Adventure Gamers Awards
Lester Barnard is a child kidnapped on his way to school in Candlewood, USA, in the early 20th century. He awakes in a seemingly abandoned house and must now set out to escape, as well as find out why he has been taken prisoner. In House of Caravan, Rosebud Games have developed an eerie “escape the room” variation that feels like a cross between Gone Home and Edgar Allan Poe, except not nearly as good as either. The slick 3D graphics help establish an unsettling atmosphere and the puzzles provide a nice distraction, but you’ll spend much of your time in both literal and figurative darkness, lacking empathy for any of the characters or any investment in a meager background story.
House of Caravan takes place over the course of a single night, during which players take control of Lester. The house has more than 10 rooms to unlock and explore, and 14 letters to find that provide more detail about why Lester was captured. The documents have some proofreading errors but not much depth, presenting only the bare bones of what brought this situation about, along with Lester’s connection with the owners of the house. Each letter is no longer than a paragraph or so and fails to offer any real insight into the secondary characters, including Lester's mother, Mr. and Mrs. Caravan (a couple unknown to Lester), and their butler. With no journals or conversations to further flesh any of them out, it is hard to relate to these characters, who remain two dimensional throughout, including Lester himself.
At first it seems like House of Caravan intends to be a horror game, but really it’s not. The house is not haunted but does have a spooky atmosphere, largely because its rooms are enveloped by darkness, plus the odd random scare like suits of armor falling over or glass breaking mysteriously. There are brief earthquakes every once in a while, too, though these are never explained and play no part in the events of the game. The setting is suitably unnerving, but its eerie ambience proves so irrelevant that the mood cannot hold up.
The game is fully rendered in realtime 3D, with the WASD or arrow keys used to control Lester's movement and the mouse to pan the first-person camera. Left-clicking interacts with hotspots as they come into view, while right-clicking cycles through inventory items to use. Most of the rooms are locked at the beginning, until you find the keys to open them. Inventory items mostly consist of keys and other tools used to open things, such as a knife or letter opener. A given tool will only open a specific object, and you are not able to use them interchangeably like it might make sense to do. When I need to look for a hammer when I already have a knife and hairpin, it's a bit frustrating. Many items that aren't put into inventory can still be interacted with: picture frames can be thrown across the room, glass plates can be put down gently, books can be zoomed in on to read (though no turning pages). This level of object interactivity does not feature in any puzzle solutions, however, and candlesticks cannot be picked up to use in other areas.
Lester can also crouch and jump, but these aren’t needed for survival. You crouch not to avoid enemies, but to gain access to one hard-to-reach place. Jumping can be more useful here than in most adventures, since the camera perspective is at Lester's lower line of sight as a child. It's refreshing to see a game world from a slightly different point of view, like not being able to peer into the top drawers of a dresser, or only seeing the bottom of a mounted deer head. Chairs can also be moved around and stood on to look into those high drawers if you’re dying of curiosity, but it's not really needed, since everything above Lester’s line of sight is purely decorative.
Because so much of the house is shrouded in darkness, most of the gameplay revolves around lighting the multitude of candles and lamps scattered around, which can be done by scouring for matches. Some areas are dimly lit already, but there are dark patches lurking in every corner. When approaching a candle (or other interactive object) obscured by darkness, the cursor will highlight the object when you get close enough that your matches can be used. The darkness can make it hard to see, but the default brightness level can be changed in the options menu if necessary. There are enough matches in the game to light all of the candles, but there are still small spots hidden in darkness that require an alternate light source to examine.
There are tons of cupboard doors and drawers to open, but most of them won't reveal that next hidden letter or matchbox. But you keep opening them all so you don't miss the rare time that there is something waiting. Many drawers have paper documents in them that look like they can be read but cannot, and that can become frustrating. One inventory item you find is a flashlight, for which you must also find batteries. Even after you do, however, the batteries have limited power, and once you're out, you're out, so it’s wise to use the flashlight sparingly. It only really serves to make it easier to explore those darkened nooks and crannies, however, so it will not be game over if you let it run out.Continued on the next page...