Hauntii is a hand-drawn twin-stick shooter about a ghost trying to escape eternity

5.13.2024
By Rachel Watts, contributor
There have been many depictions of the afterlife in games, from the fiery depths of hell to the white lights of heaven to places more abstract and in between. Moonloop Games’ upcoming release Hauntii is another unique reimagining of what lies beyond the mortal realm—a sprawling adventure through expansive and colorful realms occupied by various underworld denizens.

Some might think that a game featuring a cute ghost wandering through the afterlife might be a bit melancholy in tone, but Moonloop Games founder Leo Dasso firmly believes that just because a game involves eternity and lost souls, doesn’t mean it needs to be sad—or even about death at all.

“The subject matter of Hauntii’s story is kind of grim, or at least a lot of people would consider it grim,” Dasso says. “You're a ghost, you've died, and everything that you loved or cared about is gone. But from the very beginning, it was one of our design goals to not have the game feel grim or depressing. We wanted it to be fun. Hauntii is not a game about death, because the thing is, nobody can relate to death. The people who have died are not around to talk about it, and they're certainly not buying any games.”
In Hauntii, you play as a ghost freshly reaped from the land of the living and plonked into the afterlife. The game begins with our little ghost friend attempting to ascend to a higher plane—but something goes wrong during lift-off, as massive chains burst from the ground and pull them back down. Not one to give up easily, the ghost decides to go on a journey through the afterlife’s different realms, hoping to learn about who they were in their past life and how they can successfully ascend.

Hauntii is an epic adventure through a world conjured straight from Dasso's notebook. "I studied illustration in college and I always had an interest in programming,” Dasso says. “I was very into the Newgrounds scene making Flash games. With Hauntii, I started doodling little sketches during meetings in 2019. Just little ghosts or little scenes. I was trying to figure out what style could work for the game, so I have sketches and doodles in completely different styles.”

This isn't the first time a game's visual style has come straight from Dasso's doodles and scribbles. Released back in 2013, Ballpoint Universe was entirely brought to life through Dasso’s drawings—quite literally. It’s a striking world of intricate doodles and drawings in ballpoint pen, almost like the game jumped directly off the page and onto our screens.
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“It wasn't really intentional, but it just happened to be something that I wanted to do for both games,” Dasso says. “Back in 2012, my feeling was that every game was going for hyperrealism, with realistic lighting and physics and whatever. I felt like something was lost in pursuing that path, so I wanted to do the complete opposite. Many hundreds of extremely talented artists work on games, but the graphics are so abstracted from the concept art that a lot of people don't realize it. So with Ballpoint Universe, the point was to abstract as little as possible from the artwork, which literally just meant scanning the artwork into the game.”

Ballpoint Universe’s striking visuals stood out from the crowd back in 2013, and Hauntii is doing the same in 2024. However, during the creative process, the decision to make Hauntii's visuals hand-drawn arose after Dasso’s desire to make a twin-stick shooter. At first it seems (in two words) completely bonkers to combine Hauntii’s visual style and themes with the frantic, chaotic nature of a twin-stick shooter—but the action links back to Dasso’s desire to avoid mere melancholy.

“The thing with twin-stick gameplay is that it's a silly, light-hearted mechanic,” Dassi says. “It doesn't feel too serious when you're this ghost shooting these little green globs, and that plays into exactly what we want, which is that we don't want it to be too serious. It's a game, it should be fun and you should enjoy playing it.”

Shooting orbs at enemies is one of two skills Hauntii's ghost has at their disposal. The second is a "Haunting" ability that lets them jump into and possess objects and then use the object's special ability. You'll sometimes use possession to solve puzzles—for instance, possessing stone pillars and moving them to open a portal to the next area. But when you’re swarmed with enemies, you can also jump into a nearby crystal and unleash a rapid stream of projectiles, lighting up Hauntii's two-tone visuals with color and sound.
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It’s surprising how action-packed Hauntii gets at times, but your possession and orb abilities aren’t limitless. Gathering small triangle pieces is essential to keeping your energy gauge filled, and you'll need to keep it topped up by finding them in environments and picking them up from downed enemies. You also have a dodge, so you can easily zip around the projectile-filled chaos.

You'll move seamlessly between this thrilling bullet hell combat and more quiet or reflective moments. Hauntii's opening takes place in a strange meadow with gentle hills and weird, curling plants. Follow the path and shadows begin to close in—and if you stray from the light, the music and visuals begin to distort, with glowing eyes emerging from the darkness. Tension accumulates until a massive shadowy entity grabs you in its giant claw, mouth open and ready to consume you.

But before it can, an angelic being comes to your rescue. This celestial character, which Dasso says is named Crisp, becomes fast friends with our little ghost pal. At first, she appears as a normal ghost with a glowing white aura, but she has another, more terrifying form—a biblically accurate angel with giant wings and a terrifying amount of eyeballs.

“Crisp takes her ghost form to try and not intimidate new ghosts, but she's really an insanely powerful entity,” Dasso says. “So when we designed her we asked ourselves ‘How do we convey that?’ and it turns out the Bible does a pretty good job of describing a being like that.”

As Crisp reveals her all-powerful angelic form, a flourish of slick animation shows her morphing from one entity to the next—a young girl with a halo, a strange feathered being, a huge central eyeball surrounded by several spinning rings—until she settles back into her ghost form. She’s an absolute vision, and the animation work by Hauntii’s Animator and Storyboard Artist Lucie Juric wonderfully conveys her intimidating presence.
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“I had concept art of Crisp in angel form and it was good, but simple," says Dasso. "Then our animator Lucie took that concept and she ran with it and that's basically where you get the form of the six wings and all the crazy stuff. Lucie does the majority of the animation in the game. I animated a few of the characters, but anything you see in a cutscene is Lucie.”

This wonderful animation work is everywhere in Hauntii. The combination of a hand-drawn art style, detailed line art, a striking two-tone palette, and seamless animation creates a dynamic world that’s gorgeous and exciting to explore. Each new realm that our ghost friend visits has a completely new vibe, from the calming woods and their friendly woodland sprites to a sprawling city punctuated with giant ominous towers where lost souls gather to ascend to a higher plane.

“The forest itself has a lot of variety. There's a part of the forest called Belgrove which has giant bells all over the place, and you can shoot them to make the bell ring,” Dasso says. “Another I quite like is called Wick Land, which is a giant carnival. It's a whole city made out of carnival tents, and there are skeleton roller coasters that go through it all. You can ride the coasters and even possess the tracks to change the shape of the coaster itself, which changes how the cars move through the coaster.”

If you really poke around you’ll be able to find memory fragments that reveal more about who Hauntii's ghost used to be and details about their past life. A lot of work has gone into making Hauntii's world as lively as possible, with plenty of secrets and surprises for players to find. This ghost may be trapped in the underworld, but it’s a place that has just as much life as the land of the living.

“There's a ladybug in the forest that you can haunt that lets you climb up and down the trees,” says Dasso. “And the ladybug has a leaf parasol so when you jump off the top of a tree you can glide around.”

Pairing high-energy shooting with a slower, contemplative story is a strange combination, but Hauntii makes it work in large part due to the scope of its narrative. There's lots of room for atmosphere and tone changes without it feeling rushed or abrupt, which is important given the main theme of the game.

Hauntii is a game about moving on or having to leave particular circumstances. If you're a ghost and you die, you have to move on from everything," Dasso says. "When I was writing the script for Hauntii, I had recently moved from the United States to South Korea, and that was a big change. My life had done a complete 180. So I was thinking a lot about this topic—how to move on from circumstances or accept what's new. I think it’s a universal topic because everybody at some point in their life has had to change their circumstances.”

It’s a sweet sentiment, and one that ties all of Hauntii’s elements together. Dasso says Hauntii will take players around 8-10 hours to finish, and it feels like quite a sprawling adventure. “It's longer than I anticipated. I hadn't planned on making it that long,” Dasso says. “It’s hard to convey in a trailer that you'll be going on this journey, but we’ve put a lot of effort into making the story something that pulls you all the way through until the very end.”

Hauntii will be available on the Epic Games Store on May 23.