkin Man a spitting attack was to differentiate the game from other platformer titles and give the character a thematically consistent attack power, but this has resulted in combat which at times is fidgety and unsatisfying. After completing the game a number of times, I still feel it would benefit from a reliable melee attack over candy corn shrapnel.
At the opening of this review I referred to the problem of early access titles. Although my playthrough of Halloween Forever was brief, Lazarski has continued to update his studio page (http://imaginarymonsters.com/) with previews of new levels and bosses, though as of the time of writing are not yet in the game, and I cannot merit the title for what is promised, but only what is there. That said, the activity on Imaginary Monster’s page suggests they’re hard at work getting new content ready.
Ultimately, Halloween Forever is a brief diversion in a colourful and lively world, and the game is available at a low cost on Steam. Whether the game’s price is suitable, or a bargain for what is to come, remains a mystery. Perhaps next Halloween we’ll know for sure.