As you can tell from the name of the game, we’ve arrived belatedly to Bones of Halloween. This was a ghoulish treat that arrived on the 28th of October, just before Halloween hit, and we’ve rudely taken a few weeks to get to its place in the queue. But we’re here now. We will lazily hold a pumpkin mask up to our face and try to get in the spirit.
Bones of Halloween is a first-person shooter, which you don’t see often in the sub-£5 range. Nor do you see them published regularly by Ratalaika Games. It makes Bones of Halloween something of a curio, then. Unfortunately, we didn’t remain curious for very long.
Rather than a multiplayer FPS, or a campaign-led one, this is more of a horde-mode arena brawler. And that’s not a sequence of arenas: this is a single arena – a haunted cemetery surrounded by trees. Every level, in every mode that Bones of Halloween has to offer, starts in the same way, as you materialise in the middle of a glade with a pistol and the deep desire to stay alive.
That’s a challenge, because the undead are out to get you. From the title, we assumed the undead would be skeletons, but the assailants are actually pumpkin-headed monsters. There are melee pumpkins touting axes; electricity pumpkins who light up the area like a squash-based Thor; others have laser-eyes; and the vast majority wield a range of weapons, from shotguns to their own pistols.
And you kill them. Over and over. A virtue of the enemies being pumpkin-heads is that their noggins are giant, and Bones of Halloween obliges with satisfying critical hits if you hit them. The pumpkins explode and pop with satisfying pyrotechnics, so it always pays off to aim that little bit higher than normal.
An arsenal of weapons are strewn about the forest floor, helpfully highlighted with green flares. Depending on the mode you are playing, you can pick these up for free, or pay for them with the coins that shower out of the pumpkin-heads. Rocket launchers, Mausers, tommy guns and more can be purchased, but they have limited ammo. Ammo crates, again paid for with coins depending on the mode, can also be found to replenish your stocks.
The structure and order of these waves of pumpkin-heads is dependent on the mode you’ve chosen, and Bones of Halloween certainly doesn’t skimp in this area. You will probably want to head to Challenges first, even though they are placed second on the main menu. These conveniently act as a tutorial to the game’s intricacies, the few of them there are, and also take you on a whirlwind tour of the various game modes. It’s an introduction that should have been pushed to the front.
Classic Mode is horde mode that forces you to pay for what you want to use. The guns and ammo crates all cost coins, so you’ll have to get used to the pattern of popping pumpkins and then skittering over to their corpses to collect their coins. The waves escalate, as you would expect, and some of those waves are milestone waves where you get a Fortune card for your troubles. Pick from a selection of cards to find a benefit or curse, with the weighting heavily skewed over to curses. These speed up your enemies, reduce the cash you gain, and increase the cost of guns, among others, because everyone wants to play an FPS where you feel increasingly powerless.
The other modes riff on the mechanics in various gentle ways. Arcade Mode strips away coins completely, so you can Rambo your way through pumpkins with shotguns and rocket launchers without qualms. Hardcore Mode is simply a harder, more punishing and more curse-filled version of Classic, while Money Dripper includes cash but then leeches the coins away from you over time. You have to keep killing and buying and killing again if you want to hold onto your millions. Finally, there’s Explosive Mode, which just hands you a rocket launcher with infinite ammo and then tosses the pumpkins your way. We seem to remember playing something similar in Goldeneye on the N64.
It’s all smoke and mirrors, of course. These are all presented as modes when they could have been a more fully functioning and customisable settings screen, but we’re still happy they are there. Because without them, Bones of Halloween would have been even more threadbare. The Bones in the title is appropriate, because there’s no meat on them at all.
No matter the mode you choose, you’re going to be killing pumpkins and only pumpkins. There’s not much variation or escalation to them, so you better enjoy getting covered in pumpkin gibs. And a single arena is beyond paltry. Considering there are no landmarks in the arena either – just trees to duck behind, and corners to get cornered in – it’s difficult to even label it as an arena.
The modes might attempt to remix matters, but they’re all riffs on the same tune. You are going to be running at pumpkins, chaining headshots and then filling your pockets with coins. At some point you will be surrounded, which means manhandling the impossibly slow turning circle around to face them as you retreat – again, popping off headshots. Attack, retreat, attack, retreat. There might be some split-second management of guns, as you choose whether to hunt for anything other than the shotgun (one of gaming’s all-time worst shotguns).
As you can probably imagine, we grew bored with Bones of Halloween in a matter of minutes. Once we understood that headshots were where it was at, that the modes weren’t too dissimilar from each other, and we’d tried out all the guns, we were running on fumes. We tried to scrape together interest – the Challenges helped to supply some much-needed structure – but came up empty. We were tricked rather than treated.
In a way, Bones of Halloween feels like a dare. What’s the absolute minimum that you could get away with in a first-person shooter? A single enemy, a single arena, and the illusion of game modes. Now, we dare you to launch it. Triple-dare you.
Because Bones of Halloween is as hollow as a carved-out pumpkin. It works (albeit ploddingly), but that’s the best you can say about it. If you want a quickfire 1000 Gamerscore then please, go ahead, but, if you’re at all discerning, then this horde-mode arena shooter should be left out on the step to rot.
You can buy Bones of Halloween from the Xbox Store