Ghost stories elicit a special sort of fascination. Whether it’s a creepy tale told around a campfire or a tour of a (supposedly) haunted house, the concept of spirits beyond the grave is a riveting one. Other stories like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol or even the Ghostbusters movies show that ghosts don’t necessarily need to be frightening to be intriguing. Some ghosts are even portrayed as a friendly presence remaining behind to help the living. Haunted, the latest offering from Deck13, stars a young girl named Mary who discovers she has the ability to see and hear ghosts, who fortunately seem to stem more from this latter spectral category. The spirits she meets do everything from helping her pass obstacles to offering clues to puzzles and providing comic relief. They’re better at some of these tasks than others, but successful or not, they add a fun and unique element to what would otherwise be a fairly typical adventure.
The game begins in 1800s London when Mary hears her sister, Emily, pleading for help. This wouldn’t be an unusual occurrence, except for the fact that Emily has been missing for over a year, presumed dead, and is nowhere to be seen when Mary hears her voice. In her search for her sister, Mary is attacked by wild animals that knock her unconscious. There she is found by Ethan, a local handyman of sorts, who takes her back to his employer, a prudish and cold lady named Professor Ashcroft. Apparently one of Ethan’s duties is to provide the professor with fresh dead bodies for the strange experiments she is conducting. Naturally, Ashcroft is far from pleased when she begins cutting into the body and discovers that Mary is far from being a corpse.
Although Mary escapes the near-dissection with little more than a scar, her situation is far from bright. Ethan and Professor Ashcroft are every bit as friendly and hospitable as two people who regularly collect cadavers are expected to be, and Ethan is soon sent to find his axe to “finish the job”. While searching the room for a way out, Mary comes across her sister’s pendant, suggesting that these strange people are perhaps linked to her sister’s recent cries for help. She also manages to free a short, friendly spectral pirate named Oscar, who helps her realize that she somehow has the gift to see and communicate with spirits.
Oscar and Mary then set out into the city to find a mysterious oracle called “the Senate”, whom Oscar asserts will be able to help in their search for Emily. This is only the first stop on a long journey which takes them throughout London and on to Scotland by train, with a detour to Transylvania before they’re through. Along the way, Mary meets more ghosts who join her in the hunt for her sister, including historical figures like William Wallace and Confucius (although their ghostly personas are not nearly the same as history remembers them). Always two steps behind or ahead are the conniving Ethan and Ashcroft, who now seem to have sinister plans for both Mary and Emily.
Each ghost has a special power or ability of some kind to aid Mary in her quest. Oscar, for example, can handle objects that are electrified or simply too hot for Mary to safely touch. William Wallace is extremely strong, but can only manipulate objects that have been "touched by death”. This can be anything from an item involved in the demise of something else, part of a dead body itself, or anything in between. Confucius is able to change his “body” into the form of water or steam, which comes in handy far more often than one would expect. While inventory objects are still prevalent in Haunted and have their own bar at the top of the screen, most of the puzzles involve at least some interaction with these ghostly abilities, which are accessed by using the ghosts themselves like inventory objects, their respective icons stored in a separate bar at the bottom.
It is these abilities that really set Haunted apart from most adventures. Other than the use of your ghostly companions, the interface is fairly typical. You’ll guide Mary through a variety of locations, each of which has a number of hotspots. Moving the cursor over these spots changes it into an examine, pick up, interact, or talk icon, or a door to exit the location. Clicking an inventory item or ghost icon allows you to use them on objects in the environment, other inventory, or another ghost. Clicking on an area without a hotspot will cause Mary to walk to that spot, but double-clicking will make her run. These puzzle solving tools are entirely familiar fare, which makes the addition of the ghost bar a welcome sight.
Some of the puzzles Mary encounters are rather simple and straightforward, such as those that employ Oscar's abilities. After a while, every time you come across something either electrified or hot, you’ll find yourself automatically using Oscar on it even if you don’t currently see a reason to. The really interesting puzzles involve William and Confucius. It’s not always obvious when something is “touched by death”, and the game does a great job of giving you the subtle hints you need without hitting you over the head with them. Likewise, Confucius’s ability to change form comes in handy in a variety of completely unexpected ways, though Oscar blatantly gives one away when, in examining an object, he reminds you that “Confucius can change into steam as well as water.” It’s a helpful reminder but completely gives a big part of the puzzle away before you even have a chance to begin working it out for yourself.
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.
Haunted is a fun and well-balanced adventure that’s highly enjoyable on the surface, but lacks the depth to be truly great.