SUNSHINE MANOR Review: Proving That 8-Bit Horror Is Still In Style
In his 5 Bloody Knife review, Dyllon Graham calls Sunshine Manor a tight, well-paced thrill ride, with “less is more” gameplay, a quick wit, and a soundtrack that just hits different in all the right ways.
Having been born with a Sega Genesis controller in my hand, raised by the Super Nintendo and ejected just a few years after the meteoric boom of the 16-bit era ensured that I'd be wrapped up in the state-of-the-art technology my parents were keen to adopt as their first gaming consoles than anything before my time. That is to say that 8-bit games were something that I just sort of missed and to this day, I never really feel drawn to them. I’m painting this picture to provide a deeper understanding of my predisposition when sitting down to play Sunshine Manor, an 8-bit horror game published by Hound Picked Games and developed by the two-person team the pixel art game studio Fossil Games. I'd expected to play through it, tolerate it, and go about my day not feeling emphatically one way or another. In wading through that thorough lack of expectation, however, I found that Sunshine Manor is a tight, well-paced thrill ride, with “less is more” gameplay, a quick wit, and a soundtrack that just hits different in all the right ways.
Players will act as Ada MacReady, a bright young girl celebrating Halloween festivities when a dare to knock on the long rotten local rumored-to-be-haunted Aitken House goes awry. After crossing the house's threshold, Ada’s friends are snatched from her side by a shadowy figure. Our heroine, however, remains untouched, fighting back against the creatures within the house with an unknown latent psychic power. Ada must uncover the secrets of both the manor and the demonic realms it parallels, if she wishes to save the captives within. Four minutes of beautiful pixel art and set-up exposition finally relinquish control to the player, allowing you to steer through the dimly lit, top-down isometric setting.
Four minutes of beautiful pixel art and set-up exposition finally relinquish control to the player, allowing you to steer through the dimly lit, top-down isometric setting.
Players will shuffle through the intestines of an old man’s legacy and have to interact with objects, solve puzzles all while surviving light combat encounters to discover the truth. Within just a few minutes of exploring the cavernous house and its contents, I etched out a feel for the primary loop of the game. Find the five spirits trapped in the Aitken House and aid them to finally pass on to the "other side.” To aid them in fully embracing their ethereality, you embark on a retro item relay race: get this thing, to get this thing, to get that thing, to give to this person. It isn’t inherently original and in a lot of games could have been an immediately insufferable mechanic to deal with.
However, Sunshine Manor understood the assignment. The manor is not a tremendously large structure. In fact, traversing the entirety of it takes about two minutes. The fetch-style questing doesn’t ever feel overtly laborious to undergo. Instead, it often challenges your memory of the location itself. A ghost asking me to find them a vinyl record immediately reminded me, “Oh wait, there was a stack of records on a shelf in this room, right?” They are rather small “ah-ha” moments but ones that definitely uplift the game rather than submerging it. Not to mention that actually completing the task for your friendly ghosts allows you to dive into unique demon realms. Think of these realms as dungeons bolted on to the hub world that is the Aitken House, with each realm bringing new grotesque scenery dripping with atmosphere and viscera.
Between item fetchings though, there is a chance to end up encountering the same shadowy figure that took your friends and who is holding the spirits hostage. If you stumble upon the creature while finding your way through the dark, expect a hefty jump scare. This system attempts to keep a player on their toes as they complete their tasks, but the Shadowman is easily dispatched and I only encountered him a handful of times. This was the weakest element of Sunshine Manor. Following the first adrenaline-inducing encounter, I wanted the scares to continue, increasing in variation or frequency, requiring more of my attention and inducing more trepidation. Unfortunately, this didn’t really happen, leaving the scares to be somewhat predictable and far less interesting once deduced.
In addition to the memory puzzles and exploration, the game's protangonist, Ada has two psychic powers to aid in her quest; a speed boost and an AOE attack. These abilities both use the same power gauge, depleting it entirely with each use, giving players a clear choice between fight or flight. Combat is pared down and simple, but highly effective and engaging. Fossil Games took care to develop these mechanics. Attacking isn’t something religiously asked of the player. Even as you traverse the demonic “upside-down” realms of the manor, many of the murderous enemies can be dodged or juked. Rarely are you locked into a mano a mano match to the death with a hulking beast. When you are, it's usually a boss fight where how you attack is fundamentally changed. Instead of haphazardly chipping away at boss health by using a magical attack, you’re often asked to deflect the boss’s attack back at them or dodge their attack entirely to view that the boss has taken damage. I never wished for more abilities. I was satisfied with the variety of ways the abilities I had were put to work. The development team knew how to keep things from entering tedium and executed keeping players hooked almost flawlessly.
Narratively, the game isn’t reinventing any wheels. Children that make dares and pay disproportionately high consequences aren’t really new to the horror genre. It also isn’t necessarily new to have a smart-mouthed child with more integrity and resolve than most adults as the protagonist. Sunshine Manor doesn’t take itself too seriously however and I believe that it's highly aware of the tropes through which it treads and simply means to manipulate those to tell a fun story of its own. For instance, when initially trodding the dim, abyssal halls, my instinct was to examine as many things as I could. Much to my surprise, Ada can interact with anything and everything in the environment, from rusted old cars to grandfather clocks that keep time for nobody. When interacting with an object, Ada often reacts with hilariously flat observations that feel at odds with the eerie nature of her surroundings. This harkened back for me to my days of playing Silent Hill 2 or Resident Evil 2. Whether by intentional design or serendipitous happenstance, it helped me to personally feel more tethered to the game and Ada.
“It’s a table, although it seems that plant has seen better days.” - Ada MacReady
Serendipitous game parallels aside, expect a narrative that is told to you, not crafted by you. Sunshine Manor doesn’t have the complexity of titles like Undertale in their branching narrative paths or decision-making. It’s hilariously cheeky and fun, but players don’t have agency in influencing where the story goes. Trust me when I say, however, that it is a wild and fun ride that kept me grinning from ear to ear.
On the technical side of things, I have few complaints about Sunshine Manor. The controls were simple yet effective for both mouse and keyboard and controller. I played the game on Steam. Let's talk about the music. I wish the soundtrack was on Spotify, so I could add it to my daily rotation. Each individual demonic realm featured breathtaking, 80s synthwave tracks that I adored so much, I purchased the tracks on Steam, which is the only place you can find the soundtrack. Music isn’t the only part of the audio design worth noting. The entire soundscape feels meticulous, going above and beyond to ensure that players feel immersed in the experience regardless of graphical fidelity. Having an 8-bit character’s footfalls echo throughout the rooms and halls they roam was a detail I didn’t know I craved from this style of game. Not to mention the eerie ambiance that attempts to suffocate Ada, every now and then giving way to the anguished, raspy breathing of our unseen villain.
One accessibility feature I do want to take a moment to call out was the “atmospheric captions” toggle. If you’re in the dining hall, you may hear the distant and faint rattling of silverware a few rooms over in the kitchen, but you may not be able to as well. When turned on, this button gives you captions that lend flavor text to subtle happenings that you may miss or be unable to experience otherwise. It’s a small detail with an enormous impact, allowing more players access to the game. While I didn’t need the captions I absolutely recognize the need and applaud the developers at Fossil Games for the inclusion.
Truth be told, I was enthralled from start to finish. While I understand it may not speak to everyone, it definitely reminded me to be more open-minded in the games I’m seeking to experience. Featuring simple combat with dimensions of implementation, a cheeky narrative that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and a killer soundtrack, Sunshine Manor is a passion project that perfectly demonstrates how enjoyable a short and simple gaming experience can be.
Play Sunshine Manor now available on Steam!