Harold Halibut's opening cinematic is nostalgic if you were lucky enough to observe the claymation renaissance of the late '90s and '00s with shows like Wallace and Gromit, Rex the Runt, and Shaun the Sheep. But then the cutscene ends and nostalgia is swept away by astonishment, as you realize the handmade aesthetic continues seamlessly into the gameplay, almost like you're remote-controlling real-life figurines in a massive, compartmental set piece.
There's a lot going on in Harold Halibut, and the hour I spent playing the game for this hands-on preview gave me more questions than answers. You play as the titular Mr. Halibut, a lab assistant to Jeanne Mareaux, lead scientist on a massive spaceship submerged in an alien ocean. Mareaux wants to find a better home for the ship's inhabitants, and your goal at the start of the game is to find her some sort of space rock she needs to fuel the ship, but no one aboard the ship can be bothered to help you out.
Stepping out of the lab and into an elevator-like tube that fills with water and shuttles me to another area, I'm immediately distracted by a man berating a child in the middle of a hallway. I interact with the man and choose to defend the child, and the man launches into a crazed, unintelligible tirade about, I think, how I should mind my own business. Harold, as confused as I am watching the scene, is basically like, 'whoa, man. Chill,' and then walks off.
Harold Hali-butt of the joke
OK, back to finding that space rock. There's a strip mall-like hub within the ship that has a diner, a clothing store, an arcade, and some other shops. Walking into the clothing store, my playthrough is again hijacked by a bizarre commercial for some sportswear followed by a mandatory demo for an indoor snow-skiing simulator. I step into the stationary skis, the wind blows from an attached machine to simulate movement, I fall on my ass, and then I leave the store. "Be skiing ya," the shop owner puns. As far as I know, there's no other possible outcome at this point in the story. So… what about that space rock?
Later, I'm tasked with mediating an argument between partners, but in doing so I'm asked to take apart a 3D printer to figure out why it isn't working. After tediously removing a handful of screws from the back of the printer, I stick my screwdriver into the machine and get dealt an electric shock that sends Harold reeling. The person who asked me to fix the 3D printer enjoys a hearty laugh at my expense, so I ask if the 3D printer really needed fixing in the first place. "Maaaaybeeeee," they reply. What in god's name is happening, I ask myself.
Just before my preview session ends, the space rock for which I had labored through so many strange, often humiliating distractions, is stolen. You'd think I'd be frustrated, not only that a thief is on the loose with the key to escaping my underwater prison, but that so many of my fellow neighbors see it fit to horse around and play pranks on me while I desperately fight for a better life for their ungrateful asses. But really I was just disappointed that my time with Harold Halibut had come to an end.
Don't wake me up
Again, I was only blessed with about an hour of this wonderfully unique game, but in that time I did almost nothing aside from wander around a city-sized ship and talk to people. Movement is a little clunky and there are some awkward animations, and yet I enjoyed every minute of my time with Harold Halibut. I'd only interacted with a few characters for a few minutes each, but I was desperate to learn more about them. That's mostly thanks to smart writing that gives every character a distinct personality and plenty of hilariously confounding things to say. At first, the little clay people were obstacles to my goal of finding that space rock, but by the end, they were the main attraction. It's the friends we meet along the way... or something like that.
It also can't be overstated what a treat it is just to look at Harold Halibut in motion. During the Future Games Show, the developers explained some of the processes behind creating such a one-of-a-kind aesthetic, and it's a fascinating watch, but it doesn't make playing the game any less magical. If I hadn't taken notes during the demo, I might question whether I actually played a game or simply woke up from a melatonin-induced fever dream, but I'm happy to know Harold Halibut really exists, and that according to developer Slow Bros., it's coming "soonish."