I didn’t grow up in Middle America in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but I’m starting to feel like I did. It’s a setting that’s absolutely everywhere. Thanks to Stranger Things, Super 8, IT Chapter One and Two and so many more before them (much of Stephen King or Steven Spielberg’s output, for example), I know that it was a time of bad hair, riding together on BMXs and being attacked by supernatural entities from other worlds.
The Prince of Landis isn’t explicit about when it’s set, but we can hazard a guess. The houses have CRT TVs everywhere, VHS tapes and cassettes. And true to form, you play a teenager, Evan, who has encountered a creature from another world. A UFO has crashed in the backwoods by his house, and you have made contact with a terrifying, trilobyte-looking alien-dude. The alien wants to get off our planet, but needs ‘Source’ – living material – and various components for his ship. So, you become his little helper.
It’s both familiar and a little bit – uh – alien. Instead of fighting or befriending the alien, you’re doing its dirty work. It’s less IT or E.T. and more Goodfellas, as you’re doing terrible things to get in the good graces of the self-named ‘Guest’. It’s never quite clear whether Evan is doing this so the alien won’t eat him, or because he finally has an opportunity to be useful to someone, as well as turn the tables on the kids who bully him. That ambiguity works really well, and it’s a relationship that feels authentic but plenty wrong. From the moment The Prince of Landis starts, with Evan being given a black-eye by bully Jonah, you can see where it is heading.
This story plays out in a kind of Earthbound, bird’s eye view. You’re given the run of your hometown, with roughly twenty independent screens to explore. There’s the school, your home, a couple of shops on a dilapidated high street and a few areas in between. The Prince of Landis won’t win awards for its pixel art, but we found it to be pretty effective; there’s a messy, rundown feeling to the town, with a lot of detail in the environments to help convey that. It really does feel like a dead-end. And we should note that this is very much an adult experience, with blood, guts and period-appropriate cussing.
The Prince of Landis is effectively a point and click adventure, as you scoot about, trying to find the shopping list of things that the ‘Guest’ wants. There really isn’t much more complexity to The Prince of Landis than finding something on the alien’s perverted shopping list. If it wants non-magnetic metal, then it probably wants aluminium, and there’s a ton of it at your loser dad’s house in the form of empty beer cans. If it wants zinc, then you’ll need some older pipes from a neighbour’s pipe organ. There’s often no difficulty in grabbing them – Evan is a master of the five-finger discount – you just need to find them.
The lack of complexity leaves a gaping hole in the middle of The Prince of Landis, and the developer knows it. There’s no combat, survival horror, puzzles or anything to really do, other than find items on a list. In an effort to try to make things more difficult, The Prince of Landis breaks some graphic adventure golden rules. Items that you couldn’t pick up before can suddenly be picked up. Items are dropped down in places you have already explored, but small, barely a few pixels. It feels like point-and-click dirty tricks.
It means the game contorts itself into illogical shapes: the ‘Guest’ wants a small meal, so you try to pick up a chicken, which Evan is outraged by. This is a neighbour’s chicken that you’ve loved for years – how could you? When the ‘Guest’ wants a larger meal, you pick it up without question. You have to be willing to interact with the same parts of the game, multiple times, just because The Prince of Landis has decided that it’s suddenly useful.
And without anything meaningful to do, The Prince of Landis is exceptionally short. It’s probably ninety minutes long, padded out by revisiting old locations. A full game-walkthrough video is no more than twenty minutes. That’s never a bad thing on its own, but when the game is a series of shopping lists and only two meaningful story beats (one of them telegraphed from the very opening scene), it feels too slight, and a missed opportunity considering the successful tension in the material.
We care because The Prince of Landis is so successful as a mood piece. Evan’s hometown feels real, probably dredged from the designer’s own experiences. The wild mismatch between Evan and the ‘Guest’ makes every interaction threatening, and the doomy music makes these moments tense. And there’s a rising tide, a sense of something bad coming.
The Prince of Landis is far more successful as a story than it is a game. It’s a take on the ‘80s-kids-find-something-supernatural’ template, but pushes it in a lonely, unsettling direction that also manages to feel original.
Within that world, it can’t find you something interesting to do. We’ve all imagined what it would be like to make first contact with an alien species. We probably didn’t imagine them handing over a shopping list and telling us to get to it.
You can buy The Prince of Landis from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S