The Curse of VGBlogger’s Halloween Indie Game Spooktacular

Happy Halloween, boys and girls! We’re back with our annual Halloween Indie Game Spooktacular to celebrate the fright night teeth rotting festivities with recommendations for some of the latest indie games in horror, supernatural, mystery, apocalyptic, and sci-fi themes. Basically, if it’s bloody, scary, or in some other way dark and mysterious, it’s fair game.

This year we’re up to The Curse of VGBlogger’s Halloween Indie Game Spooktacular, but for more picks from years past be sure to check out its prequels, The Return of VGBlogger’s Halloween Indie Game Spooktacular and The Revenge of VGBlogger’s Halloween Indie Game Spooktacular, as well as the classic 2014 original Halloween Indie Game Spooktacular.

Remember to continue checking back here throughout the rest of the day and night as I’ll be updating with additional game picks and impressions up until the clock strikes midnight. Happy Halloween gaming!

EatWell:

A surprisingly compelling mashup of Pac-Man and The Binding of Isaac, EatWell puts you in control of a red smiley face plunged into the netherworld on a quest to save your smiley-faced lover from a blood-sucking monster. Each dive into hell consists of a dungeon crawl through procedurally generated floors populated by enemies roving about to block you from gobbling up all of the blood cells. Only once all of the red dots have been collected will the stairs leading down to the next floor open up, with boss encounters coming every five levels or so down. Collecting blood cells one at a time is fine, but nabbing them in quick succession fills a combo bar. For every 10 dots grabbed without letting the meter reset (and the reset timer is very short) a random prop pick-up is spawned that can either help or hinder your chances of advancing. Occasionally you’ll also earn keys opening access to bonus challenge rooms and prop shops. Some power-ups provide short duration attack capabilities, but otherwise the game is one of avoidance rather than confrontation. Rare chances to kill enemies need to be taken advantage of for the diamonds they drop, a currency used for buying props at randomly appearing shops.

This element of skill-based reaction timing with the risk-reward dynamic of the props helps to bolster the otherwise simplistic gameplay. One thing that drives me absolutely bonkers, though, is the poor spawn balancing. It’s quite common to change floors and have an enemy or spike trap spawn immediately on top of you and inflict damage before the screen has even fully rendered to give you the opportunity to move out of the way. The game is already quite challenging, so the cheap loss of a heart or two right off the bat can easily derail a run. Other than that lingering headache, EatWell is an addictive little gem that always seems to draw you back for just one more try, like pumping quarters into an arcade cabinet starring a certain Namco icon.

SIMULACRA:

We’ve been through the whole “found footage” movie craze after The Blair Witch Project, and now, in gaming, it seems we’re in the midst of a “found phone” subset of the genre after recent titles like Replica, A Normal Lost Phone and its new sequel, and now SIMULACRA. SIMULACRA, spiritual successor to another found footage game Sara is Missing (which I haven’t played so I can’t compare), is an interactive horror narrative about a young woman named Anna who has gone missing and left a distressed message on her phone indicating that you should not look for her. Going through the phone’s contacts and apps to solve the mystery involves making numerous dialogue choices in texting conversations, restoring corrupted messages and data files through puzzles that require correctly sequencing word jumbles and broken images, watching personal video logs, and paying attention to personal details that may need to be used for password entry, security questions, or tracking down a particular contact to help move the investigation forward. Slowly but surely the layers are peeled back to reveal things that have been happening in Anna’s personal life.

The setup is familiar, but so far I would say this is the best example of the found phone games that I’ve played, for a number of reason: 1) The simulated interface and apps are the most realistic in terms of replicating the feel of a smartphone; 2) the texting conversations feel believable and in the moment and open to multiple outcomes; 3) the live acting and voice overs are actually very solid and engaging for an FMV game; 4) going through the phone doesn’t feel so snoopy and voyeuristic due to the horror themes and the whole mystery swirling around how you got the phone and what happened to Anna; and 5) the surrounding ambience and psychological trickery pull you deeper into the experience, so that when the phone suddenly rings or indicates a text message, a door knock or other sound occurs in the background, or the phone quickly crackles and scrambles out of nowhere with a grotesque distortion of Anna’s wallpaper photo, you literally jump in your seat. As the game recommends at the very beginning, headphones are an absolute must to truly immerse into the story, especially if you do the proper thing and shut yourself in a dark room before getting started.

Chronicle of Innsmouth:

Based on The Shadow Over Innsmouth novella, Chronicle of Innsmouth pulls inspiration from 90s era LucasArts adventure design and pairs it with Lovecraftian horror in a way that would seem to be tonally counterintuitive but actually comes together to retell the original tale with authenticity to the source while also adding the sort of humor and light-hearted notes you’d come to expect from a Maniac Mansion or Monkey Island. The first hour or two is a little slow to get going and doesn’t really put forth much of a horror vibe, but over the second half of the game, once you actually arrive at Innsmouth, the atmosphere becomes much more ominous, a sense of dread and danger takes hold, and the story goes full on Cthulhu on your ass.

Character interaction and puzzle-solving is the name of the game, using the old-timey interface of a command grid located at the bottom-left corner of the screen you need to first click on to specify the desired action before clicking on an NPC or object. There are a few inventory item combination elements, but for the most part the puzzles involve finding an item to give to or trade with an NPC. The sequencing logic for progressing through some of the puzzles can be murky and a couple timing-based sequences late in the game are cumbersome and overly reliant on trial-and-error, but experienced adventure gamers shouldn’t have too much trouble reaching the end within four hours or so. Even when the retro design shows its maximum crustiness, the well-written story keeps you plugging away until the final twist. If you’re into old point-and-click adventures and the works of H. P. Lovecraft, look no further than Chronicle of Innsmouth to satisfy your Halloween gaming fix.

Let Them Come:

Bring your boombox, a fresh mixtape, and a big machinegun–the aliens are coming, and you’ve got a whole lot of blastin’ to do. Let Them Come has you bug hunting like a true Colonial Marine in the form of a wave-based turret shooter. You are spec ops supersoldier bad-ass Rock Gunar, the lone survivor of a mercenary team sent into space to eliminate a new breed of aliens aboard a freighter vessel. The game is played from a side view, where Rock takes up position on the left while alien nasties of different shapes, sizes, speeds, and attack styles barge in from the right, crawling along the ceiling as well as the floor. Using a loadout of upgradeable melee weapons, throwable explosives, ammo types, and passive perks, you blast away from a stationary position by aiming the cursor up and down and pulling away on the left mouse button trigger. Continuous kills and bonuses for accuracy and multi-kills build up a combo meter, which at max capacity triggers the chance to pick one of three random power-ups, like AI attack drones, airstrikes, unlimited item usage, health refill, and double damage. In a nod to the Gears of War reload mechanic, the chosen power-up is accompanied by a filling selection icon, and the timing of your press determines the duration and potency of the chosen bonus. When the bullets are flying and the alien horde is reaching insurmountable odds, nailing a perfectly timed power-up is like a shot of adrenaline that can pull you back from the brink of being overrun.

Unlike the typical high score ’em up wave shooter, where the goal is to survive as many waves as possible to post a huge high score, the waves in this game are like sub-levels that make up larger overall levels, ending in epic boss fights. When you die–and you will die plenty, trust me–you don’t start over again from Wave 1. Your progression is kept and, after a brief intermission to light up a cigar, manage loadout options, and customize a playlist of sci-fi rock jams from unlockable mixtapes, you start from the wave you were last seen alive and kicking. Of course, there is a Rampage Challenge in addition to the main campaign mode, in which you’re given a set amount of credits to build a loadout and then battle through endless waves for leaderboard bragging rights. There’s a Boss Challenge mode, plus a Twitch mode for streamers. The enemy variety is excellent, the pixel art is richly atmospheric, the explosive blood and gore is visually satisfying, and the gameplay, though straightforward, is pure edge-of-your-seat action.

Necrosphere:

A Metroidvania built to be played with two buttons sounds kinda crazy but isn’t entirely inconceivable. The original Metroid came out on the NES, which has a controller with only two main buttons. Of course the difference with old NES games is the implied use of a d-pad along with the two buttons. But when Necrosphere says it’s played with only two buttons, it means that literally. Instead of d-pad or analog movement, everything in the game is performed exclusively using a controller’s left and right shoulder buttons (or left and right on a keyboard). Nudging the right shoulder moves you right, bumping the left shoulder makes you run left, while double-taps and simultaneous holds of those same two buttons allow you to dash jump or thrust upward on a jetpack. Without a dedicated jump button, the game design makes use of bouncy bubbles as trampolines to catapult from, for a heavy dose of twitch-style precision platforming.

This streamlined control setup is used as the unique hook for a mini Metroid-like romp in which you attempt to guide Agent Terry Cooper, recently shot in the face and killed, out of the Necrosphere (aka the underworld) and back to the land of the living known as the Normalsphere. Since Terry is already dead and existing within the afterlife, he can’t die anymore than he already has. Therefore landing on spikes or leaping into fireballs–something you will do A LOT of, because this game is deviously difficult–is met by immediate reloads from checkpoints that are, for the most part, generously placed. Despite its small stature at only a few hours, Necrosphere ticks off the major Metroidvania boxes with a sprawling map of interconnected levels complemented by Nifty Gear upgrades (who doesn’t want a ballet suit or a pair of invisible gauntlets?), which unlock new abilities and allow you to backtrack to reach previously inaccessible areas. The one thing the game needs, though, is an actual map screen, because at certain parts it can be hard to remember where you have and haven’t been without a visual aid to fall back on. Notes left from living agents helping to guide you out of the underworld add a dash of humor to help ease some of the die-and-retry frustrations, while 20 hidden DVD collectibles–they’re part of a precious TV sitcom box set–add a replay element for completionists to hunt for. Thanks to a Halloween update providing a free deluxe edition upgrade, collecting five of the DVDs unlocks an especially tough bonus level to tackle.

Bonbon:

Playing on similar themes of childhood fear as Krillbite Studio’s Among the Sleep, Bonbon is a tyke-sized first-person horror narrative that plays out from the perspective of a toddler living in a home of parental absence. This 20 minute jaunt into a child’s imagination takes you through a progression of backyard playtime, family room cartoon watching, and bedtime scenarios where you can toddle around playing with and talking to all of your favorite toys. Ever looming is the eponymous Bonbon, a giant rat creature that represents both an imaginary friend and the fabled monster under the bed. Each section of the game is completed by picking up toys as instructed by your mommy, who’s never around and is only heard talking from other rooms. Bonbon seems like a harmless anthropomorphic pal at first, but its presence becomes increasingly aggressive and unsettling as the story develops, culminating in a terrifying final sequence that is the stuff of childhood nightmares. Some odd object physics and collision glitches aside, Bonbon succeeds in its effort to pull you back into the mindset of a kid and the irrational fears that can grow in a young imagination from the seeds of surrounding family life or a harmless bedtime story.

Press X to Not Die:

True Halloween story time! One Halloween night growing up–I can’t remember exactly how old I was but it was sometime shortly after the age where you’re “too old” to go trick-or-treating–I was at a friend’s house and we were bored and decided to try to make a homemade VHS horror movie. I don’t think we ever got much of anything worthwhile filmed, I just remember at one point we were in the basement or some other dark room and a piece of board or floor trim fell over with a small nail sticking up. I felt a little pin prick sensation but didn’t think much of it initially. Then we started seeing little bloody smudges on the floor and I looked down to find that I had a little Curt Schilling bloody sock situation going on.

Anyway, I only bring all of this up because this game was made in the same spirt of a group of friends getting together to shoot a cheesy horror movie. A purposefully awful B-movie zombie apocalypse parody, Press X to Not Die is an interactive film that you watch while performing QTEs and making dialogue choices at key points to influence how each scene unfolds. It’s full of lame jokes, appropriately amateurish acting, cinematography, and blood special effects, and hilariously over-acted death sequences (a staple gun shot to the nuts is probably my favorite), which of course adds to the whole charm of the experience. Each playthrough takes around 20 to 30 minutes, and while the story isn’t written for choices to lead to earthshattering consequences, it is fun to go back and see how different scenes can play out. High score hunters can track their performance on a leaderboard–successful QTEs add to your score, failures subtract–while achievement addicts can squeeze out extra play time by going back to test their QTE skills on higher difficulty settings and witness all of the death scenes and nut shots. The creators also packed on DVD-like extras, including behind-the-scenes content and a blooper reel, as well as a nostalgic 1994 mode that pixelates the image for an effect reminiscent of old-school FMV games like The 7th Guest.

Bendy and the Ink Machine:

Imagine Steamboat Willie, or any other harmless black and white cartoon character, as the stalking menace of a horror game. Doesn’t the mere thought of something of such wholesome purity being tainted for evil purposes raise goosebumps all over your body? It’s kind of the same thing that makes clowns so freaky to a lot of people. Bendy and the Ink Machine takes this idea to another level, somehow managing to capture the atmosphere, characterization, and world building intrigue of a game like BioShock and pair it with a vintage hand-sketched style straight out of the 1920s and 30s era of cartoon animation.

An episodic first-person horror game (three episodes are currently available with two more planned), Bendy and the Ink Machine transports you to Joey Drew Studios, a Rapture-esque animator’s workshop where a child’s love of cartoons goes to die a brutal, ink-stained death. The gameplay is pretty standard walking simulator fare through the first two episodes, with some light puzzle solving, linear progression, and plenty of flip switching and crank turning along the way. In the third episode the gameplay and level design broaden, mostly for the best but in some ways to the detriment. The larger setting and added dimensions of combat and cat-and-mouse horror are great, but in return the entire episode literally turns you into an errand boy trekking back and forth, up and down through a multi-floored environment fetching items for a certain NPC. After the fourth or fifth such fetch job, the pacing becomes a slog. Thankfully the story and beautifully realized game world are always leeching through to keep you engaged and wanting to discover more. Audio diaries further add to the character development and what so far is a captivating storyline that grows in mystery and intrigue with each episode.

Bendy and the Ink Machine becomes a tad too reliant on familiar first-person narrative adventure tropes, and suffers through patches of tedium as a result. However, the unique setting and enrapturing narrative help to mask the game’s weaker aspects. With creepy cardboard cutouts sneaking up behind you, happy go lucky grins plastered on their faces, and twisted versions of cartoon characters in pursuit, Bendy ditches the hyper violent gore porn that has become commonplace in the genre for a whimsical brand of horror that is unexpectedly refreshing and every bit as unnerving.

Crowman & Wolfboy:

Best buds of the shadow creatures, Crowman and Wolfboy are put off by the wicked ways of their brethren and just want to leave the Dark Forest behind and move to the happiest place on Earth to live in peace with humankind. In a darling twist on movie monster archetypes, Crowman and Wolfboy work together in tandem to flee the life of evil, because teamwork is a beautiful thing. But the other shadow creatures aren’t about to let them go quietly. The duo’s flight to freedom takes the form of a 2D runner-style platformer. Controlled as a single unit, Crowman and Wolfboy charge ahead automatically, a cloud of evil shadows ever encroaching from the left to drag them back to the dark side. If the shadows catch up to you, it’s game over and back to the start of the level.

Veering off course from traditional runner design, the game puts a slightly expanded freedom of control back into the hands of the player, allowing you to stop and start the running motion, and even change directions. The increased control opens the levels up to exploring alternate paths and trickier run lines leading to hidden collectibles. The risk-reward factor is balanced by the appearance of white orbs of light placed throughout each level. When collected, each orb generates a flash of light to temporarily stall the approach of the cloud of shadow creatures. Failing to capture orbs in succession means you’ve gotta be pinpoint precise on your jump timing and avoidance of hazards, while on the flipside, getting a bunch of orbs creates a window to reverse course in search of other areas. Crowman and Wolfboy even gain new platforming abilities specific to their individual animalistic traits, which further extend the replay value as sections of earlier stages can only be reached once the requisite skills have been unlocked later on. Crowman & Wolfboy‘s mobile roots are pretty obvious, but that doesn’t prevent it from being a damn good platform-runner to enjoy on PC.

Nightmare Boy:

From two-man studio The Vanir Project, Nightmare Boy began as a spare time project the developers worked on to learn the ropes in game design, which makes the high quality of the finished product stand out as a remarkable accomplishment and a truly unexpected delight. Nightmare Boy‘s a Metroid-like 2D action-platformer about a young boy who gets pulled into a nightmare world and transformed into the Prince of Darkness by his bed pillow turned evil, mustachioed monster from the dream world. As the boy soon discovers, other children are also being held captive in the realm of nightmares. They’re so thankful to be rescued that each one rewards a new ability once the boss guarding their cage is defeated. The Metroidvania flow of learning new abilities and exploring a large, sprawling map that fills in as you go is present and accounted for, complemented by tricky platforming, beat-’em-up fisticuffs, and energy-based spellcasting. Don’t expect a cakewalk, though, as the game puts up a fairly stiff fight. Opportunities to refill health are often few and far between, while save/respawn points tend to be spaced pretty far apart–in some instances way too far apart, leading to the tedious process of retracing your steps back to where you died. More annoying are the flying enemies, which tend to sneak in cheap hits from off screen when you jump completely unaware that something’s lurking above. The save mechanic is a little different from the norm as well. Each save request made to the Grim Reaper costs a certain number of gems to log, and the price for saving increases every time. Fortunately this doesn’t become too burdensome since enemies explode into a cascade of gems when killed.

Where Nightmare Boy shines most is in its hand drawn Saturday Morning cartoon cel art style and animation, which imparts a sense of childlike wonderment to the nightmarish world themes. The character and creature designs are a highlight, in particular the imaginative, larger than life boss battles that are every bit as challenging to overcome as they are visually impressive to behold. Certain parts of the game, like placement of flying enemies and spacing between checkpoints, could use extra fine tuning, but overall Nightmare Boy is a fantastic new sleeper entry in the increasingly crowded Metroidvania genre, and it deserves a whole lot more attention than it’s been receiving thus far.

Omnom Necropolis:

Instead of rotting out your teeth on buckets of candy, stay indoors this Halloween and put that brain of yours to work. Omnom Necropolis is a grid-based logic puzzle game in which you wriggle a hungry, hideous grave worm through 120 increasingly challenging levels. Moving one square at a time, the goal on each stage is to figure out the correct pathway that will allow the worm to gobble up all of the eyeballs, brains, skulls, or jack-o-lanterns without being able to move backwards or getting dead-ended or boxed into a corner by the trail left behind by its snaking body covering each square from the starting hole. The stages are no sweat at first, but before long you’ll have to deal with the increased complexity brought on by color-coded gates and keys, warp portals, plate switches, and overpasses. The game allows you to take your time to puzzle through the game at a leisurely pace, or challenge your quickness of thought and finger dexterity in speedrun attempts to earn three skull honors for beating a level’s top completion time. A graveyard smash all the way, Omnom Necropolis wraps a fun, dead simple puzzle mechanic in a presentation that exudes the Halloween spirit.

Nongünz:

Nongünz is one hell of an enigma. Or in the words of the great Jimmy James, Nongünz is a cipher, a cipher wrapped in an enigma, smothered in secret sauce. The gameplay fundamentals are easy to figure out. Mechanically, Nongünz has the basic elements of just about any 2D platform-shooter, with roguelite elements joining the party for good measure. In terms of overall gameplay feel, Nongünz immediately reminds of Enter the Gungeon, only from a side-scroll viewpoint rather than isometric. The deeper mechanics at play are where the game purposefully goes out of its way to leave unexplained. One of the distinguishing aspects of the game is its active clicker-style resource pool, where rescuing captured worshippers from the procedural dungeon runs sends them back to the main crypt hub area where they pray and persistently add to a pool of points tallied at the bottom-center of the screen. There’s even a weird sort of game-within-a-game area where you control a blank white human-shaped avatar in a bedroom environment. This is where you quit the game outright by sleeping in the bed, access the main game by using the computer, or strum the guitar or run on a treadmill to fast-forward time for idle accumulation of points to use when you reenter the real game part. I also didn’t even realize until maybe an hour in that every pull of the trigger adds to the point tally as well, just like a clicker.

These points are then used as a currency to spend at a huge altar displaying various skull heads and weapons. Pumping points into the different icons until they fill up with color adds the corresponding weapon to your arsenal. The different skull heads provide unique abilities, so there’s plenty of experimenting to do. Of course, dying wipes out all current inventory and leaves your tiny skeletal gunman running, jumping, and shooting without a head until a new one is found. The most confusing part, though, is the card system. Cards found on your trips into the gothic, black-and-white dungeon are added to your inventory, creating random loadouts of various ability and attribute alterations represented by icons devoid of any clear explanation for what they actually mean or do. Even the achievements are completely ambiguous.

The Souls games are known and loved for being obtuse, but this game somehow pushes the boundaries of obscurity even further. On one hand that means there’s a fairly steep learning curve to tough out early on. On the other hand the process of figuring things out on your own is satisfying and filled with “Aha!” moments as you finally notice or grasp something you hadn’t before. At the heart of the experience is a fun and challenging roguelite run-and-gun platformer, which keeps you gritting your teeth and thoroughly entertained while the confusing parts slowly but surely coming into focus.

Stories Untold:

I think my favorite game of this year’s Halloween round-up has to be Stories Untold. What starts out like a simple text adventure from the 80s steadily reveals itself to be something deeper and more complex than its individual components initially let on. The game is an episodic anthology of four short stories, each one with text adventure elements but also its own distinct settings, themes, and mechanics. The first three episodes consist of seemingly disparate stories, before everything brilliantly coalesces in the fourth episode, bringing the story full circle and revealing a final twist. I hesitate to divulge too much about the story because it’s the type of game that needs to be experienced with as little prior knowledge as possible, but I will say that it’s like playing an episode of The Twilight Zone with maybe a wink and nod to Shutter Island.

Beyond the narrative, what really sets the game apart is the ambiance created by the seemingly innocuous set piece environments that serve as a backdrop to the terminal-based input shared across episodes. As you’re typing responses into the parser, the environment around you is reacting to the text. The first episode is the best at this, a horror text adventure by the title The House Abandon. The game runs on a monitor and Amiga-like computer, with a phone, alarm clock, lamp, and other desktop objects also in view. These elements begin to react as they do within the text adventure, whether it’s the alarm suddenly going off or the creak of the door opening behind you along with the shadow cast by the light shining in from the newly opened doorway. The synth-wave soundtrack only enhances the retro vibe, starting with the deeply nostalgic intro theme that runs for each episode. Figuring out some of the input elements and interactions can become cumbersome, but the game is so smartly written and presented that its worth putting up with the occasional head scratching text entry or puzzle solution.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!