What happens when your debut game found its fame as a result of its chill vibes and earnestness? Where do you go from there? What do you do next? Why, you make a fast-paced game about killing demons in the afterlife, of course. Obviously.
When you think of Donut County, a puzzle game that casts you as a bottomless hole, a string of light-hearted descriptors probably come to mind: charming. Cute. Earnest. Adorable. Among a crop of capital-W Wholesome games that populated the 2010s, Donut County was arguably one of the most wholesome (and indubitably the most hole-some). But developer Ben Esposito’s follow-up, Neon White, is about as far afield from Donut County’s infectious wholesomeness as possible.
“You know the meme that’s [of] Princess Daisy talking to Princess Peach and she’s, like, ‘Are you tired of being nice?’” Esposito told Kotaku over a Zoom call the other week. “That was kind of my moment.”
Neon White, which is planned for a Switch and PC release this winter, initially showed up during a Nintendo Direct earlier this year, at which point everyone in Kotaku’s Slack went “Oooh” and “Ahhh” and “...hmm wait wtf is...it?” Also: “What’s with the name?”
Following a showing at an Annapurna Interactive showcase (Neon White’s publisher) last month, we know now that Neon White is a first-person shooter. And a role-playing game. And a platformer with a bunch of parkour elements. And a sandbox built for speedrunning feats. And a visual novel, kind of. It’s a little bit of a dating sim, too. Oh, and it’s got some deck-building bona fides, what with the card-collecting mechanic (which we’ll get to in a sec).
Your goal, as with most first-person shooters, is to kill everything in your way and make it to the end of the level. Every level lasts anywhere from 10 seconds to two minutes, according to Esposito, depending on how good you are.
The main gimmick at play is a mechanic called “soul cards.” Each card features both a weapon and a traversal ability. Holding onto the card allows you to use the pictured weapon, while discarding it lets you use the ability. Let’s say you have a handgun card with the “Elevate” ability. By discarding it, you can double-jump. Or maybe there’s an SMG that allows you to do a Yoshi-style ground-pound. Or maybe a bolt-action rifle that gives you a burst of speed.
So, sure, it’s not quite deck-building in the sense of, say, Gwent or Slay the Spire, but yes, cards are very much in play here. See it in action:
Neon White is, in short, a whole bunch of stuff going on at once, a Skip’s Scramble of Cool Shit® from the past few decades of gaming. But there’s one ubiquitous descriptor that’s decidedly not part of this game’s recipe: a roguelike.
You’d be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that Neon White is yet another roguelike. After all, the game shares a lot of DNA with another indie darling, a runaway success story called Hades. (Maybe you’ve heard of it?) Both take place in the afterlife. Both feature striking character designs. Both are steeped in sultry undertones. Both put the player in death-or-more-death situations rooted in fast-paced gameplay. Both are made by independent developers with dedicated fanbases. There are undeniable similarities, yes, but Neon White is not a roguelike.
“The game really found its personality once I started to remove the randomness and remove the deck-building and keep it really, really straightforward and simple,” Esposito said. “It is a hundred hand-designed levels that are meant to be replayed a bunch of times.”
In Neon White, you play as a so-called Neon—someone, typically with a violent past, who wakes up in heaven. Each one is named after a color, and has a correspondingly colored mask. Neons are given a chance to compete in a demon-slaying competition. Whoever wins gets to stay in heaven for good. You play as White, hence the name of the game.
“The energy that powers this game is teen energy,” Esposito said. “This is what I would have thought was the coolest thing ever when I was a teenager inspired by, like, Y2K era-anime and The Matrix and all this stuff.”
It’s a cool concept, but one born as a result of a really cool-sounding phrase that came out of thin air. As Esposito told Kotaku, the game’s name isn’t a chicken-or-egg situation. The egg very clearly came first.
“One day, [my wife Geneva] turned to me ... ten minutes after we woke up and she just said, ‘Neon White.’ I was, like, ‘What are you talking about?’ She’s like, ‘Neon White. That would be a really cool name for a game.’ She was right.”