Oh, what a rare treat moments like this are. Until this morning I'd never heard of Albino Lullaby. Now it's the game I'm most looking forward to playing in 2015. An exploration horror, with a gleeful sense of mischief, comparisons with The Stanley Parable are inevitable, and perhaps even deserved. This is a haunted house game that's, incredibly, bursting with originality, phenomenal moments of level design, and a pervasive creepiness that's delightful rather than disturbing.
The game establishes its motifs in its opening moments. An external view of a large, spooky mansion, that's then surrounded by peculiar green bubbles, before the top tower of the building falls off. Cut to a car crash. Cut to being inside some vast cell/cot, four plush armchairs in each corner, with the brightness so high you can barely see. Creepy voices, weird sounds, as your eyes finally adjust the entire reality appears to crumble around you, the room you're in falling, maybe upward? And then crash, it all lands, and a spooky red staircase goes down behind a door open behind you.
The style is just lovely. Using the Unreal Engine 4, Lullaby is crafted in what looks like hand-drawn rooms, colours scribbled in, incongruous stripy patterns wallpapering gloomy, old-fashioned rooms. Then press a certain button, and the house rearranges itself around you. Walls slide apart, floors glide as if on mechanisms, and entire elements of the construction rotate, realign, and transform.
What's so interesting about this feature is it's not core to the game. That huge sections of the level can pull apart, roll, rearrange and enormously slide back and forth, is almost incidental, rather than its hook. It's hook is unequivocally just how bloody weird the atmosphere is, and the giggly glee you feel when it starts unveiling its dreadful inhabitants.
I can't sensibly explain why this game is so great without describing them, but then I also want you to experience it all fresh, as I did. If you're willing to spend $10 to get the first episode when it's finished and the demo today, grab it now, give it a go. Otherwise, I'm going to keep anything you might consider a spoiler (although bear in mind, I've only played the 30 minute demo, so haven't secrets to reveal beyond its early moments, and what I mention is on the game's website) below this picture of the Popples.
Oh God, the worm-things. The "Children", as the game calls them. You actually catch a glimpse of one in the opening seconds of the game, and then your second view is through a crack in a bathroom door. It seems they like having baths. They also like turning to face you, shouting their horror, and pooing out a weird green ooze. They seem to exist in awed fear of a figure called "Grandmother", and indeed of blue lights. In the second half of the demo, things move on from exploring the esoteric house, and onto avoiding the gaze of these twisted monstrosities. Sneaking about, you need to avoid getting too close to them. Which might mean carefully crawling past them. Or it might mean running terrified as they close in around you and oh no oh God they're so awful they're so awful!
But not, crucially, scary. It's a hard distinction to satisfyingly explain, but Albino Lullaby - at least in this first half hour - keeps to entertainingly creepy. Running away gives you that "hoo hoo!" heart-accelerating, bum-squirming need to dash and be safe, without something like Amnesia's stomach-turning terror. Now, I loves me some Amnesia tummy troubles, but it's also rather pleasant to have something on the much lighter end of the scale. And with a contorting house, daft (possibly meaningless) notes to read, and these fantastic references to a ghastly grandmother figure, it certainly isn't playing it straight.
But it's not playing purely for gags either, and I think that's what's intrigued me quite so much here. It's aiming for unsettling, for a surrealist discomfort, which is an all-too-rarely offered tone. And so far, it nails it. As I played, for the first time in such a long time I found myself exclaiming, "This is so good!" As the building slid and slotted itself, or vast room-containing wheels rolled around, I gasped. I've never seen the Unreal Engine used this way, so freely, and so inventively. So long as the episodes continue to expand on these initial ideas, rather than rely on them, this could be epic.
It certainly needs a bit of tidying up. The crouch, necessary for sneaking, is a jarring transition, and a little too slow. And while the worm beast things are certainly already disturbing enough, they're perhaps a little too static. Some pulsating, or slightly more animated variations, would give them an extra dimension. And as I mentioned, if this demo is playing all its cards, it'll struggle to sustain. But what's on show here is so inventive that I have high hopes it'll continue to be as it progresses.
Pricing is a little odd here. To get the first, unreleased episode will cost you $10 (an apposite £6.66) via IndieStand, which gets you access to this demo right away, as well as the first chapter when it's finished. However, it plans to be released in three parts, which will be another $10 each, or an up-front fee of $25 (£16.66). The latter feels a bit of a risk, too close to straight pre-ordering, as you'd have to pay it before you got access to the demo. However, it would suck to adore episode 1, and then have to pay more for the rest. Bah. I think it would make far, far more sense to release this demo for free, and have a button at the end to buy the chapter, because you'd be hard-pushed not to click it after the amazing time it offers.
Whatever approach, developer Ape Law are putting together something potentially very exciting. It already has such a professional finish, with superb voice acting, extremely strong audio effects, a top soundtrack, and a wonderful hand-drawn design. I'm properly excited about this one.