Ben Esposito is not making Neon White for everyone – in fact, even though he admits it’s probably not the best marketing move, he says he’s trying to make a cult game. He wants Neon White to find players that love it the way he loves the cult games that influenced him, like God Hand, Danganronpa, and El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron.
Put another way, as Esposito said in the game’s most recent trailer, Neon White is a game made for “freaks.”
On Thursday, during the Annapurna Interactive Showcase, Neon White made its latest showing after being announced back in February. But this time we have a better idea of the game itself; how it’s played and a bit of the story. You can see its latest trailer below:
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The game centers around the aptly named White, an assassin from Hell fighting demons in an attempt for a new life in Heaven. While on the surface the gameplay looks like an anime-inspired Quake or other similar first-person shooter jump map homage, Neon White’s hook and complexity come from its card system and how it affects combat.
In Neon White, cards are weapons or guns. Depending on what card you have, that’s what gun you’re using; if you have the pistol card, you’re shooting a pistol, and so on. “However, before it’s been used up of all its weapon magic, let’s say – this is so silly,” Esposito admits, laughing. “Before it’s used up all its weapon magic, I can at any time choose to discard it actively, which will get rid of the card but instantly I’ll be able to do a movement ability. So like the pistol, for instance, lets me kind of do a double jump in the air. The rifle lets me dash forward and kill anything in my path. And so on and so forth. So it’s kind of like you’re always making that choice, like, ‘Do I want this gun? Or is it better for me to move faster here?'”
There’s an emphasis on speedrunning in Neon White, and players are encouraged to fight for the best times on the game’s global leaderboard. The result, at least judging by the trailer, is a tense game of juggling priorities and quick thinking as you jump around each level blasting enemies. Admittedly, it looks a bit too intense for standard controls and more suited for a keyboard and mouse setup. It’ll be interesting to see how and if it works better on one versus the other when the game is released.
Most people likely caught wind of Esposito from his previous project, Donut County – a cute, relaxing game about a mischievous raccoon. Visually, Neon White stands in stark contrast, borrowing amply from anime (Esposito cites Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, and Black Lagoon, specifically) but also Japanese games we just don’t see as much of anymore – smaller, weirder, and more experimental titles. Shinji Mikami’s work in the 2000s, like the aforementioned God Hand and his sci-fi shooter Vanquish, is a big inspiration, Esposito says. He also cites games by Goichi “Suda51” Suda, such as Killer7 and No More Heroes. Neon White’s life-sim aspects pull from the Persona and Danganronpa series, as well as Fire Emblem: Three Houses. All of this is on top of hero shooter elements informed by games such as Team Fortress 2.
It’s an interesting, albeit bizarre at times, hodgepodge of different influences all coming together in a game that looks visually distinct from other games in 2021, while also feeling and sounding nostalgic for fans of Japan’s early-to-mid 2000s video game output. And, of course, that’s the point. Neon White looks like a game made for that specific audience, even if it’s not the biggest in the world.
“Yeah, so I don’t know if everyone else involved likes to hear that I want to make a cult game, because financially making a cult game isn’t a great idea,” Esposito says, laughing. “But I will say, the way I love those games is pretty unique, I think, to games in general. Like, I don’t love really perfect games the way I love a weird kind of broken cult game. And what I wanted to do with Neon White was make it so this game is not trying to be for everyone. It’s trying to be a game for really specific people. And if it does hit correctly, for those people, it will be their favorite game. That’s really what I’m trying to do.”
Neon White is set to be released sometime this winter for Switch and PC.