Panic. Panic at the museum reception desk, as the astronaut suit I have belatedly possessed is set upon by a four-strong team of ghost busters. We’re in the opening seconds of the round and only 20 minutes into my Midnight Ghost Hunt hands-on preview, which means I’ve yet to figure out important concepts like ‘where the hunters spawn in’, or nuances like ‘this button lets me hide in props’ as opposed to ‘this button telekinetically waggles props about like ectoplasmic dinner bells’. As ghosts we’re supposed to mostly stay schtum for the five minutes it takes to reach midnight, at which point we get to both metaphorically and literally flip the tables on the living. Instead: panic.
Fortunately, I’m playing with a team of developers who are happy to prioritise my immediate survival over their own. “We’ll run interference!”, yells lead developer Sam Malone over my panicked giggling. My astronaut bops between the hunter’s laser beams and harpoon bolts, miraculously clinging to unlife as Sam pelts my pursuers with taxidermied wolves from a nearby display. Another beam knocks my spectral form out of the suit, but the jig’s not up: I weave between dinosaur skeletons, jump up a ladder, turn a corner and possess an urn. I’ve escaped in the chaos, but Sam hasn’t been so lucky. “They’ve got two harpoooooooons”, he whimpers, reduced to goop that the hunters promptly vacuum up in order to prevent him respawning.
In case it isn’t clear, all of this is an absolute riot. The two best things you can do in video games are 1) trick people and 2) run away from them, and the first phase of Midnight Ghost Hunt, which is getting a closed beta at the end of the month, is largely about resorting to the latter once you’ve failed the former. Being either side of the chase feels electric. The ghost gets those familiar tingles of excited desperation, where escape feels possible yet appropriately unlikely, while the hunters get to relish the satisfaction of their hard work paying off.
The hunters don’t usually get greeted by an astronaut cheerily and immediately betraying his host ghost’s location. Sensible ghosts will instead scatter themselves across the map, posing as inanimate objects in noble Prop Hunt tradition. To help them hunt, the humans can pick one of three tracking gadgets, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Radios are straight-up proximity trackers, Spectrophones are good for nailing down direction, while Pathfinders detect ectoplasmic build up from either ghostly footsteps or possessed props that stay still too long.
Those toys bake a healthy degree of variety into the ghost hunting basics, while that ectoplasm mechanic exemplifies the care with which developers Vaulted Sky Games have balanced power between the living and the dead. It means props have to surreptitiously hop about a bit when they think nobody’s looking, which is exactly as tense and as silly as it sounds, and it’s a great example of the kind of clever design decision that might, just might, carry Midnight Ghost Hunt beyond the frivolous initial pull of its premise and into a deeper world of strategy and deception.
Both hunters and hunted can dip into a much bigger bag of tricks than I’ve mentioned so far, though loadout restrictions force them to be selective. A hunter might eschew tracking gadgets in favour of an electrifying trap, for instance, while slapping on a perk that prevents them from being detected through walls. The ghosts, meanwhile, each get to choose an ability that messes with their hunters, and I’m gutted that I spent too long getting to grips with the basics to properly try them out. Ghosts can send out fake apparitions, turn props into explosive traps, or even disguise themselves as fake hunters, like spectral versions of the Spy from TF2.
There are also separate abilities that give busted ghosts a way of helping out, the most intriguing of which let’s the deceased pretend to be a hunter over comms. I can’t recall another time I’ve seen a game so blatantly invite me into the world of confidence trickery, and it’s a salivating prospect. In the full game, you’ll have to unlock each ability by playing, and it’s not hard to see myself sticking around in order to get my ghostly mits on the good stu-
BONG. That’s midnight striking, ushering in the more straightforwardly murderous phase of the game – and unfortunately, the phase I’m less sold on. If any of the ghosts survive until midnight, then they all get to respawn in a collective attempt to oust their hunters, freshly imbued with the strength required for a direct confrontation. In theory, that puts the hunters on the back foot, struggling to survive for four minutes before it becomes possible to evacuate. In practice, my team fairly easily held our own by grouping up in a corner of the sprawling pirate cavern map we were playing on. I was reassured that’s a rarity, and I’m willing to put it down to the map’s openness alongside unevenly balanced teams. Nonetheless, it’s a shame that all of my matches wound up as forgone conclusions rather than tense stand-offs that could go either way.
There’s a question mark hovering (spookily, like) over the number of evenings I’ll actually want to spend ghost hunting – especially seen as there’s a real possibility there won’t be any ghosts to hunt. So many promising multiplayer indie games have found their player bases floundering mere months after launch, though Malone hopes that post-release maps, weapons and game modes will keep people coming back. “We’re also looking at user-generated content”, Malone told me, with player-created maps being the holy grail. “We can’t confirm those will be there, but it’s something we’re looking at, because that would be amazing – and it would fit the prop hunt lineage quite well”.
It’s hard to speak to a game’s staying power when you’ve only played it for less than an hour, and at this point I don’t know whether Midnight Ghost Hunt will grow stale after three or thirty. Even if those high-level mind games fail to manifest, though, there will still be some degree of delight. Simply existing as a pile of books stacked on a table while hunters bustle obliviously past you is a hoot, and it’s encouraging that the team are clearly keen to stretch that sublimely silly tension as far as it will go. At one point, Malone off-handedly pointed out that possessing any taxidermied animal in the museum lets you make an appropriate, mischief-creating noise.
“If a prop seems like it should make a certain sound, it will”, he said, which is frankly one of the most robust and admirable design philosophies I’ve ever come across. Even If I wind up midnight ghost hunting for a silly time and not a long time, I’m confident it will be a great one.
Midnight Ghost Hunt doesn’t have a final release date yet, but you can currently sign up for the closed beta over on its website.