Great graphics; clever puzzle design with an engaging ghostly aspect; solid voice acting.
Shallow characters; occasional glitches; tries to be funny but seldom succeeds.
3.5 stars: "A solid adventure that is generally enjoyable, though it lacks enough polish or ambition to recommend without caution."
Haunted is a fun and well-balanced adventure that’s highly enjoyable on the surface, but lacks the depth to be truly great.
The game often struggles with this balance of offering the clues you need so a solution doesn’t seem to be out of the blue and keeping you in the dark just enough for the obstacles to be challenging. It succeeds for the most part, but it tends to stray a little too far into the “too easy” category. One later addition to the menagerie of Mary’s specters has the ability to translate anything. Haunted uses this ability in a variety of ways more creatively than simply giving you a piece of paper in another language, but whenever it happens Mary will say something along the lines of “It’s like a foreign language to me”, which is kind of a dead giveaway.
The challenge can be further influenced by choosing one of three “difficulty” levels when you start a new game (or adjusted at any point throughout). The easiest level allows you to use both a hotspot finder and an integrated hint system. The medium level removes the hint system, while the hardest removes the hotspot highlighter as well, though it’s hard to recommend doing that. Haunted's screens are often filled with objects, only some of which are usable, and many hotspots can be very hard to find without help. For those who play on the easiest setting, the hint system works quite nicely. When selected, Mary will start a conversation with Oscar about your obstacle of choice, though the options don't distinguish which puzzles you can solve yet from those you can't. Oscar will never fully give away what to do, even if you listen to all his hints, but the solution should be pretty obvious nevertheless.
Where Haunted fell a little flat for me was in the writing. Despite the somewhat grisly premise, this is a fairly comical adventure where even the axe-wielding Ethan is more of a farcical buffoon than a real threat. In many of the settings, while exploring the environment your ghostly companions are gathered nearby and chatting it up, often with an attempt at humor. Two of the ghosts arrive so late in the story that there’s barely any time to delve their personalities at all, but even the ones that accompany you longer feel shallow. There’s plenty of playful banter, particularly between Oscar and William, but it never really seems to go anywhere or flesh out the characters. At one point, William suffers from a lack of confidence and while the other ghosts all attempt to cheer him up, the whole scene feels forced. Even Mary doesn’t seem to have all that much depth. She’s a runaway girl who feels responsible for whatever happened to Emily in the past and wants desperately to save her sister, but that’s about it. It’s not that the characters are unlikeable; they just feel a little hollow. It doesn’t help that their jokes tend to fall just as flat as the characters who tell them.
While the characters lack much substance through dialogue, they make up for it somewhat in the visuals. Haunted has some beautiful 3D graphics, particularly with regard to the characters themselves. Oscar’s tiny stature and overly stereotypical pirate hat creates a fun contrast to William’s hulking frame and Scottish garb. The presentation has a cartoonish visual style that fits well with the overall humorous vibe, and each of the ghosts has a greenish glow and translucency that works really well in establishing the appropriate atmosphere. There’s a lot of detail in most locations, from a church cemetery to a dilapidated theater to a gypsy campsite, and the game provides a wide variety of visual stimulation. This effect isn’t perfect: the fact that every scene save one occurs at night limits the color palette somewhat, and that lone daylight location is hampered by clearly two-dimensional flora. Overall, however, the look is quite engaging, and reminded me more than once of Disneyland’s "The Haunted Mansion", though with a lot more green.
The final aspect of Haunted that hampered my experience was the unfortunate presence of bugs and errors. Occasionally a character’s spoken line gets cut off a syllable before reaching the end. One character’s conversation choices don’t reflect events that have literally just happened. A girl I was talking to floated four feet in the air mid-conversation and stayed there until the chat was finished. The list goes on. None of these errors are even remotely game-breaking, and individually would be barely noteworthy. But the sheer consistency of these bugs throughout the game gives the whole presentation an unavoidable feeling of sloppiness.
It’s surprising that these rough edges exist, because the rest of the game feels very polished. Haunted has a very nice musical score, which sets the mood of this dark but comical game rather well. The lilting tones evoke the same kind of magical lightheartedness as the Harry Potter soundtrack, one that's more about the fun than danger, though the music does ramp up a bit during the game’s more intense moments. And while the dialogue doesn't do the performances full justice, I have no such issues with the actors who spoke it. From William’s Scottish brogue to Confucius’s somewhat exaggerated Chinese accent (starting almost every sentence with “Confucius says…”), each character is voiced very nicely, as distinctive as their vastly different appearances.
Over the course of its 6-8 hours or so, Haunted proves to be a typical adventure game that manages to stand apart from the crowd with its clever use of ghosts. As integral as they may be in overcoming obstacles, and as pretty as they are to look at, they sadly aren’t written deeply enough to be truly interesting characters. But while Haunted can’t promise too many moving moments or any serious laughs, it does provide a fairly engaging story with some nicely balanced puzzle design. Even the handful of bugs don’t detract from what is, at its core, a very solid adventure with beautiful visuals and excellent voice acting. If you’re a fan of Deck13, or even a fan of ghosts in general, you could do a lot worse than to traipse around Europe with Mary and her motley crew.
|United States||December 5 2012||Viva Media|