The Haunting of Willow Hill
After the sighting of a ghostly apparition terrorizes the town of Willow Hill, private investigator Myles Winter is called to the local cemetery to solve a mystery that the police refuse to acknowledge. So begins The Haunting of Willow Hill, a short and simple, first-person mobile murder mystery. It’s not an attractive, long, or challenging game, but it’s an enjoyable enough, nostalgic-filled experience despite some awkward design choices.
Due to the game’s rather straightforward gameplay and minimal level of difficulty, Willow Hill moves fast enough to hold your attention throughout its familiar whodunit narrative structure and formulaic point-and-tap scenarios. Each objective is rather simple, requiring only a small handful of steps to accomplish a task, such as throwing out trash or using a ladder to climb a tree, but this simplistic approach allows the scenes to change frequently and the story to move briskly enough to build up some momentum. Unfortunately, hindering that momentum are too many awkward, back-and-forth fetch quests between poorly-placed and sometimes inappropriately-attired characters, such as the lone female witness standing in the middle of a modern-day courtyard adorned in warrior princess armor without any provided context.
The character models are fairly lifeless, and the environments themselves are sparsely filled and don’t really cover a whole lot of ground, taking place primarily around a single graveyard and the surrounding area. Oddly, the animation gradually becomes more and more simplistic, to the point that the ending action sequence had me laughing in hysterics with its over-the-top campiness and minimalist execution.
Within the game’s limited areas you’ll find basic environment/inventory combination puzzles. They help form a short and simple murder mystery that will have you breaking into tombs, crawling into secret passages, and sneaking into musty basements cellars to find clues about whoever is responsible for the ghostly appearances in the graveyard. Before long, the stakes are raised when someone is found murdered, launching a suspect chase through and around the cemetery that entangles local legends and community conspiracies.
There are a couple of cheap jump scares, but ultimately this is more of a whodunit than ghost story. The game primarily has you guessing who the suspect is as you venture through its detective-style mystery, delivered through voiceless, text-based dialogue. The story twists and turns and delivers high on the suspense, reminiscent of an Agatha Christie or Stephen King novel. This is further re-enforced by a fairly solid soundtrack made up of atmospheric piano and synthesizer sounds that craft a soft, creepy tone as the story slowly becomes darker and darker.
The interface is exactly what you would expect of a fully-navigational, first-person mobile adventure, with movement and observation assigned to their own virtual thumbsticks on the left and right sides of the screen. Tapping a red knapsack in the top right accesses an inventory, where you can equip any object and then attempt to combine it with any other environmental object you tap on-screen.
Even with all its limitations – or perhaps because of them – the game manages to be something of a charming guilty pleasure. Somehow its dated visuals, cheesy story, and rudimentary puzzle design actually work in its favor, since The Haunting of Willow Hill seems to have been designed as a quirky tribute to the campy PC murder mysteries of a bygone era. Available for both iPhone and iPad, there’s nothing that will wow you from an aesthetic or gameplay perspective, but it can still be a fun way to spend an hour or two late one night.
Escape the Hellevator!
From the very first time the title screen loads, it’s clear that Fezziwig’s Escape the Hellevator! is a tongue-in-cheek affair inspired by schmaltzy pulp serials of cinema’s early years. The game is a short but humorously morose journey through one man’s deathbed judgment. Beyond that, it’s a little difficult to summarize precisely what this game is all about, so let’s start at the beginning.
Escape the Hellevator! belongs squarely in the “Escape the Room” subset of adventure games. The story takes you through a series of locked rooms, and it’s up to you to decipher clues, use inventory items, and solve puzzles to unlock the exit and proceed to the next room. As such, there is little-to-no movement; you simply spin around your own axis in a 360-degree circle to see all areas of the room.
Clarence Ridgeway is having a rough day. On his deathbed, he is in the process of being moved to the emergency room on another floor via the hospital elevator. Right on cue, a strange priest lurking near the elevator doors grabs Clarence’s wrists and peers deep into his soul. Things go from uncomfortable to downright creepy when the priest senses the despicable acts Clarence has committed against his loved ones during the course of his life, and forces him to relive these condemning memories, to Clarence’s great torment.
This is where Escape the Hellevator! shines the brightest, in that it places gamers in some deliciously evil situations. Clarence’s desperate pleas fall on deaf ears as paintings of loved ones change to death masks in his memories, and walls become covered with graffiti encouraging him to “Do it! Do it again!” Whether it’s poisoning his grandma, embezzling funds, or setting fire to a tenement building, Clarence can’t escape the guilt of his past, try as he might.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions and, in this case, smoothly scrolling environments and clear, first-person graphics. Backgrounds are crisp and colorful, and there were only one or two instances where I really didn’t know what object I had just picked up; instead I just termed it a “generic green vegetable” and proceeded on my course (without any problem whatsoever). Inventory items, once picked up, appear in a vertical pane to the left of the screen, and you’ll carry quite a few of them at times (though they are always used within the episode in which you found them).
Clicking an item in the inventory bar brings up a close-up view of the object that can be rotated in three dimensions, which quite often reveals hidden clues or buttons and panels to further manipulate the object. Pinching the screen returns you to the Hellevator once again. The in-game environments themselves are also rich with hotspots to interact with, usually purposefully but sometimes just for twisted fun. I was pleasantly surprised at how much there was to find and do, considering you spend your time in a cramped space with limited movement possibilities.
Puzzle-solving requires a good bit of out-of-the-box thinking, and most episodes have a least one section that stumped me for a good 15-20 minutes at a time. However, help is there for those who need it. An in-game hint button gives some general clues to help steer you in the right direction, though (as I found out first-hand) the hints provided are very roughly based on your progress, and may have absolutely nothing to do with the specific puzzle that has you stumped at the moment. But fear not, for the developers have also provided a handy link to their YouTube channel, accessible right from the game’s main menu screen, which hosts a complete walkthrough video for every segment.
Each of the six episodes represents a stage in Clarence’s life, as he’s about to commit a new heinous deed. Between episodes, the story is told through graphic novel-style panels, depicting Clarence’s continued pleas for mercy to avoid suffering any more feelings of guilt. The art style in these cinematics is photorealistic, similar to the way it was done in Remedy Entertainment’s Max Payne.
Musically, Hellevator is a mixed bag, with only a couple of actual “tunes” – title screen and cinematics – then switching to a creepy background score during regular gameplay. These are further punctuated by scattered background noises, namely the mechanical sounds of the elevator plummeting to its doom and maniacal laughing, presumably by the creepy priest (Clarence certainly has precious little to laugh about). Again, it isn’t anything that’s going to wow you or win you over, but it sets the stage appropriately.
From the ostentatious title screen with its bandstand musical accompaniment to the sinful subject matter, Escape the Hellevator! is an entertaining ride from start to finish, with some moments of sincere head-scratching along the way. The plot is bare bones, but the gameplay, while not exactly deep, does contain some meaty morsels that will sustain your attention for the 2-3 hour journey.Continued on the next page...