"We are the Deadbeats!
The ‘60s have come back to haunt us in Wailing Heights, by Northern Irish indie developer Outsider Games. The undead are up and around and they just hate the living crashing their party. Right from the opening cutscene, featuring a Volkswagen camper van, long floppy hair, Lennon glasses and a tune you can howl along to, it's clear that we're in for something a little different. Cast aside your visions of vampires in opera capes and imagine, instead, that Transylvania got with the times, opened a chain of hipster coffee bars and developed a coffin-rocking live music scene. There's wry humour, ghoulish puns by the bucketload, fab graphic novel-style artwork and a pitch-perfect soundtrack. There may be a few rough edges too, and the plot isn't as impressive as the setting, but this is a memorable Monster Mash nonetheless.
You play Frances "bite me" Finkelstein, manager of the inspired (and recently expired) ‘60s supergroup The Deadbeats. Lured to a remote location by the promise of work, you're rudely assaulted and wake up in jail. That seems a bit harsh (seeing as how you're the victim here) but this is Wailing Heights, refuge of the undead, and they're not big fans of the living. That's okay, though: Soul Ghoulman, Public Defender for the Deceased is on your case. He's only got to deal with a few other cases first. Then get a promotion so he can get access to the Human Rights section in the Law Library. Which means going back to school to get qualified first. Shouldn't take more than, oh, about 80 years, so why don't you get comfortable? There's even tea and mouldy biscuits while you wait.
Fortunately, there's a way out. A creature in the rafters likes those biscuits a lot more than you do and is willing to trade you for the secret of the magical Musical Possession Wheel. Just find out someone's real name (always crucial in matters magical, it seems), along with something they love and something they hate, turn it all into a song and bam! You're in control. Frances may be stuck here, but Soul's free to go. So a quick spot of body-hopping later and it's time to see if you can't shortcut that 80-year timeline a bit.
Possession here isn't so much nine-tenths of the law as nine-tenths of the game. As you make your way around Wailing Heights, you're perpetually eyeing up new hosts/victims and plotting to bring them over to your cause. There are four undead factions – ghosts, vampires, werewolves and zombies – and each has its own special ability. Ghosts can turn invisible (great for eavesdropping), vampires can turn into a bat and fly up to hard-to-reach places, werewolves have a great sense of smell, and zombies can understand other zombies. (All that groaning and mumbling about brains zombies do? Apparently they're just having regular conversations in their own unique language.) Each group also has places only they are allowed into; for example, only vampires are hipster enough to enter The Cremetery, a sort of blood-based Starbucks.
Gaining access to these abilities and using them to good effect is the name of the game. Characters will also react differently to you depending on what body you're currently wearing, and you'll occasionally need to talk to the same person in more than one guise to get the results you need. By contrast, your inventory is almost irrelevant: you do have one, but only rarely do you use it for anything not possession-related. For all that this is a staunchly traditional adventure in spirit, it's a rather unusual one in practice.
Flitting around town, the initial quest to secure your release takes a left turn when you find out that all four of the Deadbeats are here too. You're their manager; how can you resist getting the band back together for one more gig? Naturally, that's not going to be as simple as it seems, especially with an evil nemesis in the shadows trying to hijack your efforts for his own nefarious ends.
As you might expect, music is front and centre and Wailing Heights makes perhaps the best use of a score that I've ever seen in a game. Where other titles intend their soundtracks to provide atmosphere or add a little emotional intensity, here it is at the core of practically every character, defining their personalities.
We're not restricted to ‘60s pop, either; it's the wealth of genres on display that really brings the world to life. Wailing Heights is filled with live music (which is pretty ironic, considering!). There's an indie vamp gig at the Cremetery, the Ruff House has a basement full of Irish werewolf folk, and Ada Z's going full-on soul diva to the zombie crowd at the Soulless Saloon. Not just that, but switching bodies means literally singing your way in with a song that sums up who each person is. Add in the merry Deadbeats riff that plays when you pick anything up, and it's probably just as well that the remaining soundscape has been stripped back to just creaking, sighing wind, and spooky ambient wails for atmosphere.
The voice work can't quite hit the same heights, but it's still pretty good considering the vocal cast numbers only two (rather less than the live band playing the songs). They're talented actors and they do shine at times, but the effort of providing all those different accents and deliveries takes its toll, and some characters do come across a bit flat as a result.
The music may be the star, but the graphics are distinctive too. Everything's done in a graphic novel style, and that extends to cutscenes that are rendered as pages of a comic book, sliding from panel to panel as events play out. The artwork is really well done – often as good as anything Marvel or DC would put out – and nails a fitting mix of creepiness and ordinary human warmth. Wailing Heights is dark, dank and misty, but the buildings glow invitingly and leave you with the feeling that the afterlife may not be so bad after all.
In keeping with the B-movie vibe, the way everything scrolls as you walk around town makes it feel more like a stage set than a real place. Various buildings are at different depths and so scroll at mixed speeds, but as they do they feel flat and two-dimensional, as if stagehands are moving background props around. Combined with the somewhat stiff and puppet-like movements of the characters, it feels like someone has cut out pieces from their favourite comic, got their friends over and acted out a play in their bedroom on a cardboard box stage. Whether this was a deliberate design decision or just a result of limited resources, it really works.
Another neat touch is that each character's view of the world is different. The werewolf, for example, with its acute sense of smell but poor eyesight, sees a blurry world filled with glowing scent trails. Ghouls, by contrast, see the world in blown-out black and white. For zombies, the difference is more auditory: other zombies are suddenly comprehensible while non-zombies are the ones muttering about brains. This is particularly effective in a theatre lobby full of zombies; when you first go in, they're moaning and grunting and it feels distinctly threatening. Return later as a zombie, and suddenly it's a perfectly normal theatre-interval murmur.Continued on the next page...