I’m from London. "But where are you really from?" London. I was born and raised there, but my complexion and facial hair suggest otherwise. Being separated from your ancestral culture can feel strange. I eat at traditional Egyptian food stalls and cafes as often as I can because I honestly don't know what traditional Egyptian food is. I'm embarrassed to tell the staff that, despite my looks, I don't speak any Arabic. I would love the chance to explore and discover my home country for myself, but when I went to Egypt I was treated like a tourist, because, essentially, I was. Midautumn captures the strangeness of discovering one's own home without ever exoticising it.
Midautumn is a pixel-art roguelite that doesn’t waste any time. It throws some fantastically written exposition in your face and then chucks you into the spirit world to fight ghosts, demons, or something else. Like someone in an Egyptian cafe who doesn't know what to call any of the food, I’m not entirely sure what they are. You’ve had to move in with your grandma, and the only demand she makes of you is that you must defend the land from the monsters that lurk within the spirit world below her cosy town of Nambo Quay, California, founded by Chinese immigrants during the Gold Rush. It's a game about battling spirits, fighting gentrification, and reconnecting with one's ancestry.
The spirit world levels that make up the game's dungeon crawler segments glow with a vicious purple that beautifully complements the photonegative portrait of your character, Robin, while simultaneously conveying the danger that lurks within. The combat is far more complicated than I expected, but fortunately, Robin is guided through this unfamiliar land by a friendly Terracotta Warrior – a key piece of Chinese history – acting as your instructor during your first day on the job as guardian of the mortal realms. Just as a friendly regular in a cafe recommends the best dishes to a confused looking Londoner, the Terracotta Warrior helps you through the tutorial and introduces you to Midautumn's basics.
I’m quite proud to say that I reached the boss on my first run, but then I got my arse thoroughly handed to me. Remember that complexity I mentioned? Well, Robin can’t attack on their own. Instead, they have to collect and redirect ranged attacks fired at them by using the Lunar Staff their grandma passed down to them – a piece of their shared ancestral history. The game encourages Robin to watch and learn, showing them this world is different from the one they’ve left behind. At first, it seems that Robin is invincible, but physical attacks still hurt. Also, if Robin gets hit while they have some Lunar Blood on them, or if they let it stagnate for more than five seconds, Lunar Rot sets in. This causes recoil damage every time you attack, essentially putting your run on a timer towards inevitable death. It is possible to purge this Rot occasionally, but it will continue to gnaw away at your health until it’s been fully cleansed.
The harsh five-second time limit and need to avoid being hit while carrying energy turns Midautumn into a sort of bullet hell rhythm experience. I was either scrambling to get hit once so I could lob a few weak attacks and thin the crowd, or ducking and weaving to collect energy and finish everything off with one big blast. This frenetic and fresh mechanic works as a fantastic juxtaposition to the cutesy aesthetic of the sedentary beach town above.
This forces you to think differently about combat, playing active defence, always remaining in motion but unable to simply slice through your foes. Running into bulbous, floating orbs of Lunar Blood will build attack energy, and these are essential when it comes to dishing out major damage.
Once the Lunar Rot killed my first run, Robin awoke in their bed and stepped outside to be greeted by Grandma, a warm and humorously blunt woman like so many elders we’re accustomed to in reality. She has a chat with Robin, offers them some Zhongzhi, and then you're able to explore the town at your leisure. At the moment, there's not much on show, save for a shop selling bubble tea, a town square, and a shrine, but the pixel-art here is absolutely gorgeous and gives the town a retro charm. Perfect for a game that elicits feelings of rediscovering one's heritage.
The thread that intertwines the wholesome seaside town with the hellish spirit world below is the vibrant characters. With a narrative designed by Kotaku staff writer and Signs of the Sojourner developer Sisi Jiang, there is a tremendous personality to the brilliantly drawn portraits of all the denizens of Nambo Quay and the spirit world. Robin’s far-too-chill-about-magic-and-monsters Grandma is a brilliant example of a woman who understands where she's from and what her world is all about. Her comfort and ease when talking about the spirit world contrasts wonderfully with Robin's unfamiliarity. She represents the older immigrants who have not yet forgotten their heritage, unlike those of us born away from it. Those in the spirit world are also full of life. Two feuding spirit siblings offer you a choice of upgrades during your trips down into the depths, and the more you encounter them, the more you learn of their familial rivalry. A nervous shopkeeper has set up a store in the depths and is desperate for friends and customers. Everyone I met had me wanting to talk to them again and again with each new run.
Midautumn actively encourages us to learn about its world, too. There’s a Journal to read – an encyclopedia of characters, locations, and artifacts – but unlike other games that allow you to ignore their lore, Midautumn hides Robin’s upgrades within the words of the Journal. This is a game about the Asian diaspora, so having Robin become more powerful as they learn about the world and culture of Midautumn is an apt metaphor for those of us who live away from our ancestral homelands yet strive to remain a part of our shared traditions.
The demo obviously doesn’t have all the content the final game will have, and there are a few bugs to be found, but the spirit of Midautumn beautifully shines through. Elements of Chinese culture such as the food, tea, the Terracotta Warrior, each character having their zodiac sign appear by their name, and a memorial to the Chinese railroad workers who founded the town are found throughout the game and add a wonderful character and sense of place without ever feeling Orientalist – which is what happens when you have several Asian developers creating a game about their own culture. As an Arab in this industry, it warms my heart to see a game like Midautumn being made so well. Just as Robin slowly uncovers the wonders of their history, I hope to one day know what all the food laid out before me is called.
Midautumn's Kickstarter campaign has just gone live, so you can support the development of the game if you're excited to play it.