With more and more modern adventure games exorcising the ghosts of puzzling past, once again we stepped out of our genre comfort zone in search of mind-bending challenge... and landed right smack dab in a pair of haunted houses. Surprisingly, the star power of Neil Gaiman's Wayward Manor (developed by The Odd Gentlemen, the team behind the upcoming King's Quest revival) can't hold a ritualistic candle to The Phantom PI Mission Apparition, by husband-and-wife team Tim and Cathy Miller. But even with Halloween behind us, both may just scratch the seasonal itch for some paranormal puzzle-solving.
Perhaps Neil Gaiman isn’t going to become the king of all media after all. Although the accomplished British writer of the Vertigo comic book The Sandman (among others) has had astonishing success as a best-selling fantasy novelist with books such as American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, as well as film credits which include Coraline and Stardust, his first foray into video game entertainment isn’t nearly as auspicious.
Gaiman has teamed up with The Odd Gentlemen, the developers of critical darling The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, to create Wayward Manor, a disappointingly amateurish puzzler that offers very little to recommend it.
The premise of the game sounds promising enough – you play as a ghostly spirit haunting a 1920s Victorian mansion, attempting to scare away the obnoxious Budd family which has taken residence within your manor. Even better, Gaiman voices the manor itself, providing wonderful exposition and his own inspired prose. Unfortunately, Wayward Manor neither lives up to its interesting premise as a game nor narratively to Gaiman’s other fantastical yarns.
Although there is a story weaving its way through Wayward Manor, the game is primarily a puzzler. It is divided into five chapters, which are further broken down into a number of scenes that occur within a different room of the manor. In each of these scenes, you will encounter one of nine members of the Budd family and will have to discover how to frighten each enough that they will flee your home.
As an invisible (even to yourself) ghost, you don’t have a lot of agency beyond being able to interact with a number of random objects from a partially overhead view. You can push over bottles of poison, open a window to create a gust of wind, and even activate a mousetrap. You do so by hovering your spectral pointer over and clicking on the object that you would like to activate. As you poltergeist scares for the Budd member you’re currently tormenting, you get access to more interactive items, but only a very, very limited few are compelling. Perhaps the object I enjoyed the most was a picture of a sailor, which you can possess to have him burst out of his canvas to wave a ghostly sword.
The characters you need to spook have their own quirks and eccentricities to exploit. For instance, two of the family’s children, Patience and Fortitude, have a penchant for sweets and you’ll need to use their gluttony against them. As a pair, the duo doesn’t scare easily, but you can offer a lollipop to bait and separate one of them to make them easier to scare. Another character is the stereotypical English big-game hunter (complete with monocle and pith helmet) who has an itchy trigger finger on his ubiquitous crossbow. Finding a way to creatively re-direct his crossbow shots and exploit his past fears is necessary to frighten him and advance the story.
The game’s main challenge is determining how to manipulate objects in the room cooperatively to create effective scares, but the puzzles are uninspired, unchallenging, and often extremely obtuse. I solved almost all the puzzles in the early part of the game just by clicking on items randomly with very little thought to how they worked. Wayward Manor does a remarkably poor job of allowing you to understand how items work – it wasn’t until the end of the game that I realized I had been inadvertently spiking the Budd family patriarch’s drink to make him dance (which I had thought was completely arbitrary to that point).
Some of the items are almost impossibly difficult to actually discern – a strange, grinning pink doll seems to vomit on fancy dresses and ruins them. In addition, there is no effort given to making the house feel like an actual manor. There are barrels of dynamite throughout the home, poison bottles perched precariously (and inexplicably) on rafters, and mice have their own trapdoors to enter a room.
After you scare each member of the Budd clan five times, they will flee the current room, and you will have cleared another area of the mansion. While the puzzles do become more challenging as you get closer to the conclusion, not a single room took me more than five minutes to complete. The entire game is easily completed in under two hours.
One of the bright spots is that because there are multiple ways to scare your marks, the game offers you a number of challenges if you would like to repeat the scene (which you can easily do from the game’s main menu). Challenges might include scaring a character without breaking a bottle, setting particular pieces of furniture on fire, or creating multiple chain reaction explosions with the dynamite. If the puzzles were a little less arbitrary and confusing, this replay feature to discover different ways to complete a scene might be more attractive.
Along with the disappointing gameplay, the visual style of Wayward Manor is also rather poor. Even for an independent game, Manor’s graphics look more like a student-made project in Unity than a professional, polished product. The game feels oddly derivative of the cartoon aesthetic of Tim Schafer’s Psychonauts, but without any of that game’s charm. While the animations can be somewhat whimsical, the lack of details or discernible expressions on the bland cartoon characters keeps them as lifeless and uninteresting as the objects in the room – in fact, they simply feel like objects to exploit in order to move the story to its conclusion. There were also a number of visual bugs in the original release, though subsequent patch updates may have addressed such problems. During my playthrough, I saw characters walk through furniture, a barrel become trapped in the floor, and two Budd members get stuck trying to exit a room (thankfully, only one of these bugs necessitated replaying through the scene).
Although Wayward Manor is mostly a puzzler, there is a loose story being told throughout the experience. There’s a little more to the manor than you realize at the beginning, and quite a bit more about one of its central tenants – the revelation of the game’s villain is an interesting surprise and provides some thematic tension. However, it’s nearly impossible to judge Wayward Manor without considering Gaiman’s literary pedigree, and the game’s comedic horror tale simply isn’t on the same level as the rest of his work. Like the gameplay and visual style, it feels like the work of an amateur, which is a disheartening surprise.
The one element I did enjoy in Wayward Manor was its music and its use of aural cues. It’s not surprising the game’s soundtrack is available for purchase directly from The Odd Gentlemen. Most of the score employs classical instruments such as a haunting violin to set the Victorian gothic mood, although a number of instruments, including tuba and an accordion, and symphonic elements are used creatively and effectively to complement moments of humor and tension.
I was very much looking forward to playing Wayward Manor because I’ve always been astonished by Gaiman’s creative perspectives in his stories of the weird and fantastic, as well as his ability to move so deftly into new mediums. That’s what makes this game such a resounding disappointment – it’s not only a technical failure, but also an artistic one. I certainly hope Gaiman will make another attempt at translating his imagination to the interactive, digital world and can learn a number of lessons from this game’s failure. (I also hope The Odd Gentlemen continue their experiments in finding innovative ways of letting us play with new fictions). Wayward Manor, however, is an unsatisfying experience that should scare off all but the morbidly curious.Continued on the next page...