Adventure Gamers Awards
Horror runs a wide gamut, from the goriest, most blood-curdling viscera, to nerve-rending jump scares, to slow burns and edge-of-your-seat tension, and everything in between. The Charnel House Trilogy, by Owl Cave, falls squarely on one extreme of this scale: More Poe than Lovecraft, it absolutely smacks of classic gothic horror. Presented as a fairly normal slice of adventure narrative, it throws the occasional subtle curve ball to remind you that not all is what it seems. While not rating high on the modern Terror Meter, this surprisingly short and easy, low-res point-and-clicker is nonetheless capable of a feat many games strive for: to present a digital world that at once feels believable, even as belief-defying things happen around you.
A trilogy in name rather than in practice, Charnel House is more like one game split into three acts. You’ll jump between two main characters from act to act, but there’s a common setting, timeline, and supporting cast to tie it all together. Attempting to live the newly-single New York life after a messy breakup with her boyfriend, Alex Davenport decides to pull up stakes after some bad news concerning her ailing father, and heads to the train station to catch the next ride headed out of town. Armed with only a duffel bag, she meets Dr. Harold Lang on the station platform, both awaiting the same train. The two don’t know it yet, but their voyage will be anything but ordinary, and their arrival all but certain.
Each of Charnel House’s three acts gets progressively longer, with the first one clocking in at a generous 30 minutes of 2-3 hours in total. Taking place almost entirely at one location – inside Alex’s meager NYC apartment – the act introduces us to the mechanics and sets up many of the game’s main characters while leaving the narrative purposely vague, to be fleshed out more later on. It also includes a couple of interesting and unnerving twists, which set the stage for what is to come. Through a recorded voicemail message we get a glimpse into the strained dynamic between Alex, her sick father and estranged mother, and a desktop wallpaper photograph introduces us to her ex-boyfriend Gavin (whose face has been violently scratched out).
After some basic puzzle-solving and getting used to the controls (left-click to interact, right to examine), the first act, titled “Inhale”, soon nears its end. As Alex arrives at the train station, you are reminded that not everything is as it seems. The train attendant, a portly and seemingly friendly fellow, ushers the travelers on board, busying himself with a luggage cart left behind on the platform. As he amiably mumbles to himself, a crow flutters by and lands on his shoulder. What happens next is so sudden and unexpected that it made me sit up straighter as a chill ran down my spine, not least because of the absent-minded casualness it was performed with, an event no more out of the ordinary than tying your shoelaces or brushing your teeth. It’s eerie, unsettling moments like this – an out-of-place reaction, an off-putting remark slipped nonchalantly into conversation, an act of unexpected violence – that really draw the eye and let us know that anything can happen, at any time. And as the game draws on, it does so with increasing regularity.
“Sepulchre” and “Exhale”, acts two and three respectively, take place on the actual train itself (which I assume to be the titular Charnel House), with players taking control of Dr. Lang during “Sepulchre” before returning to Alex in the final act. The train’s confined space means you’re restricted to two passenger cars with three cabins each, and the dining car. This represents the entire setting for the remainder of the game, suggesting constant repetition for the duration. However, at some undefined point along its journey (or perhaps even the instant the doomed passengers set foot on it), the train appears to cross some sort of dimensional border between life and death, reality and purgatory, and you’ll never know what to expect when entering a cabin; even re-entering immediately after exiting may present you with a wholly different area than the one you just exited.
Since the train has clearly entered the realm of Anything Goes, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise when Alex and Harold run into people from their past, who have absolutely no business being on board. Luckily, the train’s staff – attendant Don and barkeep Floyd – are there to direct Alex and Harold along as the two discover the train’s secrets. The game provides a string of invisible step-by-step objectives that take you neatly through its narrative, with little chance to get stuck or “derail” along the way. A typical sequence of events may look something like this: Enter cabin, interact/examine/get item, leave cabin, hear a noise/notice a door ajar/talk to Don to find out where to go next, then repeat.
There are a number of inventory-based puzzles to solve along the way, well integrated into the gameplay. Whether finding keys to locked doors, opening cabinets and boxes, or using items on each other within the inventory window, you’re never taken out of the narrative to solve a forced logic puzzle. That being said, the level of challenge is rather low, what with a limited pool of items to choose from and the restricted space of the train; most of the puzzles hardly even register as anything other than pausing for an extra mouse click or two. If you find yourself unable to progress, a quick look into your inventory will often offer a common sense solution. Due to the game’s linearity, chances that you’ve missed an item somewhere along the line and must now search for it are also rather low.Continued on the next page...
What our readers think of The Charnel House Trilogy
Posted by itseme on Dec 26, 2016
okay but flawed
some good moments, a lot of potential, but not overly satisfying. uneven writing; partly believable and good, partly way too cheesy. uneven voice acting. puzzles - what puzzles? music and graphics are solid. and the undiscounted price is too high. the first...