Neon White stole the show during the February 2021 Nintendo Direct live stream. It looked like a mature, anime-styled game set in Heaven and starring a cast of demon assassins, with tinges of Cowboy Bebop, Bayonetta and Danganronpa. Its debut trailer showed off frenetic first-person gameplay and stylish cinematics, but once the screen faded to black, viewers were left with a handful of questions:
Is this a first-person shooter, or a card-based game?
Is it on rails?
What’s with those animal masks?
Is this a dating sim?
And finally: Wait, Neon White is made by Ben Esposito? The dude who created Donut County, that bastion of wholesome, pastel-slathered gameplay and design?
“This game is just so different than stuff I've made in the past,” Esposito told Engadget. “And there's expectations that people have that you'll just make the same thing over and over again. So, people don't really know what to think or say. I mean, my parents don't know what to think or say. My parents played Donut County and they enjoyed it. They're not going to play this.”
Donut County was Esposito’s first original project after doing design work on two hit indie games, 2012’s The Unfinished Swan and 2017’s What Remains of Edith Finch. Donut County came out in 2018 after six years of development, and garnered praise for its adorable visual world and simple, physics-puzzler mechanics. You play as a literal hole in the ground, gobbling up the cartoon landscape and interacting with cute characters along the way.
Neon White is decidedly different. By Esposito’s own account, he’s pumping it full of weird cult energy and late-1990s, early-2000s adult anime vibes.
“I don't need to make wholesome stuff right now,” Esposito said. “I've explored it. It's not for me at the moment. I'm here to make edgy indulgent things.”
So, let’s indulge. Esposito talked through exactly how Neon White will play, answering those lingering questions from the game’s debut trailer a month ago. First up:
Neon White is a first-person shooter, full-stop. It’s coming to Nintendo Switch and Steam, and on PC, it uses the standard WASD and mouse input. It’s not on rails, and in fact, freedom of movement and rapidity are key gameplay elements. Players earn medals for beating levels quickly, adding a delectable layer of speedrunning to the game.
Actions and weapons are augmented by the floating cards scattered around Heaven’s platforms or left behind by slain enemies.
“The whole conceit of playing the game is the cards that are both weapons and movement,” Esposito said. “The way that works is, you start with just a sidearm, like a little katana card, and you swipe it. And then all the weapons that you get in the level come from either they're sitting around in the world, or if you kill an enemy, sometimes they'll drop a card. And when you pick up the card, now you can use that card as a gun. It has a number of shots, depending on what gun it is, or you can discard it, which would just delete it essentially. And in exchange, you'll get some sort of movement ability.”
Take the Godspeed card, for example. If you choose to use it as a gun, it’s essentially a rifle with four shots, and it’s accurate and powerful. But, if you discard it, it’s a dash that slaughters basically any enemy you move through. These card-discard decisions play out in rapid succession in the game, as players catapult themselves from one Heavenly platform to another.
Every action is extreme in Neon White.
“When you jump, you jump three humans tall,” Esposito said. “When you do movement, you go really, really, really far. So, it's like a first-person platformer in something that I really like about those old-school games is that they can be nice and broad and clear, and they can be kind of abstract in how the levels are constructed, which lets me do really interesting, weird layouts.”
It also lets Esposito get weird regarding the second critical aspect of Neon White:
“The story component is very big,” Esposito said. “It's structured 100 percent around the story, which is weird for kind-of a speed-running shooter. It's not something that I think has really been done.”
Neon White’s narrative begins with a simple conceit. You wake up in Heaven with no clue how you got there, and you’re immediately thrown into a competition to be the top demon slayer and earn a permanent place beyond the Pearly Gates. The thing is, all the other demon slayers seem to know you, and you don’t remember anyone.
The bulk of the narrative plays out in dialogue scenes in-between missions. Missions are composed of 10 rapid-fire, card-casting, demon-slaying levels each, with story beats scattered throughout.
“And then you get an opportunity to hang out in Heaven,” Esposito said. “You talk to all the various other characters, and you can find gifts and stuff for them. It's kind of got dating sim elements and you can give them gifts to deepen your relationship, and they will give you back things for giving them gifts. So, you'll be able to do interesting side quests and stuff that will deepen the relationship even further.”
Using dating-sim-inspired mechanics, players decide who to trust and gather information about their own backstory. It's a little Hades, a little Paradise Killer, a little El Shaddai, and altogether unique. One of the most evocative images from Neon White’s announcement features two bone-white, animal-faced humans drawn in a lanky anime style; one of them is holding the other in his arms, even as she presses the barrel of a pistol to the underside of his chin. It’s mysterious, dangerous and sensual.
“It's really a little bit of a reaction to spending so long making Donut County,” Esposito said. “That's a game that was really devised to be enjoyed by both children and their parents at the same time. It was kind of conceived as something that was supposed to be really anyone could get into it…. Neon White is not that at all. It’s for particular people.”
If there are any “particular people” here, Neon White is due to hit Nintendo Switch and PC this winter, published by Annapurna Interactive. It’s available to wishlist on Steam right now.