Review: Play Dead!

Review: Play Dead!

Join us as we continue to look back at Spooktober Jam entries from 2020 as this year’s game jam continues.

From Skelebun Studios, episode one of Play Dead! was released for last year’s jam, with episode two and a voice patch for episode one releasing earlier this year. Follow a rock band as they travel from place to place with their ghost dog, Thief, and solve spooky mysteries along the way.

The art comes in strong with a look that hints stylistically at modern Western indie comics. It uses cross-hatching for its shading and keeps things mellow and slightly mysterious with shades favoring blues and grays and purples. As it progresses, the art continues to deliver with extensive use of cut-ins and CGs that create fun little cinematic moments. The sprites are also very emotive, and pieces of movement and animation, particularly as the story moves into episode two, keep things visually interesting. In many ways, it feels like a comic come to life or just short of a Saturday morning cartoon, an aesthetic that works great with its overall tone. While it’s not devoid of some slightly gross imagery, it leans more into the delightfully creepy and just a little spooky.

Narratively, this game sits in a very interesting sweet spot between serious horror and goofy hijinks. By the developer’s own admission, it has strong Scooby-Doo vibes. It centers around a bunch of young adults getting into trouble and dipping into the supernatural along the way. The characters have strong voices and a wonderfully written dynamic. The line-to-line writing is snappy and fun, creating a very nice and compact supernatural tale. While the profanity sort of tests its all-ages quality, it’s a very light series of games that embraces its own simplicity.

This was also apparent when the first episode was out, but it does struggle a little with its episodic nature. The episodes themselves aren’t super strong plot-wise. They’re simple, which works really well with the stories themselves. But both episodes, so far, feel like they end before they really get going. Episode one is very much an introduction to the crew and reads heavily as a preamble. Episode two feels like it takes two smaller ideas and squishes them together instead of expanding them out. The episodes work exceptionally well together, though, as a collective story. Going forward, this seems to lay the groundwork for a really fun overarching story. If they refined the smaller, episodic stories, there’s the potential for a really, really fun series that players can look forward to year after year.

What I find I personally like the most about the story, so far, is how mysterious the tone remains in regards to how much danger the crew is actually in during any given encounter. You’re fairly certain they’re going to make it out simply because of that 1970s kids’ super-sleuth feel. If someone died, it would be a dramatic turn. But the supernatural creatures are real. There’s not an Old Man Jenkins behind the mask. So that light feel almost feels like a mask for how in-danger these kids might actually be. They always get out of it, but they’ve also been very lucky. There’s a low-level safety concern when you pull it all away, and I think that adds a very interesting extra touch to the story.

With an occasionally weirdly chipper soundtrack and a laid-back style, Play Dead! is a delightful romp through a series of increasingly strange supernatural encounters. It’s a more adult approach to a classic kids’ cartoon formula and has a lot of promise for new episodes in the future.

Get episodes one and two on itch.io.

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