Adventure Gamers Awards
Note: Since time of writing, an update has been released with significant control upgrades, additional setting options, and other enhancements. This review is based solely on the original version of the game.
A conjurer of unfathomable monsters and nihilistic prophecy, H.P. Lovecraft is oft imitated. His interconnected tales of horror, dubbed the Cthulhu Mythos, still resonate with enthusiasts looking for unyielding dread and chilling revelations. Adapting the author’s style for an interactive medium presents certain difficulties, however, as “fun” isn’t a descriptor anyone would associate with his work. Arkhangel: The House of the Seven Stars smartly opts for a story-driven approach, combining Lovecraftian cosmic horror with an alternate take on bible myth, yet a tantalizing concept alone cannot overcome the numerous narrative and design flaws on display here.
Arkhangel is billed as a direct tie-in with the board game The Great Nameless, which I unfortunately don’t have experience with to draw comparison. Nevertheless, I do know that it pertains to an otherworldly force threatening the existence of all humankind: Z’xhuul. (Yes, it in fact does have a name. We were all lied to.)
Even with such grandiose peril writhing behind the curtain, Arkhangel begins simply, at the dusk of the 19th century. Lead character Michael, along with his wife and daughter, take a train with all their possessions to the scant, frostbitten town of Haven, hoping for a fresh start after tragedy befalls their family. Acquainting themselves with a new home and neighbors, they participate in a local tradition known as the Winter Night Festival. When some children go missing after the festivities, Michael joins the search, and soon his wife Lily is bedridden by an inexplicable illness. The quest for resolution eventually leads to imposing ruins, a dilapidated mansion littered with clues to a dark heritage, and catacombs marred by unspeakable rituals. The problem is that the narrative and the tasks given feel laborious until the conclusion draws close, though eventually they culminate in a compellingly convoluted tale of horror.
Over the course of seven chapters (or seven in-game days), you can expect the familiar attributes of a traditional point-and-click adventure: exploring environments, meeting and conversing with various NPCs, and acquiring an inventory of items to determine uses for. An entire town is open to investigate, including various homes and establishments to enter and a bit of forested outskirts to wander – albeit without any real incentive to explore. Books fill shelves for players willing to commit, but much of the text is dry and irrelevant to the overarching plot. However, to fully understand events as they transpire, I would suggest reading all the notes you find scattered about. Make sure to pick up books, whether or not you digest their contents, as notes can sometimes be found tucked between the pages.
Fans of Lovecraft or cosmic horror in general will recognize iconic elements – in particular, how the sinister history of Haven connects to a cult with designs to loose a tentacled god capable of devouring the universe in a single ravenous gulp. Therein, the first scare is rather effective, in large part due to the timing of its inclusion. Otherwise visceral shocks are few, in favor of more meditative darkness. What saves Arkhangel from being just another imitation of Lovecraftian storytelling (replete with the appropriate nomenclature) is how it layers such indescribable evil within the context of biblical creationism. You probably wouldn’t expect these disparate components to coexist. but somehow the pieces align comfortably.
Despite the abundant lore to uncover, Arkhangel’s game world isn’t fully engaging, nor does it feel believable in the way that it intends. There is a decent stock of townspeople to interact with, yet they offer nothing but basic information unless they are directly related to current goings-on. What you learn about them in your initial encounter is typically all you get. At some point, the game insists that you be suspicious of these people, even though you haven’t learned enough on your own to warrant paranoia. At worst, the ship captain is a curmudgeon, while the woman behind the bar generously hands over a quest item even without compensation.
There’s little to discover about the main cast for that matter, save for their hobbies or occupations. Michael is to be the town librarian, though never quite gets around to it. Lily is a painter who interprets her nightmares with a brush. Their daughter Gabrielle likes to build models out of wood. Together they are a caring family, but one that I struggle to describe in greater detail. They eat together and read bedtime stories – you know, conventional activities. And the banter is no more inspired.
Certainly, Lovecraft hardly bothered giving much definition to his characters, choosing instead to explore unsettling ideas and evocative prose. However, he also never gave emphasis to dialogue as Arkhangel does. While there is the occasional subtlety, such as implications of Michael’s alcoholism, average exchanges between characters would benefit from more brevity. In other words, dialogue is exhausting to read or just redundant. As an example: “I’m sorry to trouble you about this, but my wife is suffering from an aching head and Josif needs some pure alcohol to mix an elixir to help alleviate the pain.” The issue isn’t simply that it’s long-winded, but that it’s too factual to afford any personality.Continued on the next page...