Moonlighters Preview: Heists and Highballs

 

Unlike at GDC, where I grappled with a number of awesome indie games, E3 2012 was mostly about the big guns. When I did manage to sneak away to Indiecade, one game in particular caught my eye: Moonlighters.

Designed by two recent graduates of the USC Interactive Media MFA program, Teddy Diefenbach and Mike Sennott, the title is a stylish 50′s romp. Inspired by movies like the original Ocean’s Eleven, the Action/RPG hybrid centers around a group of dissipated, Rat Pack-style actors who use their on-camera experience to pull off real-world heists.

Players will control a variety of wisecracking archetypes, including the hard-drinking leading man, the square-jawed sidekick, the acrobatic safecracker and, of course, the femme fatale. At the beginning of a mission, you select characters for various roles in the robbery, and the game proceeds to cut back and forth between the preliminary planning and the heist itself. Diefenbach wrote his master’s thesis on “adaptive narrative systems,” so expect the choices you make in conversation and robbery-planning to have far-reaching effects.

Gameplay itself is raw and abstracted — mostly a matter of steering cartoonish sprites around and mashing buttons to avoid guards — but the game succeeds thanks to its immaculate style. The art direction is dripping with Eisenhower-era gloss, and the voice acting is perfectly hard-boiled — thanks to the efforts of Diefenbach’s actress wife and her helpful friends, according to Sennott. The pair also took advantage of connections within USC’s vaunted film school to find a cinematic composer, who provided a score full of propulsive jazz that goes wild at all the right moments.

Known collectively as Rad Dragon, the two developers are currently looking for a publisher. Moonlighters, still unfinished, is likely slated for XBOX Live and PSN. Keep an eye on the official site for updates.

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